Investigate Customs and Border Protection for illicit investigations of journalists

Parker Higgins

Advocacy Director

New reporting into a government operation codenamed "Operation Whistle Pig" describes a shocking level of invasion into the personal and private lives of journalists. In blockbuster reporting, Yahoo News describes the actions of the Counter Network Division, a secretive unit of U.S. Customs and Border Protection that works with law enforcement and the intelligence community.

The reporting focuses on the story of Ali Watkins, a journalist whose phone and email records were seized by the government under the Trump administration, but outlines invasive CBP investigations — which involved rifling through confidential government databases — into as many as 20 journalists. Those investigations led to referrals for criminal prosecution of at least three CBP employees, but no charges were ultimately filed. Yahoo News reportedly obtained a copy of the Department of Homeland Security inspector general report describing this misconduct and the referrals.

Three main takeaways from this story:

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  • Surveillance of journalists is, at least on paper, tightly circumscribed by the Department of Justice media guidelines, which were recently rewritten in light of embarrassing disclosures this year of improper investigations into journalists during the Trump administration. At the very least, these news media guidelines should be adopted by all other federal agencies. The Yahoo News story quotes law professor Geoffrey Stone on this point: "If there is no law or policy that specifically regulates it, then there’s nothing that prohibits it."

  • That’s only a start. As we've consistently argued (and as Attorney General Merrick Garland said when signing the rewritten media guidelines into effect), these policies must be codified by proper legislation. Congress should pass legislation such as the PRESS Act, which would enshrine these strong protections into law — where they will carry greater weight and cannot be changed by a future administration's memo.

  • In this case in particular, DHS must turn over to Congress its inspector general report on this operation for appropriate oversight, as called for by Sen. Ron Wyden.

Congress should conduct a thorough investigation into Operation Whistle Pig and the DHS and CBP role in leak investigations generally. Journalists should be able to do their job without the fear of shadowy government employees searching through their private financial or travel records.

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