It was almost 10 p.m. on a Thursday night, and Ali Watkins was walking around the capital following instructions texted by a stranger. One message instructed her to walk through an abandoned parking lot near Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle, and then wait at a laundromat. Then came a final cryptic instruction: She was to enter an unmarked door on Connecticut Avenue leading to a hidden bar.
The Sheppard, an upscale speakeasy, was so dimly lit it was sometimes hard to see the menu, let alone a stranger at the bar. But amid the red velvet upholstery, Watkins, then a reporter at Politico, almost immediately spotted the man she was supposed to meet: He was wearing a corduroy blazer and jeans and had a distinctive gap between his teeth.
“I won’t tell you my name, but I work for the U.S. government,” he said, according to her account later provided to government investigators.
It was June 1, 2017, and Watkins was a rising star in the world of national security journalism, breaking big stories about the investigation into President Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. She had hopped from the Huffington Post to BuzzFeed and then Politico, when a man writing under the pseudonym Jack Bentley had reached out, wanting to meet with her. She agreed, as journalists often do, thinking he might be a potential source.
Once at the bar, however, she found that the man seemed more interested in gathering information about her than in providing her with information. And he appeared to know a lot about her, including details of her travels and her relationship with James Wolfe, an older man who worked on Capitol Hill.
The meeting, which lasted almost four hours, would change both of their lives. Late the following year, Wolfe, the onetime boyfriend of Watkins, was sentenced to two months in prison for lying to the FBI about his relationship with reporters. And Watkins, by then at the New York Times, faced ethical questions about her relationship with Wolfe, even though she denied he had been a source for her stories while they were involved.
The true mystery of the saga was the role of the man at the bar. He was portrayed in subsequent articles as something of a rogue actor who had taken it upon himself to conduct a Trump-era leak investigation, and he subsequently faced an internal investigation at the Department of Homeland Security, where he worked.
Yet documents obtained by Yahoo News, including an inspector general report on the investigation that spans more than 500 pages — and includes transcripts of interviews that investigators conducted with those involved, emails and other records — reveal a far more disturbing story than the targeting of a single journalist. The man, whose real name is Jeffrey Rambo, worked at a secretive Customs and Border Protection division. The division, which still operates today, had few rules and routinely used the country’s most sensitive databases to obtain the travel records and financial and personal information of journalists, government officials, congressional members and their staff, NGO workers and others.
As many as 20 journalists were investigated as part of the division’s work, which eventually led to referrals for criminal prosecution against Rambo, his boss and a co-worker. None were charged, however.
Rambo, who believes he was unfairly vilified for seeking out Watkins, said in a wide-ranging exclusive interview with Yahoo News that he acted legally and appropriately. He agreed to speak amid what he describes as escalating threats against him in San Diego, where he now lives, and after Yahoo News obtained a copy of the inspector general investigation into Rambo and his colleagues.
“I’m being accused of blackmailing a journalist and trying to sign her up as an FBI informant, which is what’s being plastered all around San Diego at the moment because of misinformation reported by the news media,” he said in the interview.
The story Rambo tells is even stranger than the one already in the public view, which is strange enough.His meeting with Watkins, he says, was the result of a Trump-era White House assignment to Customs and Border Protection to combat forced labor. Rambo, the lead on the project, was authorized to reach out to anyone who he thought might be useful, including journalists and other people inside and outside the government.
As part of that process, he and others he worked with vetted those potential contacts, pulling email addresses, phone numbers and photos from passport applications and checking that information through numerous sensitive government databases, including the terrorism watchlist.
“There is no specific guidance on how to vet someone,” Rambo later told investigators. “In terms of policy and procedure, to be 100 percent frank there, there’s no policy and procedure on vetting.”
Those swept up in the division’s vetting included journalists from national news organizations, ranging from the Associated Press to the New York Times.Even Arianna Huffington, the founder of the Huffington Post, was flagged in those searches.
“When a name comes across your desk you run it through every system you have access to, that’s just status quo, that’s what everyone does,” Rambo told investigators.
But the idea of government officials trawling through government databases, looking at the private lives — and even romantic relationships — of U.S. citizens not suspected of any crime, is precisely what civil liberties experts have warned about for years.
