BY BRAD DRESS
An anti-terrorism unit within the federal Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency investigated journalists using government databases containing personal information, according to an investigation by Yahoo News, which obtained sensitive government documents related to the secretive unit.
The Counter Network Division secretly investigated as many as 20 journalists using government databases, pulling data — including travel records and personal and financial information — about a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the Associated Press and the founder of Huffington Post, Yahoo News reported.
In one such instance, which had previously been reported on in 2018, a CBP agent named Jeffrey Rambo pulled information about Ali Watkins, a reporter who has covered top national security issues for multiple news outlets, per the investigation.
Rambo collected information through government databases about Watkins' travel and relationship with James Wolfe, then the head of security for the Senate Intelligence Community, according to Yahoo News. The agent then revealed to Watkins that he knew about the affair and pressed her to talk about about her sources, per the outlet.
The Counter Network Division was formed in 2016 as part of the CBP's National Targeting Center, which was created to identify potential dangers following 9/11. The unit was initially meant to help investigate threats such as terrorism, human smuggling and illicit trading. But agents have since tapped into the databases to "vet" journalists and even "Congressional referrals," according to Yahoo News.
In a statement given to The Hill on Saturday, the CBP said they were "participating in an internal review" to ensure their policies were being followed strictly and appropriately, but defended the Counter Network Division.
The division "shares information with key partners, analyze threats, and enhances the U.S. government’s operational ability to combat illicit networks, including those associated with terrorists and transnational criminal organizations," the statement read.
"CBP vetting and investigatory operations, including those conducted by the Counter Network Division, are strictly governed by well-established protocols and best practices. The CBP does not investigate individuals without a legitimate and legal basis to do so. These investigations support the CBP’s mission to protect our communities," the statement continued.
Attorney General Merrick Garland released a policy this year barring prosecutors from secretly obtaining journalists' records in leak investigations. The decision followed reports that former President Donald Trump's Justice Department investigated prominent journalists from The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Executives at The Associated Press said in an article published Saturday that they were "deeply concerned" about Yahoo News's report.
“This appears to be an example of journalists being targeted for simply doing their jobs, which is a violation of the First Amendment,” said Lauren Easton, the AP's director of media relations.
“When agencies give their employees access to this ocean of information, especially without training or rigorous oversight, the potential for abuse goes through the roof," Hugh Handeyside, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told Yahoo News.
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