Border Agent Who Questioned Reporter Investigated for Computer Misuse
Posted July 12, 2018 1:40 p.m. EDT
A Border Patrol agent who obtained the confidential travel records of a Washington journalist and used them to press her about her sources last year is under investigation for misuse of government computer systems, according to an official briefed on the inquiry.
The agent, Jeffrey A. Rambo, who usually worked in the San Diego area, was temporarily assigned at the time to the National Targeting Center, a facility in Sterling, Virginia operated by Customs and Border Protection that stores data on the travel of millions of Americans and foreigners. Such information is supposed to be used only under strict rules by immigration and law enforcement officials.
Now the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general and investigators from the border agency are examining whether Rambo used the travel data improperly or illegally and whether anyone else was involved. Press advocates have expressed alarm that a government official would use sensitive private information in what they say amounted to a blackmail attempt against a journalist.
On June 1, 2017, Rambo, 33, contacted Ali Watkins, a reporter for Politico at the time who now works at The New York Times, saying that he needed to meet her in Washington immediately. He told Watkins that he worked for the government but declined to give his name or agency.
In a lengthy conversation at a bar near Dupont Circle, Rambo claimed to be helping the FBI with investigations into leaks of sensitive material to journalists. He eventually revealed that he knew the details of a trip to Spain that Watkins had taken with James A. Wolfe, security director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who was then her boyfriend.
According to accounts Watkins provided to friends and editors, Rambo hinted that he might disclose their relationship to The Washington Post and pressed her to become his informant and report to him on other journalists and their sources.
Watkins rejected the request and returned the next day to the bar where they had talked and learned his identity from a credit card receipt. The episode was widely reported last month after Wolfe was arrested and accused of lying to FBI leak investigators about his contacts with Watkins and other reporters. He has pleaded not guilty.
News of Wolfe’s arrest also revealed that Watkins’ email and phone records had been secretly seized by the Trump administration as part of the leak inquiry. The Times subsequently conducted an internal review of Watkins’ actions, and she was recently reassigned to its New York newsroom.
Rambo’s actions raised several questions: What was a California border patrol agent doing in the Washington area? Was he really helping the FBI with leak investigations, as he claimed? Was his anonymous approach to Watkins, which violated law enforcement standards, part of an authorized operation or the work of a rogue agent?
Law enforcement officials have said they can find no evidence that Rambo was officially assigned to work on leak investigations. Officials at Customs and Border Protection and its parent agency, Homeland Security, have declined to answer questions about Rambo’s role, citing the internal investigation.
Rambo has not replied to repeated requests for comment. But several government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have supplied some basic facts.
The officials confirmed that Rambo had been assigned to the National Targeting Center, which is why he was in the Washington area and might have had access to Watkins’ private travel information.
It remains unclear whether Rambo handled or heard about an official FBI request to the center for Wolfe’s travel records, and, if so, whether that led to the discovery that Watkins was his traveling companion. According to Watkins’ accounts, Rambo spoke with enthusiasm to her about Trump’s crackdown on leaks, telling her that “we’re finally going to be able to drain the swamp,” raising the possibility that he had searched the database for her records on his own initiative.
Either way, for Rambo, the venture into combating leaks appears to be the latest expression of an entrepreneurial personality. Public records and internet archives show that starting in his teenage years, he has embarked on ambitious enterprises, although they have produced only modest results.
When he was 16, records show, he helped start what he called an “online consulting company,” called Rambo Harrington & Hopkins, to advise small businesses how to use the web. In 2003, he announced in a news release that his business had “evolved into Brandergy, Inc., a new firm with a new sense of direction and purpose.”
“The new firm, where Rambo finds himself as Managing Director and CEO, will focus all of its attention to the Branding world,” said the release, written when Rambo was 17.
But Brandergy went nowhere, according to Kwan Skinner, an experienced programmer whom Rambo announced as “Operations Director and Chief Technology Officer.” Skinner said in an interview that he had supplied software to Rambo but had never received the payments he was promised, and that he had eventually dropped out of the effort.
“I don’t think he was doing anything deliberately dishonest or manipulative,” Skinner said of Brandergy. “It just never took off.”
Rambo joined the border patrol in 2007, serving in and around San Diego. While there, he created a website, jefframbo.com, where he periodically posted blog items recounting his thoughts on law enforcement, current events and developments in San Diego, sometimes posting photographs. One 2011 post hinted at a difficult upbringing.
“We were deprived of cousins to call over for playtime because they were in graves for traveling the wrong path in life,” he wrote. “We were deprived of fathers that were serving prison sentences. We were deprived of going outside after certain hours due to fears of drive-by’s. We were deprived of a mother due to an addiction. We were deprived of our happiness in result of too many beatings. We were deprived of our brothers who liked the wrong colors and paid a price for it.”
In 2014, again showing a flair for promotional entrepreneurship, Rambo announced that he and a partner would soon open a microbrewery, Social Jack’s Brewing Co., in San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood. He had lined up a location and an experienced manager, and the plans were written up in San Diego Eater, a website, and described in a captivating video.
Once again, the business appears to have failed quickly, leaving multiple claims against Rambo for startup loans he had not repaid, court records show. Rambo’s blog went silent for a long stretch, but in 2016 he used it to promote a new idea: to turn business failure into a kind of success.
“Have you ever set out to achieve greatness only to find yourself alone in a corner, with nothing to show but the resulting fear of embarrassment, regret, and worst of all … shame?” he wrote. “If there were ever fifty words to surmise what has become of my life, you just read them. But the most important words are those to come, which detail my rebound and will inspire you toward greatness of your own.”
Nothing appears to have followed. But early this year, months after his encounter with Watkins, he added a nicely designed, blue-and-red logo to the blog.
“Dear Failure with Jeff Rambo,” it said. The website is no longer online and can be viewed only in archived versions.