“For two decades, we’ve seen how the collect-it-all, share-it-all philosophy underlying post-9/11 law enforcement floods agencies with sensitive personal information on millions of Americans,” Hugh Handeyside, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties National Security Project, told Yahoo News. “When agencies give their employees access to this ocean of information, especially without training or rigorous oversight, the potential for abuse goes through the roof.”
Rambo, however, doesn’t see his story as one of abuse. He was doing precisely what his higher-ups authorized him to do.
“I’m called a rogue Border Patrol agent, I’m called a right-hand man of the Trump administration, I accessed data improperly, I violated her constitutional rights — all of these things are untrue,” Rambo told Yahoo News. “All these things are standard practices that — let me rephrase that. All of the things that led up to my interest in Ali Watkins were standard practice of what we do and what we did and probably what’s still done to this day.”
CBP’s National Targeting Center was created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to help identify potential threats crossing the borders of the United States, whether people, drugs or weapons. When Rambo was detailed to the center in 2017, he was assigned to the newly launched Counter Network Division, a unit designed as a bridge between law enforcement agencies and the intelligence community that prided itself on taking “out of the box” approaches.
Freed from the constraints of bureaucracy, those inside were supposed to think creatively about how to solve problems. According to testimony in the inspector general report, Rambo’s supervisor, Dan White, fostered a freewheeling atmosphere at the division, calling his team “WOLF,” short for “way out in left field.” White even had a water bottle with a WOLF sticker. He himself would later tell investigators: “We are pushing the limits and so there is no norm, there is no guidelines, we are the ones making the guidelines.”
The division’s assignments were high-level and came directly from the CBP commissioner, the secretary of Homeland Security or the White House, which in May 2017 asked the division to look at the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the U.S. believed companies were using cobalt mined by forced labor to produce consumer goods in China. Rambo, one of few Border Patrol agents assigned to the division, where he worked alongside representatives from across law enforcement and intelligence agencies, was asked to lead the project. “My orders were to tackle a problem set that we were given from the White House,” he told Yahoo News.
Rambo, according to documents included in the inspector general report, was told to gather the evidence needed to hit companies with sanctions under the rarely used Tariff Act of 1930. He proposed using information from experts in academia, NGOs, humanitarian groups, officials at other government agencies and journalists specializing in forced labor reporting. The plan was greenlighted by his boss, he later told investigators, with one caveat. “Make sure you vet whoever you contact,” Rambo said White told him.
In late May 2017, Rambo and one of his co-workers began reaching out to people, including Martha Mendoza, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press reporter who covered forced labor. On May 31, Rambo, using his government email, wrote to Mendoza explaining that CBP was trying to identify companies that were importing goods possibly linked to forced labor. “We are hoping to connect with subject matter experts outside of the traditional government circles as your ‘rules of engagement’ are a bit different than ours,” he wrote Mendoza, “and can perhaps help in pointing us in the right direction to U.S. companies that meet such criteria or are suspected of such.”
Another reporter who caught his eye was Ali Watkins. On June 1, he spotted a Politico story by Watkins on how Russia’s spy games were heating up inside the United States. Her story, which came at the height of Trump administration concerns over leaks relating to the FBI’s Russia investigation, cited a half-dozen anonymouscurrent and former intelligence officials. “Ali Watkins was, for lack of a better word, the hot-topic reporter at the time,” Rambo told Yahoo News.
Rambo, who was later pressed repeatedly about why he chose to reach out to Watkins, a reporter who had never written about forced labor, said he was looking for prominent journalists with access and buzz. He told investigators he wanted to identify national security journalists who could not just tell CBP about forced labor but also publish stories thatwould allow him to “overstate” U.S. enforcement capabilities. Rambo believed these stories inflating U.S. capabilities would prompt shippers to alter their routes, proving they were involved in illegal activities.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’ll use Ali Watkins,’” he said.
A former senior DHS official told Yahoo News that forced labor was indeed a concern of CBP.
“Forced labor was a priority of the administration. It’s a priority of the Senate Finance Committee that oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” the former official added. “It remains a bipartisan priority both for the anticompetitive aspects and trade perspective, but more importantly for the humanitarian aspects.”
(“Committee staff are not aware of the Counter Network Division working on forced labor,” Keith Chu, a spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told Yahoo News. The staff were also not aware that Rambo’s leak investigation was done under the auspices of working on the forced labor issue, he added.)
