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Secret Unit in U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agency Raises Freedom of the Press Issues

Civil Rights Policy Brief #179 | By: Rodney A. Maggay | January 5, 2022

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Policy Summary

On December 11, 2001 investigative journalist Jana Winter published an explosive article on Yahoo News that exposed a secret unit within the Counter Network Division of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agency. At the heart of the disturbing story is that a CBP employee staffed to the secret unit was authorized to investigate a national security journalist named Ali Watkins with regards to her confidential sources for the source of her work. However, Ms. Winter’s investigation revealed that the procedures of the unit were not entirely clear. The unit was permitted to use sensitive government databases to “vet” targets and construct a “contact tree” to look for hidden and illegal networks based on a target’s “personal connections.” 

In the course of mapping out connections, the unit’s work led to troves of private and personal information of hundreds of Americans that included members of Congress, their staffers, other journalists and members and staffs of non – profit groups. This info was compiled about each person even though the person was not suspected of any crime. No warrant was used as the basis for the database search of ordinary citizens through government databases such as CBP’s Automated Tracking System (tool used to compare travelers to law enforcement and intelligence data), TECS (used to monitor people entering and exiting the country), the Treasury Department’s FinCEN (tool to detect financial crimes) and the State Department’s consular database (to examine details of a person’s passport application).

On December 31, 2021 Ms. Winter published a follow – up article which details the steps that the CBP are taking in response to Ms. Winter’s original article. CPB spokesman Luis Miranda said that “[a] review is underway…to prevent an incident like this from taking place in the future.”

Policy Analysis

When the story was first revealed by Ms. Winter in early December 2021 it raised a significant red flag concerning the free speech rights of journalists. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agency is the federal department tasked with “securing America’s borders” and so it was somewhat curious that the whole incident detailed by Ms. Winter began with queries about forced labor abroad in other countries regarding international trade. 

Jeffrey Rambo was the CBP staffer who was tasked with reaching out to reporters with expertise in forced labor and yet his investigation ended up reaching out to a national security journalist named Ali Watkins. That led to the revelation of her affair with a senior Senate intelligence committee staffer named James Wolfe. Wolfe was later convicted of lying to FBI agents about his relationship with Ali Watkins.

What is deeply concerning about this whole episode is the implication that this secretive unit at CBP was used to illegally conduct personal and private information searches on a reporter in order to probably intimidate or blackmail the reporter into divulging her confidential sources because of her affair with an intelligence staffer thirty years her senior. Simply by getting her name as a starting point Jeffrey Rambo was able to run her name through sensitive government databases although there was no inkling that she had committed a crime. This allowed him to construct a list of her contacts and then to also search for her contacts in those same databases. There were no established procedures and safeguards as well as no oversight over the CBP unit’s secretive work. All in all, more than twenty journalists in addition to Ms. Ali Watkins were searched as well as numerous members of congress, government officials and well known non – profit officials.

Photo taken from: Yahoo News

(Jeffrey Rambo, agent running background checks on journalists)

Reporters should be free to put together articles and write pieces that they believe are in the public interest even if it may be embarrassing to the government. However, in this case it appears that the CBP may have been used to spy on reporters, track their movements and maybe find out who their confidential sources are based on people they may have traveled with or contacted by phone or e-mail. This instance of government intrusion into the personal and private affairs of people with no suspicion of having committed a crime raises concerns that there was no legitimate or legal basis for having their name searched in sensitive government databases.

 And it makes one wonder if the search of Ali Watkins’ name and contacts, as well as other national security journalists, was done in retaliation for an unflattering article or to even try and intimidate the reporters, thus chilling their free speech rights as journalists. CBP has opened an internal investigation as well as have  the House Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Finance Committee into the actions of this secretive unit to clarify what exactly this unit does and if there are enough safeguards in place to prevent invasions of privacy of a citizen or reporter in the future.

While getting some answers will take some time, it probably would be best if the unit suspend their likely illegal invasions of privacy government searches in sensitive government databases until the internal probe and the two congressional committees finish their inquiries. LEARN MORE

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – group’s infopage on privacy and surveillance issues.

Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) – group’s infopage on use of government databases in regards to surveillance.

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