More Info Leaks About The CBP's Counter-Terrorism Division's Targeting Of Journalists
from the rules?-we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-rules dept
For a few years now, information has come to light showing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been engaged in the sort of activity that’s gotten other federal law enforcement agencies in trouble in the past: the targeting of journalists.
To be clear, no law enforcement agency — federal or otherwise — should target a journalist unless the journalist is suspected of criminal activity. Journalists’ sources may be suspected of criminal activity from time to time, but that does not justify the direct targeting of journalists to identify their sources. The First Amendment — as interpreted in multiple court decisions — protects journalists and their sources. Federal agencies should know better and yet they far too frequently ignore these protections to hunt down leakers and whistleblowers.
The CBP has been at this for a while now. In 2019, leaked documents showed CBP had created a watchlist related to the immigrant caravan approaching the US border — one that contained plenty of journalists, activists, and immigration lawyers. Shortly thereafter, it became apparent the rights-violating watchlisting was a multinational effort, with the Mexican government pitching in to keep an eye on these individuals on its side of the border.
An DHS Inspector General’s investigation followed. It found plenty of targeting of journalists but decided that since the CBP never engaged in retaliatory activities against press members, there was no wrongdoing… for the most part. No harm, even if there was clearly a foul.
Another Inspector General’s report — one that hasn’t been publicly released in unredacted form — shows even more CBP targeting of journalists, something the agency apparently considered to be a normal part of its day-to-day counterterrorist operations.
A special Customs and Border Protection unit used sensitive government databases intended to track terrorists to investigate as many as 20 U.S.-based journalists, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press reporter, according to a federal watchdog.
Yahoo News, which published an extensive report on the investigation, also found that the unit, the Counter Network Division, queried records of congressional staffers and perhaps members of Congress.
This Inspector General report has uncovered even more targeting of journalists and others the CBP should be steering clear of. But instead of steering clear, the CBP embraced its access of multiple databases to investigate journalists not suspected of any wrongdoing. Pattern and practice, as the civil rights lawsuits say.
Jeffrey Rambo, an agent who acknowledged running checks on journalists in 2017, told federal investigators the practice is routine.
“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 was quoted by Yahoo News as saying.
Yahoo’s extensive report contains much more information about the CBP and this agent’s inappropriate use of the agency’s multiple tools for tracking and investigating people.
[Jeffrey Rambo] worked at a secretive Customs and Border Protection division. The division, which still operates today, had few rules and routinely used the country’s most sensitive databases to obtain the travel records and financial and personal information of journalists, government officials, congressional members and their staff, NGO workers and others.
Lots of journalists, lots of abuse of the CBP’s power. Zero accountability.
As many as 20 journalists were investigated as part of the division’s work, which eventually led to referrals for criminal prosecution against Rambo, his boss and a co-worker. None were charged, however.
Rambo refers to this as “vetting,” although it’s not clear what the vetting was supposed to accomplish, other than allowing him (and others) to compile large amounts of information about the people listed above. Agents pulled email addresses, photos from passport applications, and phone numbers. Names were run against multiple databases, including government terrorist watchlists. What did the CBP put in place to ensure these systems weren’t abused by agents? Nothing, according to Rambo.
“There is no specific guidance on how to vet someone,” Rambo later told investigators. “In terms of policy and procedure, to be 100 percent frank there, there’s no policy and procedure on vetting.”
Critics are calling it abuse. Rambo says abuse or not, it’s standard operating procedure. There’s nothing alerting agents this might be the wrong thing to do, even though it would seem apparent that targeting journalists, members of Congress, and activists might be unconstitutional and certainly isn’t publicly acceptable.
And the CBP doesn’t appear to believe there’s anything wrong with this either. Its statement to Yahoo says things about “strict governance” and “best practices,” claiming this is all part of its valuable national security work. It claims it has done nothing wrong.
“CBP does not investigate individuals without a legitimate and legal basis to do so,” the spokesperson added. “These investigations support CBP’s mission to protect our communities.”
Protect which community? The public at large? Or does it serve to protect the border control community from critical journalists and nosy Congressional reps? It might be little more difficult for the CBP to justify this sort of “vetting.” This is no longer Trump’s CBP — one headed by a Commander-in-Chief who was openly hostile to both immigrants and journalists. That’s not to say the Biden’s CBP is completely distinguishable from Trump’s CBP, but there appears to be more support from the Executive Branch when it comes to protecting the rights of journalists.