In a distressing attack on the free press, federal prosecutors seized email and phone records from New York Times reporter Ali Watkins in connection with an investigation into accused leaker James Wolfe, a former Senate Intelligence Committee aide, who is now charged with making false statements to the FBI.
The seizure is widely interpreted as an attempt to intimidate news media outlets that have been critical of the Trump administration, but this is not the only disturbing part of this story.
Last June, Watkins was approached by a man who identified himself as a government agent. He asked to speak with her, and they arranged to meet at a Washington restaurant. Rather than bring her information for her reporting, the man said that he was part of an effort by the Trump administration to investigate leakers. According to a report in the Washington Post, the man quizzed the reporter on her sources and methods in gathering information for her stories.
The agent, it turns out, was not from the FBI or another agency that customarily investigates leaks. He was from the Customs and Border Patrol, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Jeffrey Rambo, the agent’s name, told Watkins that he knew that she and the Senate Intelligence Committee aide James Wolfe had been in an intimate relationship. He gave her details of trips she had been on with Wolfe. These details were apparently designed to convince her that she was under surveillance. Friends told the Washington Post that she was rattled by the information.
Spying on American citizens for presidential administrations has never been an officially authorized practice at DHS. Long-standing Homeland Security ethical directives prohibit Border Patrol agents from using information it gathers for purposes other than the enforcement of the immigration and customs laws. They also bar agents from using confidential Homeland Security intelligence for personal or political purposes.
At the time of Rambo’s meeting with Watkins, DHS was under the command of Secretary John Kelly. A month later, Kelly was promoted to the position of White House Chief of Staff. When the Washington Post recently contacted DHS about Rambo’s actions, the department said it would initiate an investigation into the matter.
We do not know if Rambo was telling the truth when he said he was working on behalf of the administration. He may have been conducting the operation on his own, not surprising given the lawlessness of ICE and Border Patrol agents over the last 15 months. Either way, Congress needs to hold DHS accountable for this attempt to intimidate the press by an employee of the DHS.