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Emails show border agent who investigated journalist and her sources in contact with FBI

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
Customs and Border Protection released the heavily redacted emails in response to a FOIA lawsuit filed by RCFP, CPJ.
Creative Commons photo of the J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington, D.C.

Emails obtained by the Reporters Committee and the Committee to Protect Journalists through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit suggest that Jeffrey Rambo, a border patrol agent who questioned a reporter about her confidential sources in 2017, was in contact with the FBI either before or shortly after he did so.

Customs and Border Protection recently released 16 pages of heavily redacted emails in response to FOIA requests seeking records related to Rambo. The border patrol agent became the subject of a federal investigation in 2018 when news reports revealed that he obtained private information about journalist Ali Watkins’ travel and personal life, and then used that knowledge to try to pressure the reporter to divulge the identities of her sources.

The Reporters Committee and CPJ originally filed FOIA requests with CBP more than a year ago — after learning that Rambo had confronted Watkins, who then worked for Politico, and threatened to reveal the reporter’s personal relationship with James A. Wolfe, who headed security for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Wolfe was ultimately prosecuted for making false statements to the FBI in connection with a leak investigation. Last August, after CBP failed to respond to the request, the Reporters Committee, on behalf of itself and CPJ, filed a federal lawsuit against the agency, prompting CBP to begin identifying and producing responsive records.

While extensive redactions make it difficult to draw broader conclusions, the records CBP has released so far do show, at a minimum, that Rambo appears to have contacted the FBI on the day that he questioned Watkins. The questions that remain are particularly relevant in light of internal Justice Department guidelines that require attorney general approval before journalists can be questioned about any “offense” they are suspected of committing in the course of, or that arises out of, newsgathering activities.

Indeed, another Reporters Committee FOIA lawsuit, in the Bryan Carmody case in San Francisco, does appear to confirm that FBI agents either weren’t aware of or disregarded these guidelines in that leak hunt.

‘This is very accurate’

The earliest email included in the correspondence received by the Reporters Committee and CPJ was sent on the evening of June 1, 2017 — the same day Rambo met with Watkins at a D.C. bar to reveal that he knew she had traveled to Spain with Wolfe, and to threaten the disclosure of her relationship unless she agreed to become his informant and help report other journalists and their sources, according to The New York Times. Watkins declined Rambo’s request.

“Can you give me a call at [redacted] if possible ASAP,” the email reads. “I need to run something by you that I *believe* might be in your swim lane.” The email’s sender and recipient are redacted.

The next morning, someone sent an email that included a link to Watkins’ Politico story about Russian spies in the U.S. The subject line reads, “This is very accurate.” Again, the names of the sender and recipient are redacted, but the email’s signature block reveals that the sender was a member of the Customs and Border Protection Mentoring Program.

Email correspondence later that day included a discussion about setting up an in-person meeting. One email clarifies that the sender was working in Washington, D.C., as opposed to San Diego, California.

According to reporting in The New York Times, Rambo himself approached Watkins about her story shortly after he relocated to D.C. from San Diego.

The other person on the email exchange with the CBP party referenced spending time “at Hoover” during work hours, and arranged a meeting at the Au Bon Pain coffee shop “across the street from the building.”

The J. Edgar Hoover Building in D.C. is the headquarters of the FBI, and an Au Bon Pain sits across the street from the building on the 400 block of 10th Street.

On June 5, 2017, the CBP party sent another email on the same thread — subject line, “RE: Phone call needed.” In the email, he said, “So the angle my watch commander wanted to explore was to [redacted]. … Let me know if you are able to pinpoint which entity it would be appropriate to discuss with.”

“I will be in touch with you next week and will be putting you in contact with someone who handles this sort of thing,” the apparent FBI employee responded a few days later. “Have a great weekend.”

The following week, the person mentioned passing along the CBP party’s information. “Be patient,” the person wrote. “As you know, sometimes these things can take a bit of time.”

The FBI declined to comment on these documents. CBP and Ali Watkins did not respond to a request for comment.

Press freedom implications

Leak investigations are perhaps the most sensitive interactions between law enforcement and the press. By definition, they are geared to identifying sources who have spoken to journalists on the condition that their identities remain confidential, often for fear of professional retaliation, criminal investigation or prosecution, or even personal safety concerns.

The Justice Department has long recognized the sensitivity of these investigations, and the DOJ news media guidelines, codified at 28 C.F.R. § 50.10, are in place to ensure that law enforcement questioning of journalists about their sources is limited to the most exigent of circumstances. Various procedures discourage prosecutors from using the press as an “investigative arm” of the government, especially the requirement that prosecutors obtain express attorney general approval before questioning a reporter.

Here, there is simply no unconcerning explanation for Rambo’s questioning of Watkins about her sources. Perhaps the most “innocent” scenario would be that Rambo was freelancing. That would certainly be distressing, and would counsel in favor of government-wide policies (or federal legislation) to prevent such investigations. But it does not suggest a multi-agency scheme to blackmail reporters into naming sources.

More concerning would be that the FBI knew about Rambo’s conversation with Watkins, either before or shortly after. Were the FBI to have sought to question Watkins, the guidelines would have been clearly triggered and would have required the Justice Department to seek attorney general approval particularly where, as here, an interrogator tried to leverage sensitive government travel data to force a reporter to divulge sources. The most concerning of all would be a scenario where the FBI either directed Rambo or used any information gathered by his investigation in a leak investigation, though the redacted emails do not support that conclusion.

At the very least, the public deserves to know what happened here.

In the past, efforts to investigate leaks outside of the normal process have led to serious abuses of power against the press.

Most famously, the Nixon White House’s “Special Investigations Unit” — dubbed “the Plumbers” by a member’s grandmother after he explained to her that their job was to plug leaks — quickly moved from investigating unauthorized disclosures into brazen illegality.

The Plumbers’ most notorious exploit was breaking into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in a hunt for information to discredit the Pentagon Papers source. But the Plumbers also followed columnist Jack Anderson around Washington after he disclosed the Nixon administration’s secret support for Pakistan during the 1971 India-Pakistan war. The Plumbers even discussed dosing Anderson with hallucinogenic drugs.

None of this is to suggest that the Rambo case is on par with the Plumbers. Rather, the larger point is that government investigations into the disclosure of official secrets by the press are extraordinarily sensitive and implicate basic First Amendment freedoms central to our democracy. The public has a right to information about government activities, which can often only be disclosed through confidential sources. The government, by contrast, has an incentive to protect itself in the public debate by limiting those disclosures.

For many years now, the balance between these two competing interests has been struck by, on the one hand, government forbearance and an institutional awareness that investigations into the press can lead to political outcry, which then curbs government power. And, the press itself maintains that balance by doing its job: independently exercising editorial judgment about which stories need telling and when to credit government warnings about the threat to national security posed by a particular disclosure (as when Anderson’s mentor, Drew Pearson, learned of the Manhattan Project and did not report it until after World War II).

That balance could be significantly upset either by government agents outside the FBI freelancing in leak cases or, worse, an erosion in the institutional respect for the press evidenced by a decision by the FBI to question Watkins outside of established procedures. While there is clearly more to the story behind those redactions, these emails alone bolster the cause for concern in the Rambo matter, and the need for greater transparency to determine exactly what happened.

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

Photo by Wayne Hsieh

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