A Yahoo News investigation told the story of Jeffrey Rambo, a Border Patrol agent assigned to the Counter Network Division of CBP’s National Targeting Center in 2017 and 2018. The investigation pointed to very troubling CBP intrusions into the private lives of U.S. citizens not suspected of committing any crimes, while all involved have avoided punishment.
Though assigned to a project with the ostensible goal of combatting forced labor, Rambo and his Division ended up digging through classified government databases to uncover information about the private lives of as many as 20 U.S. journalists. The resulting leak investigation ensnared reporter Ali Watkins, revealing her romantic relationship with a married Senate staffer. Rambo, Yahoo News’s Jana Winter reported,
ran Watkins through an assortment of databases. Those included, among others, CBP’s Automated Targeting System, a tool that compares travelers against law enforcement and intelligence data; TECS, which tracks people entering and exiting the country; the Treasury Department’s FinCEN, used for identifying financial crimes; and the State Department consular database, which included details of her passport application.
Dan White, Rambo’s supervisor at the Counter-Network Division, testified about Charlie Ratliff, a program analyst in the Division who “worked on DOMEX, a program that collects information from the contents of a person’s electronic device when they cross a U.S. border.”
According to White’s later testimony, Ratliff regularly investigated congressional staffers’ travel captured by CBP to run against the Terrorist Screening Database. “White stated that when Congressional ‘Staffers’ schedule flights, the numbers they use get captured and analyzed by CBP,” the inspector general report says. White told the investigators that Ratliff “does this all the time,” looking at “inappropriate contacts between people.”
Starting in 2018, the DHS Inspector-General and CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility carried out a two-year investigation into Rambo’s activities, focused on whether Rambo improperly accessed government databases, and sought information outside the scope of his official duties.
The Inspector-General found grounds for potential criminal charges against Rambo, White, and Ratliff, and presented criminal referrals to the Justice Department in October 2020. In the end, Mark Lytle, the head of financial crimes at United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, declined to prosecute, in part because CBP lacked clear policies and procedures governing Rambo’s duties.
“We’re in a very dangerous place if having no rules means officers can’t break any rules,” Hugh Handeyside, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties National Security Project, told Yahoo News.
That same month, Jeffrey Rambo was taken off administrative leave and returned to duty as a Border Patrol agent, where he remained as of the time of Yahoo News’s investigation, assigned to the San Diego Sector. Dan White, Rambo’s former supervisor, was back running the same team as before at the CBP National Targeting Sector’s Counter Network Division. “When the inspector general requested any new policies or procedures the division had for contacts with journalists and people outside government, it received no reply,” Yahoo News found.
Ali Watkins, the reporter whose personal life came most heavily under CBP scrutiny and was working at the New York Times as of December 2021, told Yahoo News, “I’m 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.”
— Jana Winter, “Operation Whistle Pig: Inside the secret CBP unit with no rules that investigates Americans” (Yahoo News, December 11, 2021) https://news.yahoo.com/operation-whistle-pig-inside-the-secret-cbp-unit-with-no-rules-that-investigates-americans-100000147.html.