Homeland Security Chair ‘Deeply’ Disturbed by Report Government Surveilled Journalists
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security says he’s “deeply” disturbed by multiple news reports suggesting an elite branch of U.S. Customs and Border Protection used government databases to investigate as many as 20 journalists, as well as members of Congress and members of their staff.
“If true, this abuse of government surveillance powers to target journalists, elected officials and their staff is deeply disturbing,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss.
“The United States government has an obligation to protect all citizens’ right to privacy and freedom of speech. There must be accountability and protections in place to ensure that such incidents never occur.”
Thompson is calling on the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General to provide a copy of a more than 500-page report allegedly detailing the activities to Congress “to enable critical oversight work.”
The story was first published by Yahoo News on Saturday, and has since been corroborated by the London Daily Mail and the Associated Press.
According to the initial report and those that followed, a unit of U.S. Customs and Border Protection called the Counter Network Division regularly reviewed the travel, personal and financial records of journalists, government staff and others.
Some searches were purportedly tied to attempts by the Trump administration in 2017 to plug media leaks.
One of them, which became the lead of the Yahoo News story, was called “Operation Whistle Pig,” and it eventually led to the downfall of a Senate staffer who was dating a young Politico reporter, Ali Watkins.
James Wolfe, the former head of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI as a result of what the operation uncovered.
Though he was never charged with mishandling classified information or leaking to the press, investigators charged him with lying about his personal relationships with reporters.
Now the man in the crosshairs — at least in terms of the media reports — is Jeffrey Rambo, who worked for the Counter Network Division and now believes he’s being tarred and feathered for merely doing his job as instructed.
“I’m being accused of blackmailing a journalist and trying to sign her up as an FBI informant, which is what’s being plastered all around San Diego, [California,] at the moment because of misinformation reported by the news media,” he said of a meeting with Watkins reported by Yahoo News.
But in an interview he purportedly gave to the inspector general’s office and included in the lengthy report, Rambo said nothing that he did was out of the norm.
“When a name comes across your desk, you run it through every system you have access to, that’s just status quo, that’s what everyone does,” Rambo is quoted as saying in the report.
Rambo, who now runs a coffee shop in San Diego, California, is said to have later told investigators, “There is no specific guidance on how to vet someone. In terms of policy and procedure, to be 100% frank, there’s no policy and procedure on vetting.”
The targeted reporters worked for everyone from the Associated Press to The New York Times.
In a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, AP Executive Editor Julie Pace urged the agency to explain why the name of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Martha Mendoza was run through the databases and identified as a potential confidential informant during the Trump administration, as detailed in a report by Homeland Security’s inspector general.
“This is a flagrant example of a federal agency using its power to examine the contacts of journalists,” Pace wrote. “While the actions detailed in the inspector general’s report occurred under a previous administration, the practices were described as routine.”
Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue