Case Number: 19-cv-02401
Court: U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
Clients: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Committee to Protect Journalists
Complaint Filed: Aug. 8, 2019
Background: In an apparent effort to identify government officials who were leaking information to the news media, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent Jeffrey Rambo used his personal email account to arrange a conversation in June 2017 with Ali Watkins, a journalist then working at POLITICO. During their talk, Rambo allegedly presented Watkins with accurate information about her overseas trip with James Wolfe, the former security director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and pressured her into uncovering the identities of her other sources.
If Watkins’s romantic relationship with Wolfe were revealed in The Washington Post, Rambo reportedly said, “it would turn your world upside down.”
Watkins later learned that the Department of Justice had seized years of her online data and six months of phone records in connection with an investigation into Wolfe’s contacts with reporters — the first such seizure of President Trump’s tenure. In June 2018, FBI agents charged Wolfe with making false statements.
At the time of his talk with Watkins, Rambo had access to highly sensitive government records of international travelers as a CBP agent. Attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Committee to Protect Journalists submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to CBP in May 2019 seeking records that could shed light on whether Rambo had used the database to gather information about Watkins.
But after waiting months without receiving the requested records, Reporters Committee attorneys sued CBP. They alleged that the government violated FOIA because it failed to comply with statutory deadlines and wrongfully withheld agency records. The complaint asked that the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia order CBP to immediately process the organizations’ records request and provide all responsive records.
Quote: “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.
Update: In 2020, CBP began releasing records responsive to the FOIA request, including 16 pages of heavily redacted emails. Though the emails are scant on details, the records suggest that Rambo may have contacted the FBI around the time that he met with Watkins — an idea that, if true, could raise concerns about the Justice Department’s adherence to press freedom guidelines. CBP continues to produce responsive documents in this case.
On Oct. 25, 2021, CBP released the latest batch of documents in response to the lawsuit filed by RCFP and CPJ. Though heavily redacted, the more than 500 pages of records shed light on why and how Rambo gathered personal information about journalist Ali Watkins before confronting her during a meeting in June 2017, as well as the government’s subsequent investigation into his actions. The records are included below:
2019-08-08: Exhibit 1
2019-08-08: Exhibit 2