Feds Investigating Border Surveillance Program That Targeted US Citizens

August 9, 2019by Gustavo Solis
Pedestrians wait in line to present documents to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers as they enter the United States at the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry on May 24, 2019, in San Ysidro, Calif. (Eduardo Contreras/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

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.

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©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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