Feds Investigating Border Surveillance Program That Targeted US Citizens
SAN DIEGO — The Department of Homeland Security has launched an internal investigation into a covert surveillance program that targeted U.S. citizens engaged in humanitarian work in Tijuana, according to a letter released Thursday.
Customs and Border Protection launched “Operation Secure Line” in October 2018 to investigate whether any groups of individuals orchestrated the Central American migrant caravans that brought thousands of migrants to the southwestern border. During that investigation, agents tracked the movements of almost 60 journalists, lawyers and humanitarian workers and placed them on a secret watchlist.
DHS Acting Inspector General Jennifer Costello told legislators that her office was investigating the surveillance program in a letter dated July 2018 but released publicly Thursday by a group of Democratic senators.
“A multidisciplinary team of Office of Inspector General criminal investigators, program analysts and attorneys is conducting an investigation of this list and related issues, which will culminate in a final public facing report,” Costello wrote.
Costello said her team will determine why federal agents created the watchlist, what they used it for and what happened to the people named in it. Additionally, Costello mentioned that the investigation will evaluate whether Customs and Border Protection’s actions complies with federal law.
DHS declined to respond, citing a policy against commenting on active investigations.
The surveillance program has received public backlash — including a highly critical Amnesty International report and a federal lawsuit from the ACLU of Southern California — since March, when NBC San Diego reported on leaked documents showing the covert watchlist that targeted U.S. citizens engaged in journalism and humanitarian work in Tijuana and Mexicali.
CBP responded with news of the leak with the following statement:
“It is protocol following these incidents to collect evidence that might be needed for future legal actions and to determine if the event was orchestrated. CBP and our law enforcement partners evaluate these incidents, follow all leads garnered from information collected, conduct interviews and investigations, in preparation for, and often to prevent future incidents that could cause further harm to the public, our agents, and our economy.”
In June, Amnesty International released an analysis of the surveillance program, calling it a “campaign of intimidation” launched by the federal government aimed at activists and lawyers helping vulnerable migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The 44-page report accused the Department of Homeland Security of violating the Constitution by launching an “unlawful and discriminatory campaign of intimidation, threats, harassment and criminal investigations against people who defend the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.”
The authors of that report called on Congress to hold public hearings over the surveillance program.
On Thursday, Amnesty International called news of the investigation a “positive development,” and specifically lauded the news that the investigation’s findings will be made public whenever they are completed — something that their report recommended.
“We are very glad to hear this,” said Brian Griffey, regional researcher for Amnesty International and author of their report on the surveillance program.
Griffey noted that he has received reports of continued harassment along the border and would like to know if there are more watchlists in other border sectors.
In July, the ACLU of Southern California sued the federal government over the surveillance program that placed U.S. citizens on a secret government watch list.
Their complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court of Los Angeles, claims the federal government violated the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association by placing U.S. citizens on that list for engaging in humanitarian work south of the border.
The lawsuit names the humanitarian workers — including volunteers and lawyers who help asylum-seekers — and describes how being placed on the government watchlist prevented them from traveling to Mexico. One of the named plaintiffs lived in Mexico and was barred from seeing her family for more than a month.
“We are pleased that the Department of Homeland Security is investigating what is an outrageous abuse of power and a cruel targeting of people whose only crime was assisting supporting or covering migrants,” said Mohammad Tajsar, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.
Costello’s letter was made public Thursday by Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut — all Democrats. Harris and Warren are also presidential candidates.
©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
In The News
NEW YORK (AP) — Americans commemorated 9/11 Friday as a new national crisis — the coronavirus pandemic — reconfigured and divided anniversary ceremonies and a presidential campaign carved a path through the observances. In New York, victims' relatives gathered Friday morning for split-screen remembrances, one at... Read More
Federal agencies are bolstering arsenals of tear gas, sponge-tipped bullets and other crowd-control gear after President Donald Trump ordered U.S. agents to assume new policing powers in cities to quell protests that he said threatened government monuments, statues and property. The Justice Department, Homeland Security, and... Read More
WASHINGTON — In recent weeks, House appropriators have approved hundreds of billions of dollars in government funding for fiscal 2021, culminating in the Appropriations Committee’s July 15 approval of legislation that would provide nearly $51 billion for the Homeland Security Department. With all 12 of the... Read More
Customs and Border Protection separated dozens more migrant children at ports of entry in 2018 than it publicly attested to at the height of the Trump administration’s so-called zero tolerance policy, according to a new report published Tuesday by the Homeland Security Department’s internal watchdog. The... Read More
l NEW YORK — Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf reportedly is suspending several Trusted Traveler Programs — including Global Entry — for all New York state residents, lashing out at the passage of the “Green Light Law” that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.... Read More
WASHINGTON — Shortly after being sworn in as acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf — who the Senate confirmed as the agency’s policy undersecretary just hours earlier — conducted his first order of business. He moved Ken Cuccinelli, a favorite of immigration... Read More