August 08, 2019

Udall, Warren, Harris, Blumenthal Release New Details of Expanded DHS Watchdog Probe of CBP Surveillance of Journalists, Activists, and Lawyers

In May, senators demanded answers from DHS about CBP compiling lists and monitoring journalists, lawyers, and other individuals providing assistance to migrants at the border

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) released a letter from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General (OIG) detailing its investigation into the alleged compiling of lists and targeted government surveillance of journalists, activists, and lawyers at the U.S.-Mexico border by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The lawmakersdemanded answers from CBP leadership in May about these potential attacks on the First Amendment and potential violations of the Privacy Act of 1974.

The DHS IG confirmed it is conducting the investigation in a letter to the lawmakers, and released new details indicating that the probe is more expansive than has been previously reported.

“In your letter, you… express your concerns regarding the alleged targeting of U.S. journalists and immigrant advocates at the southwest border. You also raised specific concerns about [CBP] list of 59 individuals, including journalists and attorneys, who may have been singled out for enhanced inspection at U.S. ports of entry,” the letter states

“We respond to your letter to inform you that a multidisciplinary team of [OIG] 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,” the letter continues. “We plan to review the leaked ‘San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019, Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators and Media’ document in order to determine why it was created, what it is used for, and what happened to the people named in it. We also anticipate reviewing other specific allegations of targeting and/or harassment of lawyers, journalists, and advocates, and evaluate whether CBP’s actions complied with law and policy.” 

Udall, Warren, Harris, and Blumenthal responded to the DHS IG announcement on its investigation: 

Udall said: “Government surveillance that targets journalists, individuals providing legal services to migrants, or critics of the Trump administration’s immigration policies is absolutely unacceptable and flies in the face of our most deeply held Constitutional rights and principles. The American people expect DHS to help keep our communities safe from violent attacks, not keep lists of journalists and attorneys to harass at legal ports of entry, or track and disseminate information about public protests of DHS child separations. Attempting to dissuade groups and individuals from exercising their First Amendment rights – or from providing legal support to individuals fleeing violence – undermines the freedoms of speech, press and association and violates constitutional rights. I am glad the DHS Inspector general is conducting this investigation, and I look forward to closely studying its findings.”

Warren said: “I’m glad that the DHS Office of Inspector General is opening an investigation into the CBP’s alarming surveillance reportedly targeting journalists, attorneys, and organizers. The American public deserves answers about how and why DHS obtained this information and how DHS officials and law enforcement agencies have used it.”

Harris said: “I’m pleased that the DHS Office of Inspector General has agreed to open an investigation. Journalists reporting on conditions at the border and advocates working on behalf of vulnerable immigrants should not be treated with suspicion simply for doing their jobs. This investigation must be thorough and anyone found to have acted improperly must be held accountable.”

Blumenthal said: “Putting journalists, attorneys, and activists on a secret government watch list may be a favorite move of one of President Trump’s autocratic friends, but it is not a tactic we should tolerate in our democracy. Immigration attorneys serve a critical public function, while reporters and activists at the border are vital to exposing this Administration’s worst abuses. I am glad that the OIG is stepping in to protect their constitutional rights.” 

In early March, the Trump administration reportedly compiled a secret database of immigration advocates and journalists covering immigration issues, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, who were then subjected to additional scrutiny by CBP when crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Additionally, recent reports reveal that DHS contracted with a private intelligence firm, LookingGlass Cyber Solutions, to gather information on over 600 peaceful demonstrations organized last summer in response to the Trump administration’s cruel and horrific policy of family separation – information that was then shared with DHS and distributed to outside law enforcement officials.

The full text of the letter from DHS OIG announcing the investigation is available HERE. The full text of Udall, Warren, Harris and Blumenthal’s May letter is available HERE.