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Feds tracked US journalists with secret database used for terrorists: Report

A VeriScan facial recognition tablet takes photo of airline passenger at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., Sept. 6, 2018. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/ Flickr)
December 13, 2021

A Customs and Border Protection (CBP) division used sensitive government records meant to monitor terrorists to investigate at least 20 U.S.-based journalists, a federal watchdog revealed Saturday.

According to documents obtained by Yahoo News – including a 500-page inspector general report – the CBP unit known as the Counter Network Division used the government’s most sensitive databases used to track terrorists to acquire the personal information of journalists, government officials, congressional members and their staff, NGO workers and more, including financial and travel records.

“When you say vet someone, you vet them. There’s no parameters on what that means,” Jeffrey Rambo, who worked in the unit, told Yahoo News in an exclusive interview.

Rambo said his boss told him to “vet the reporters you use” and to “vet them through our systems.”

“I vet them no different than I vet a terrorist,” Rambo stated.

Rambo acknowledged vetting journalists in 2017, but noted that the practice is common.

“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 said.

The Associated Press reviewed a redacted copy of the inspector general’s report and subsequently raised the alarm about what the AP characterized as an “abuse of power.”

“We are deeply concerned about this apparent abuse of power,” Lauren Easton, AP’s director of media relations, said in a statement. “This appears to be an example of journalists being targeted for simply doing their jobs, which is a violation of the First Amendment.”

Customs and Border Protection also released a statement, but the federal agency did not explicitly address the scandal.

“CBP vetting and investigatory operations, including those conducted by the Counter Network Division, are strictly governed by well-established protocols and best practices,” the statement read. “CBP does not investigate individuals without a legitimate and legal basis to do so.”

Rambo complained to Yahoo News that he believes the press is not treating him fairly. He had previously questioned then-Politico reporter Ali Watkins regarding her confidential sources after accessing her travel records through the CPB unit. Rambo told investigators that he initially approached Watkins to push her to cover global forced labor as a national security issue.

“What none of these articles identify me as, is a law enforcement officer who was cleared of wrongdoing, who actually had a true purpose to be doing what I was doing,” he said, “and CBP refuses to acknowledge that, refuses to admit that, refuses to make that wrong right.”

The reporter who Rambo investigated said she was “deeply troubled at the lengths CBP and DHS personnel apparently went to try and identify journalistic sources and dig into my personal life.”

“It was chilling then, and it remains chilling now,” Watkins said.

The Counter Network Division still operates today.