Asked about Rambo’s plan, however, the official expressed surprise that such a thing would be pursued at CBP.
“I can tell you at minimum that is an overexuberant interpretation. CBP does not conduct psychological ops or misinformation campaigns. CBP is not a member of the intelligence community. CBP does not have the authorities to do those kinds of things,” the former senior official said.
Rambo believed he did have the authority, and he had certainly had his boss’s approval to contact Watkins. After reading her story, he did something that most journalists probably don’t expect government officials to do: He ran Watkins through an assortment of databases. Those included, among others, CBP’s Automated Targeting System, a tool that compares travelers against law enforcement and intelligence data; TECS, which tracks people entering and exiting the country; the Treasury Department’s FinCEN, used for identifying financial crimes; and the State Department consular database, which included details of her passport application.
“When you say vet someone, you vet them. There’s no parameters on what that means,” Rambo said.
“Vet the reporters you use,” Rambo said his boss told him, “‘vet them through our systems.’ I vet them no different than I vet a terrorist.”
On his screen was Watkins’s international travel, color-coded blue in a format similar to an Excel spreadsheet. He saw a flight from Andrews Air Force Base to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, sandwiched between two trips with the same person, a man more than 30 years her senior named James Wolfe. Together they traveled to Cancún, London and Spain, according to the inspector general report.
Recounting his search of Watkins’s travel, Rambo began to reenact what he saw as his “aha moment.”
“I know what suspicious travel looks like,” he said, recalling the moment he thought he had stumbled on something big: the mystery male companion.
“Who is James Wolfe?” he recalled asking himself, mimicking typing when describing his efforts to identify Watkins’s traveling companion.
Then he queried Watkins’s family members, thinking he might be related to her. Wolfe, he found, was not a family member but a senior staff member on Capitol Hill.
“Why is Ali Watkins flying with the head of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee?” Rambo recalled wondering, excited by his find.
But he already had a theory, one that would later be denied by Watkins. Wolfe, he surmised, was giving her information and access in exchange for a personal relationship with her.
“It’s reasonable for me to believe in exchange for personal trips she was given access to Guantánamo,” he recounted, unaware that the Pentagon regularly offers journalists the opportunity to travel to the U.S. naval base there to report on legal proceedings related to 9/11 detainees.
Rambo then went to his boss. “I say, ‘This person is great in terms of access, but based on my vetting she may be receiving classified info,’” he recalled to Yahoo News.
White later told investigators that the division would regularly conduct checks on journalists to determine their personal connections, to establish if they were someone CBP could trust.
“Figure it out,” White told Rambo. “If you can use her, use her. If not, don’t.”
That afternoon, Rambo reached out to Watkins using the address firstname.lastname@example.org, which he later described as an “off network” account sanctioned by the Counter Network Division. “It wasn’t just some random alias I created just then to meet her,”he said during an interview in San Diego, where lives with his two dogs, father-and-son beagles named Jack and Bentley.
He would later defend using the Gmail account and a fake name, he said, because he didn’t want to provide information on where he worked unless he deemed her trustworthy. He and his boss even discussed signing her up as a confidential human source — a highly unusual proposal for a journalist — so she would be locked into a confidentiality agreement, though the idea was never pursued.
Rambo and Watkins agreed to meet in Dupont Circle that evening.
As Rambo prepped for his meeting, he reached out to an old FBI counterterrorism contact, now at the bureau’s headquarters. “Can you give me a call,” Rambo wrote in an email. “If possible ASAP. I need to run something by you that I *believe* might be in your swim lane.”
At the bar, Rambo sipped WhistlePig old fashioneds and fired off questions to Watkins. Could he trust her? Had she ever burned a source? The questions began to unnerve Watkins, particularly when they revealed that Rambo appeared to know private details about her life, like where she had lived in New Jersey for a short period, and where she traveled. And yet they stayed in the bar for nearly two hours talking.
Around midnight, as the bar was closing, Rambo paid with a credit card, and they began walking together up the street toward Kramerbooks & Afterwords, a popular bookstore and café near Dupont Circle. Inside, Watkins said, Rambo was holding up books and magazines while talking, as if to conceal his identity.
At around 1 a.m. the two left Kramerbooks together and walked down the street.
