The Associated Press is asking the Biden administration for answers on why the Department of Homeland Security used a government database meant to track international terrorists to investigate as many as 20 American journalists, including an Pulitzer Prize-winning AP reporter.
AP executive editor Julie Pace on Monday sent a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas demanding that the agency explain why investigative reporter Martha Mendoza's name was run through the database and identified as a potential confidential informant during the Trump administration.
“This is a flagrant example of a federal agency using its power to examine the contacts of journalists,” Pace wrote. “While the actions detailed in the inspector general’s report occurred under a previous administration, the practices were described as routine.”
The revelation that the DHS investigated U.S. journalists comes from a Homeland Security inspector general's report that was discovered in a records request made by Yahoo News and reported by Yahoo and the AP on Saturday. The IG report revealed that Jeffrey Rambo, a Border Patrol agent who was on temporary duty with a Customs and Border Protection unit in the Washington, D.C., area in 2017, accessed government travel records as part of a leak investigation involving another reporter, Ali Watkins, who was working for Politico at the time and is now with the New York Times.
The inspector general began investigating Rambo after news reports revealed that he had used government resources to investigate Watkins as part of the Trump administration's efforts to crack down on leaks to reporters.
Documents detailing the inspector general's investigation show that Rambo had routinely run the names of journalists, congressional staff, and others through government databases to vet them while working with the CBP unit, known as the Counter Network Division. Rambo told investigators he was authorized to vet anyone he made contact with as part of his division's mission to combat forced labor. He said there was no "specific guidance" on how to vet someone.
“When a name comes across your desk you run it through every system you have access to, that's just status quo, that's what everyone does,” Rambo told investigators.
Rambo said he had searched for Mendoza in the government's databases before reaching out to her for her expertise in writing about forced labor, which concerns CBP because the agency enforces import restrictions. In 2016, Mendoza won her second Pulitzer Prize as part of a team that reported on slave labor in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia.
The Associated Press characterized the incident as "the latest apparent example of an agency created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks using its vast capabilities to target American citizens."
“We are deeply concerned about this apparent abuse of power,” the AP said in a separate statement from the letter. “This appears to be an example of journalists being targeted for simply doing their jobs, which is a violation of the First Amendment."
The inspector general's office referred the findings of its investigation to a federal prosecutor for possible charges of abusing government databases and lying to investigators, but the Department of Justice declined to prosecute Rambo and two other Homeland Security employees, according to the AP.
CBP said in a statement that its vetting and investigative practices are "strictly governed" and that the agency does not investigate people without a legitimate and legal basis to do so.
“We do not condone the investigation of reporters in response to the exercise of First Amendment rights,” a DHS spokeswoman said Monday. “CBP and every component agency and office in the Department will ensure their practices are consistent with our values and our highest standards.”