2 Records of Alleged Abusive or Improper Conduct in “Border-Wide” where the victim classification is “Journalist”

December 11, 2021

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.

Sector(s): Border-Wide

Agency(ies): Border Patrol, National Targeting Center

Event Type(s): Civil Liberties or Privacy Infringement, Misuse of Intelligence Capability

Last Known Accountability Status: Criminal Charges Dropped, DHS OIG investigation Closed, OPR Investigation Closed

Victim Classification: Journalist, U.S. Citizen or Resident

September 20, 2021

Politico revealed the existence of a DHS Inspector-General report, which would not be publicly released until October (original link). The report finds that CBP improperly targeted U.S. advocates and journalists whom the agency believed had some involvement with 2018-19 migrant caravans through Mexico. These individuals were subjected to more intrusive inspections when crossing the border into the United States, and “sensitive information” about them was shared with the Mexican government.

An October 11, 2021 article about the report at ProPublica focused on the Tactical Terrorism Response Teams, secretive CBP intelligence units that are “trained in counterterrorism, not immigration issues.” It found, “[A]t least 51 U.S. citizens were flagged for interrogation-often based on evidence as flimsy as once having ridden in a car across the border with someone suspected of aiding the caravan.” The Tactical Terrorism Response Teams were the subject of a September 4, 2021 investigation by The Intercept, which found that they had detained and interrogated 600,000 travelers at ports of entry between 2017 and 2019.

On January 8, 2022, the DHS Inspector-General published a heavily redacted report focusing on CBP’s revocations of “trusted traveler” status for those singled out as under suspicion (original link). Officers, the report concluded, “did not evaluate unsubstantiated information, and made unsupported conclusions” when they revoked the “trusted” status of two U.S. citizens whom they believed were aiding the 2018-19 migrant caravans.

On January 11, 2022, NBC’s San Diego affiliate spoke to a pastor who was suing because CBP officers, believing she was tied to a caravan, requested that the Mexican government deny her entry.

The intelligence episode was the subject of an August 11, 2022 investigation by Palabra, which cites John Sandweg, the former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Obama administration:

“One of the things CBP needs to be careful about is … they have great discretion to conduct warrantless searches at the border,” Sandweg said. “Stories like this can undermine that authority. The courts start believing this isn’t a tool that’s reserved only for those who are high risk travelers or have a criminal history … you start seeing it’s lawyers and journalists who are only doing their jobs who are getting secondaried 12 times, that’s the kind of thing that gets courts to start eroding the authorities CBP relies on today to stop terrorist from entering the country.”

— Daniel Lippman, “Watchdog: CBP improperly targeted Americans as caravans approached border” (Washington: Politico, September 23, 2021) https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/23/cbp-americans-caravans-border-513829.

CBP Targeted Americans Associated with the 2018–2019 Migrant Caravan, OIG-21-62 (Washington: DHS Office of the Inspector-General, September 20, 2021) https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2021-09/OIG-21-62-Sep21.pdf.

— Dara Lind, “A Secretive Counterterrorism Team Interrogated Dozens of Citizens at the Border, Government Report Finds” (Washington: ProPublica, October 11, 2021) https://www.propublica.org/article/a-secretive-counterterrorism-team-interrogated-dozens-of-citizens-at-the-border-government-report-finds.

Trusted Traveler Revocations for Americans Associated with the 2018-2019 Migrant Caravan, OIG-22-13 (Washington: DHS Office of the Inspector-General, January 8, 2022) https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2022-01/OIG-22-13-Jan22-Redacted.pdf.

— Meredith Royster, Tom Jones, Mari Payton, Alexis Rivas, “CBP Officer Who Asked Mexico to Deny Entry to Some US Citizens Speaks Under Oath” (San Diego: NBC 7 San Diego, January 11, 2022) https://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/investigations/cbp-officer-who-asked-mexico-to-deny-entry-to-some-us-citizens-speaks-under-oath/2835644/.

— Jason Buch, “Bad Intelligence” (Palabra, August 11, 2022) https://www.palabranahj.org/archive/bad-intelligence.

Sector(s): Border-Wide

Agency(ies): CBP, Tactical Terrorism Response Teams

Event Type(s): Intimidation of Humanitarian Workers, Misuse of Intelligence Capability

Last Known Accountability Status: Cleared by DHS OIG

Victim Classification: Advocate or Humanitarian Worker, Journalist, U.S. Citizen or Resident