Standing in front of a closed Starbucks, Rambo continued to press Watkins about her sources. Had she ever had an inappropriate relationship with a source? Had she ever done anything to compromise her journalistic integrity?
Watkins said no, but eventually told Rambo what he already suspected: She was involved with Wolfe, but she denied he was leaking to her. “I’ve never received information from that person,” she said, according to her account later.
“Do you know he is married?” Rambo asked, turning the cellphone in his hand around so Watkins could see.
“This is his wife,” Rambo said, apparently not realizing he was showing her a photo of Wolfe’s first wife (the two had divorced and Wolfe had remarried).
Rambo continued to ask about her relationship, and what would happen to her career if it was made public.
“Are you trying to blackmail me?” Watkins asked him. Rambo denied he was.
The two continued talking outside the Starbucks, with Rambo pressing her on Wolfe and her confidential sources. Watkins by then felt “spooked,” she later told investigators.
Rambo never revealed to Watkins where he was employed or his real name, but she later told investigators he insinuated he was working in the Washington metro area with the FBI.
“Here’s a tip,” he told her not long before they parted ways around 2 a.m. “Don’t travel together.”
The morning after the meeting, both Watkins and Rambo each set out to investigate the other.
Rambo emailed his FBI contact again. “Confirmed improper relationship between a member of the SSCI and the press,” he wrote, using an abbreviation for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Additional details in person if possible.”
“[Subject of investigation] is the SSCI Director of Security,” he added in another email an hour later.
That same day, Watkins returned to the Sheppard to get Rambo’s credit card slip, which had his real name. A quick Google search led to a story about a Border Patrol agent starting a brewery. She called CBP, gave his name and asked to be connected. After a brief silence, then a click, a phone rang. No one picked up. Still, she later told investigators, she took this as “quasi-confirmation” that Jack Bentley was Jeffrey Rambo. (Even several years later, Rambo is still furious at the bar for giving Watkins his credit card receipt. “Who owns that place? They gave her my personal information,” he fumed.)
Rambo didn’t know that she had identified his real name when, a few days after their meeting, he discussed with his boss, White, how to proceed. According to emails included in the inspector general report, Rambo was ready to hand everything over to the FBI, but his boss stopped him. White wanted to run Watkins through more DHS databases to find out if she had any sources inside the department, expanding the investigation. Rambo’s probe into Watkins and Wolfe also now had a name, taken from the whiskey he drank at the bar where he met Watkins: Operation Whistle Pig.
Rambo said Operation Whistle Pig was focused only on whether Wolfe was providing classified information to Watkins, or anyone else, but it appeared that a large number of journalists were caught up in the probe. “After ‘Operation Whistle Pig’ was approved, Rambo identified 15 to 20 national security reporters and conducted CBP records checks of those reporters,” according to a FBI counterintelligence memo included in the inspector general report.
While the Justice Department has policies on seeking information from journalists or news organizations, the rules apply to records that require a subpoena or warrant, such as phone records, not information that the government already possesses. Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department responded to questions about this.
White then introduced Rambo and another member of the team to Charlie Ratliff, a program analyst in the Counter Network Division. Ratliff worked on DOMEX, a program that collects information from the contents of a person’s electronic device when they cross a U.S. border. The controversial program sweeps up everything from phone contacts and emails to the contents from encrypted messaging apps and social media.
“We know you do high profile,” White told Ratliff, introducing him to Rambo.
Rambo explained to Ratliff that Watkins and Wolfe were having an “affair” and that Wolfe may have been leaking classified information to Watkins. Rambo gave Ratliff what are known as “selectors,” such as telephone numbers, email addresses and Social Security numbers. Ratliff, in turn, ran those selectors through a number of databases, including the Terrorist Screening Database, a watchlist that has more than 1 million names and has been widely criticized for errors and lack of review.
Watkins didn’t have any direct connections in that database, also known as TSDB, but one of her contacts did: Arianna Huffington, the founder of the Huffington Post. “Oh….and the Huffington Post owner was/is a direct contact to a TSDB on 3 phones and 1 email. LoL,” Ratliff wrote in one email to White.
“It’s impossible for Arianna to comment, as she is completely unclear what her connection to the watchlist is,” a spokesperson for Huffington told Yahoo News.
