Julie Pace, Executive Editor of AP, wrote to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asking the agency to explain how Martha Mendoza, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, was identified in the databases as a possible confidential informant under the Trump administration. This is detailed in a report from Homeland Security's inspector general.
Pace stated that this was a "flagrant example" of a federal agency using its power in order to inspect the contact information of journalists. The inspector general's report reveals that the previous administration took the actions, but the practices were routine.
Yahoo News and AP reported on Saturday about the DHS investigation into U.S. journalists and congressional staff. This is the latest example of an agency that was created after the 9/11 attacks and uses its vast capabilities to target American citizens.
DHS was criticized by Congress and others in July 2020 when it used unidentified or poorly trained agents dressed in military-style uniforms to sweep pedestrians off the streets of Portland, Oregon and hustle them into unmarked vehicles during protests outside the federal courts in the city.
This revelation led Sen. Ron Wyden, to ask DHS to immediately hand over the inspector general's report to Congress.
Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said that multiple government agencies should have been aware of the conduct and taken no action to stop it. DHS and Justice Department must also be held responsible for the consequences. Wyden is an Oregon Democrat who long advocated greater oversight over government surveillance.
Mississippi Democrat Rep. Bennie Thompson chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. He stated, "If true this abuse of government surveillance power to target journalists elected officials and their staff are deeply disturbing."
CBP stated in a statement that it has been strictly regulating its vetting procedures and investigating practices over the weekend. It also said that they don't investigate cases without a legal and legitimate basis.
Marsha Espinosa (DHS spokesperson) stated Monday that Mayorkas was "deeply committed" to protecting First Amendment rights and that she has created policies that "reflect this priority." However, she didn't provide any details.
She stated that "We don't condone the investigation by reporters in response to exercising First Amendment rights." "CBP and each component agency and office within the Department will ensure that their practices conform to our values and meet our highest standards."
Pace asked for assurances in the AP letter that "these improper practices and apparent abuses of power will cease going forward."
This would be in accordance with a recent order by Attorney General Merrick Garland that prohibits the seizing records of journalists involved in leak investigations. This was in response to outrage over revelations that former President Donald Trump's Justice Department had obtained records belonging journalists, Democratic members of Congress, their aides, and Don McGahn, former White House counsel.
During the Obama administration federal investigators secretly seized telephone records of some editors and reporters at the AP. These seizures included both cellphones and office lines.
A Trump-era leak investigation was also the source of DHS's inspector general report on investigations of journalists.
The IG was investigating Jeffrey Rambo's actions as a Border Patrol agent while on temporary duty in Washington D.C. in 2017. He accessed government travel records in a leak investigation involving Ali Watkins (who was at Politico at that time and now writes for The New York Times).
After media reports exposed Rambo's investigation into Watkins, the inspector general opened an investigation.
During the investigation, Rambo informed the IG that he had conducted routine checks on journalists, including congressional staff, while working for the Counter Network Division, CBP.
Rambo said that he had consulted the databases on Mendoza before attempting to establish a connection with her. This was due to her expertise in writing about forced labour, which is a concern for CBP as it enforces import restrictions. Rambo, an AP reporter and expert on the subject, won her second Pulitzer Prize in 2016. She was part of a team that covered slave labor in Southeast Asia's fishing industry.
In a separate statement, the AP sought to explain why databases were used to investigate Mendoza, and other journalists.
The AP stated that they were deeply concerned by the apparent abuse of power. "This seems to be an example where journalists are being targeted for simply doing what they do, which is a violation the First Amendment."
The inspector general reported its findings to a federal prosecutor, for possible charges of using government databases to lie to investigators. However, the Justice Department declined prosecution of Rambo and two other Homeland Security employees.