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Reporters Committee, CPJ sue Customs and Border Protection over FOIA non-compliance

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  1. Freedom of Information
CBP has failed to produce records concerning attempts to identify a journalist’s sources, violating FOIA.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Committee to Protect Journalists are suing United States Customs and Border Protection for failing to release records — in violation of the Freedom of Information Act — concerning attempts by agency personnel to determine the identity of a journalist’s sources.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 8, stems from a FOIA request that the two organizations submitted to the agency in May following the revelation that CBP agent Jeffrey Rambo used a personal email account to contact national security reporter Ali Watkins, and met with and questioned her about her sources for a story.

The Reporters Committee and CPJ are seeking the immediate processing and release of responsive emails in Rambo’s non-governmental email account, communications to CBP that contain the phrases “leak” or “unauthorized disclosure,” and policies “describing the role of CBP in investigating disclosures of government information to the news media,” among other records.

The lawsuit outlines how Rambo told Watkins during a June 2017 meeting that he had been relocated to Washington, D.C., from San Diego, California, to “help identify government officials who were ‘leaking’ information to members of the news media, and asked Ms. Watkins for her help in doing so.” He then questioned Watkins about her sources for a story on an “escalation of Russian espionage activity in the United States,” according to the lawsuit.

It goes on to explain that Rambo presented Watkins with “accurate dates and destinations for overseas trips” she had taken with James Wolfe, the former security director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and told Watkins that it would “turn [her] world upside down” if the information he had regarding Wolfe was reported in The Washington Post, all of which Watkins reportedly interpreted as a threat.

Eight months after the meeting, Watkins learned in a letter sent to her by the Department of Justice that her records had been seized by the FBI during an investigation into Wolfe.

Related: Everything we know about the Trump Administration’s first records seizure from a reporter

“The fact that Watkins was approached in June by a CBP agent, who may have threatened to reveal her relationship with Wolfe in the hope that she would help identify ‘leakers,’ raises a host of questions, both about the crackdown on unauthorized disclosures generally and about the application of the [Justice Department’s news media] guidelines to this case,” wrote Gabe Rottman, Reporters Committee technology and press freedom project director, in an August 2018 explanation of the seizure of Watkins’s records. The news media guidelines govern when and how the Justice Department can investigate members of the news media.

The Reporters Committee and CPJ assert that CBP violated FOIA because it has failed to comply with statutory deadlines and wrongfully withheld agency records. It has been 94 days since the request was submitted; neither the Reporters Committee nor CPJ have received any records in response to the request. The complaint asks that the D.C. District Court order CBP to immediately process the organizations’ records request and provide all responsive records.

View the Reporters Committee and CPJ’s filings in this case.

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.