Handeyside, the ACLU attorney, called the database “a due process disaster.”
“The standard for placement on the watchlist is so low, and the safeguards against errors and misplaced suspicion are so deficient, that it’s no wonder the watchlist has ballooned to well over a million people,” he said. “Having a connection to someone on the watchlist is not remotely suspicious of itself.”
But it wasn’t just journalists being investigated, or “vetted,” in the parlance of the Counter Network Division. Ratliff, whose email signature was “In God We Trust. For Everyone Else We Vet,” created a PDF file later that month that included “several Congressional referrals,” according to the inspector general report. That PDF was then sent to CBP’s Analytical Management Systems Control Office, which is described in congressional testimony as dedicated to finding anomalies among the agency’s employees “to mitigate any potential threat to the CBP mission.”
According to White’s later testimony, Ratliff regularly investigated congressional staffers’ travel captured by CBP to run against the Terrorist Screening Database. “White stated that when Congressional ‘Staffers’ schedule flights, the numbers they use get captured and analyzed by CBP,” the inspector general report says. White told the investigators that Ratliff “does this all the time,” looking at “inappropriate contacts between people.” At one point in an email, Ratliff also references sending a PDF package listing several congressional members linked to people on the Terrorism Screening Database. It is unclear, based on the inspector general report, which members were identified.
Rambo then contacted analysts with Deloitte, a government contractor that had employees working directly for CBP’s Counter Network Division, who specialized in investigating people using social media and other open sources of information. “I sent them the link to that [Russia] article as context as to who Ali Watkins was and basically told them to move on with that to uncover what they could,” Rambo told investigators. He identified Watkins as a “primary target” of Operation Whistle Pig and Wolfe as an “associated target.”
Deloitte did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The Deloitte team soon sent back a bulletin pinpointing Watkins’s exact location on dates when they knew she was with Wolfe, like their trip to Spain. They also noted other geotagged Facebook check-ins during the time under scrutiny, including domestic travel to three states. The bulletin included information on her mother and brother and links to their profiles. Attached to the email were photos taken from Watkins’s Facebook profile showing her in Spain.
“Gracias,” Rambo replied.
There were conflicting accounts about how many other journalists, beyond Watkins, who were scrutinized by the Counter Network Division. White told investigators that in preparation for speaking with the Associated Press’s Mendoza, she was run through multiple databases, and “CBP discovered that one of the phone numbers on Mendoza’s phone was connected with a terrorist.”
In a statement to Yahoo, after being told of the investigation into one of its reporters, an AP spokesperson, Lauren Easton, blasted CBP.
“The Associated Press demands an immediate explanation from U.S. Customs and Border Protection as to why journalists including AP investigative reporter Martha Mendoza were run through databases used to track terrorists and identified as potential confidential informant recruits,” Easton told Yahoo News in a statement. “We are deeply concerned about this apparent abuse of power. This appears to be an example of journalists being targeted for simply doing their jobs, which is a violation of the First Amendment.”
According to a memo that Troy Miller, then the head of the National Targeting Center, provided to investigators, the division reached out to reporters at the Huffington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Associated Press. “These entities were analyzed further to determine nexus to the information being provided to CBP in order to validate any future information that would be provided on alleged forced labor practices,” wrote Miller, who went on to become the acting CBP commissioner.
According to records included in the inspector general report, such vetting was standard practice at the division.
“I would just remove journalists from that question, to begin with,” Rambo later said when asked about the vetting process for journalists. “Just through day-to-day practice of how we operate, when you’re told to vet somebody, that you vet them through all of those systems.”
A former New York Times reporter confirmed to Yahoo News that they met with Dan White and others at CBP to discuss trade-based money laundering, among other issues. “They also pitched me on the labor abuse work that CBP was doing,” the former Times reporter said.
”We are deeply troubled to learn how U.S. Customs and Border Protection ran this investigation into a journalist’s sources,” Danielle Rhoades Ha, a New York Times spokesperson, wrote to Yahoo News. “As the Attorney General has said clearly, the government needs to stop using leak investigations as an excuse to interfere with journalism. It is time for Customs and Border Protection to make public a full record of what happened in this investigation so this sort of improper conduct is not repeated.”
DHS, the Justice Department and the White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment, including about the appropriateness of investigating journalists.