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Operation Whistle Pig: Inside the secret CBP unit with no rules that investigates Americans

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 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.

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