A special Customs and Border Protection unit used sensitive government databases intended to track terrorists to investigate as many as 20 U.S.-based journalists, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press (AP) reporter, according to a federal watchdog.
Yahoo News, which published an extensive report on the investigation, also found that the unit, the Counter Network Division, queried records of congressional staffers and perhaps members of Congress.
Jeffrey Rambo, an agent who acknowledged running checks on journalists in 2017, told federal investigators the practice is routine. “When a name comes across your desk you run it through every system you have access too, that’s just status quo, that’s what everyone does,” Rambo was quoted by Yahoo News as saying.
The AP obtained a redacted copy of a more than 500-page report by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general that included the same statement, but with the speaker’s name blacked out. The border protection agency is part of Homeland Security.
The revelations raised alarm in news organizations and prompted a demand for a full explanation.
“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.”
In its own statement, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) did not specifically address the investigation, but said, “CBP vetting and investigatory operations, including those conducted by the Counter Network Division, are strictly governed by well-established protocols and best practices. CBP does not investigate individuals without a legitimate and legal basis to do so.”