AP Wants to Know Why DHS During Trump Administration Marked Reporter as Possible Informant

The Associated Press inquired Monday about the Department of Homeland Security's purported use of government databases usually reserved for tracking international terrorists to investigate up to 20 American journalists. Among those journalists was Martha Mendoza, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter with the AP, who was run through the databases and flagged as a possible informant during the Trump administration, the news agency said.

A more than 500-page report from the Homeland Security Department's inspector general, of which the AP obtained a redacted copy, detailed how a Customs and Border Protection unit used the sensitive databases to track journalists. The CBP is part of the Homeland Security Department.

AP Executive Editor Julie Pace called on DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a letter to explain why Mendoza was given the potential informant designation.

"This is a flagrant example of a federal agency using its power to examine the contacts of journalists," Pace wrote. "While the actions detailed in the inspector general's report occurred under a previous administration, the practices were described as routine."

Lauren Easton, AP's media relations director, said in a statement that the organization was "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," Easton wrote.

Customs and Border Protection also released a statement that did not directly address the Homeland Security inspector general's investigation, but said that operations conducted by the CBP's Counter Network Division are "strictly governed by well-established protocols and best practices."

"CBP does not investigate individuals without a legitimate and legal basis to do so," the statement added.

DHS Inquiry
A special Customs and Border Protection unit used sensitive government databases intended to track terrorists to investigate as many as 20 U.S.-based journalists, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press reporter, according to a federal watchdog. A U.S. Department of Homeland Security plaque is displayed a podium as international passengers arrive at Miami international Airport where they are screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, November 20, 2020, in Miami. Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

The DHS investigation of U.S. journalists, as well as congressional staff and perhaps members of Congress, which was reported by Yahoo News and AP on Saturday. It represents the latest apparent example of an agency created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks using its vast capabilities to target American citizens.

DHS prompted criticism from Congress and elsewhere in July 2020 when it deployed poorly or unidentified agents in military-style uniforms to sweep people off the streets of Portland, Oregon, and hustle them into unmarked cars during protests outside the federal courthouse in the city.

This latest revelation prompted Senator Ron Wyden to call on DHS to immediately turn over the inspector general report to Congress.

"If multiple government agencies were aware of this conduct and took no action to stop it, there needs to be serious consequences for every official involved, and DHS and the Justice Department must explain what actions they are taking to prevent this unacceptable conduct in the future," said Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has long sought more oversight of government surveillance.

Representative Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said, "If true, this abuse of government surveillance powers to target journalists, elected officials and their staff is deeply disturbing."

Mayorkas and DHS had no immediate response to the letter from Pace, which called for "assurances that these improper practices and apparent abuse of power will not continue going forward."

That would be in line with a recent order from Attorney General Merrick Garland prohibiting the seizing of records of journalists in leak investigations. That followed an outcry over revelations that the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump had obtained records belonging to journalists, as well as Democratic members of Congress and their aides and a former White House counsel, Don McGahn.

During the Obama administration, federal investigators secretly seized phone records for some reporters and editors at the AP. Those seizures involved office and home lines as well as cellphones.

The DHS inspector general report that revealed the most recent disclosure of investigations of journalists also stemmed from a Trump-era leak investigation.

The IG was looking into the actions of Jeffrey Rambo, a Border Patrol agent who was on temporary duty with a Customs and Border Protection unit in the Washington, D.C. area in 2017 when he accessed government travel records as part of a leak investigation involving reporter Ali Watkins, who was with Politico at the time and now writes for The New York Times.

The inspector general opened its investigation after media reports exposed Rambo and his investigation of Watkins.

In the course of its investigation, the IG learned from Rambo that he had routinely run checks on journalists and others, including congressional staff while working at the CBP unit, the Counter Network Division.

Rambo told investigators that he queried its databases about Mendoza before trying to establish a relationship with her because of her expertise in writing about forced labor, an area of concern for CBP because it enforces import restrictions. The AP reporter is a known expert on the subject who won her second Pulitzer Prize in 2016 as part of a team that reported on slave labor in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia.

The AP, in a separate statement from the Pace letter, also sought an explanation for the use of the databases to investigate Mendoza and other journalists.

"We are deeply concerned about this apparent abuse of power," the AP said. "This appears to be an example of journalists being targeted for simply doing their jobs, which is a violation of the First Amendment."

The inspector general referred its findings to a federal prosecutor for possible charges of misusing government databases and lying to investigators, but the Justice Department declined to prosecute Rambo and two other Homeland Security employees.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

DHS Secretary Mayorkas
The Associated Press sought answers Monday from the Department of Homeland Security on its use of sensitive government databases for tracking international terrorists to investigate as many as 20 American journalists, including an acclaimed AP reporter. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas speaks to reporters at the San Ysidro port of entry, December 7, in San Diego. Gregory Bull/AP Photo