Jana Winter, investigative correspondent of Yahoo News, recently wrote a must-read piece about a secretive unit within Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Winter reviewed a 500-plus page inspector general report on this unit which, she reports, “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.”
Furthermore, Winter reports that “as many as 20 journalists were investigated” as part of the wide-ranging and apparently rogue operations of this unit. These activities eventually led to referrals of officials in this CBP unit for criminal prosecution. None were charged.
One agent in this unit, Jeffrey Rambo, interacted with a journalist, Ali Watkins, who was involved with James Wolfe, the long-time Security Director of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Wolfe was later fired and sentenced to two months in prison for lying to the FBI in an investigation of intelligence leaks regarding Watkins.
From the account, it appears that Rambo’s digging may have alerted the FBI to this potential leak from the Senate Committee. But Winter’s account also shows this CBP unit casted a wider net that included not only Watkins, but also journalists with the Associated Press, The New York Times, as well as Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington.
Winter’s story portrays Rambo as trying to “recruit” a journalist for a “PsyOp” operation. As thorough as Winter’s account is, it leaves us with many unanswered questions ripe for a Congressional hearing.
A comical thread runs throughout Winter’s report. For all of Rambo’s attempts to play the role of an anonymous spy with Ali Watkins in a furtive, late-night meeting at a bar, Watkins easily defeated his attempts at anonymity by returning to the bar to ask a bartender for Rambo’s credit card receipt. We have seen elsewhere how small and marginal centers in the government attempt to play spy games in the style of a John Le Carré novel, only to come closer to resembling the ludicrous characters in the movie, “Burn After Reading.” But the report has too many disturbing implications for the First Amendment to evade Congressional scrutiny.