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CBP reviews secret division that kept databases on journalists and politicians

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In early December, Yahoo News reported on Operation Whistle Pig, a leaked investigation into Senate staffer James Wolfe and Politico reporter Ali Watkins, who were dating at the time. The investigation was conducted by members of the CBP’s Counter Network Division to determine whether Wolfe provided classified intel to Watkins and other journalists.

Following the report by Yahoo News, the CBP has launched a review of the Counter Network Division. According to Yahoo News, the secretive division “uses some of the country’s most sensitive databases to investigate the travel and financial records and personal connections of journalists, members of Congress and other Americans not suspected of any crimes.”

A DHS Inspector General investigation determined that about 20 national security reporters were targeted by the Counter Network Division. The investigation into Watkins and Wolfe was launched by Jeffrey Rambo.

After the two year investigation, Rambo, a colleague Charles Ratliff, and his supervisor Dan White were referred for potential criminal charges, including misuse of government resources. However, prosecutors did not charge them because there were no policies governing their work.

The division regularly investigated potential contacts such as journalists in a process they called vetting. A subject undergoing vetting was run through several databases, including terrorism watch lists. The division “vetted” journalists “to determine personal connections,” Dan White told investigators.

Charles Ratliff, Rambo’s colleague, used the databases and resources available to the division to create what investigators called a phone tree of contacts, by “mapping out connections between people to identify a hidden network.” His work was used to monitor terrorists, but was also used to target Americans, including journalists, Congressional members, and their staffers.

“When Congressional “Staffers” schedule flights, the numbers they use get captured and analyzed by CBP,” Rambo’s supervisor, White, told investigators. He added that Ratliff “does this all the time – inappropriate contacts between people.”

According to Yahoo News, Ratliff compiled such reports on members of Congress with alleged connections to individuals in the

Terrorist Screening Database. The reports were also used to identify the confidential sources of reporters.

Other reporters that were targeted included AP’s Martha Mendoza, for reporting on forced labor, and Huffington Post’s founder Arianna Huffington.

“There is no specific guidance on how to vet someone,” Rambo later told investigators. “In terms of policy and procedure, to be 100 percent frank there, there’s no policy and procedure on vetting.”

An unnamed source told Yahoo News that new procedures and trainings have been put in place to ensure that the division is not violating the First and Fourth Amendments.

Meanwhile, Congressional oversight committees have begun probing the activities of the division.

Chairs of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and House Homeland Security Committee Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Benny Thompson wrote to the DHS requesting the investigation report. Chair of the Senate Finance Committee Sen. Ron Wyden also wrote to the DHS requesting the report. None of them have received a copy.

In a statement, the DHS said that its secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “is deeply committed to ensuring the protection of First Amendment rights and has promulgated policies that reflect this priority.”

“We do not condone the investigation of reporters in response to the exercise of First Amendment rights,” the statement continued. “CBP and every component agency and office in the Department will ensure their practices are consistent with our values and our highest standards.”

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