Border Intelligence Operation Aimed at Journalists and Activists Part of Bigger Spying Scheme

by on March 8, 2019 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, San Diego

Editordude: The outrage following this story about ICE and CBP targeting immigration activists, attorneys and journalists included steamed editorials in both the San Diego Union-Tribune and the LA Times today. Even Steve Breen was tasked to draw up something about it – and now, that’s news.

By Doug Porter / Words & Deeds / March 7, 2019

NBC 7 News dropped an explosive story on Wednesday [March 6] based on documents provided by a “Homeland Security source on the condition of anonymity.”

It’s a great story and there’s been plenty of praise (and reaction) as a local news organization’s scoop has been picked up nationwide.

But, as I’ll show readers today, it’s just about guaranteed to be one part of a larger effort.

First, the facts uncovered by NBC 7::

  • “Operation Secure Line” involved keeping a list of journalists, at least one attorney, and “instigators” involved with the so-called migrant caravan from the last months of 2018 and early 2019.
  • The leaked documentation included screenshots from Microsoft SharePoint used by agents from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigations and some agents from the San Diego sector of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).
  • The document included headshots of 59 individuals, followed by their name, date of birth, role in the caravan, “country of commencement,” and the date of their interview (or prospective interview) by government officials.
  • Targeted individuals were subjected to secondary inspections at the border. Some were barred from crossing. Others were subjected to questioning and having their passports photographed by Mexican authorities.

Esha Bhandari, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, was quoted in a press release, saying

“This is an outrageous violation of the First Amendment. The government cannot use the pretext of the border to target activists critical of its policies, lawyers providing legal representation, or journalists simply doing their jobs. We are exploring all options in response.”

Here’s the thing you’re not reading about in coverage of Operation Secure Line: It was just a point-in-time snapshot of one exercise by agencies under the direction of Homeland Security.

Dated Jan. 9, the documents were labeled “San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019, Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators and Media.”

The agency claims the list was compiled based on the subjects presence during an incident of violence at the border.

“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.”

Not all of those targeted people were at the border on the evening when tear gas was fired at migrants attempting to cross illegally, according to reporting at the Union-Tribune. And others not on the leaked list have been detained or questioned by both US and Mexican authorities.

Exposure of the tracking effort hasn’t stopped the efforts of Customs and Border Protection to harass immigration advocates.

Posted this morning (Thursday) on Facebook: (Emphasis mine)

Today, on the 101st consecutive day that Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project has operated human rights monitoring at the US port of entry in Tijuana, our volunteers were threatened with arrest and deportation by officers of Grupo Beta, an arm of Instituto Nacional de Migración de México.

Specifically, Grupo Beta officers threatened Al Otro Lado human rights defenders that we are not allowed to advise asylum seekers to change into their warmest clothing to prepare for the hieleras in which they will be detained for days on end. Per Grupo Beta officers, CBP has directed them to take this action against us.

Perhaps more vile than threatening to arrest and deport individuals involved in the defense of basic human rights, is the campaign of defamation that Grupo Beta is engaging in against Al Otro Lado, specifically advising asylum seekers that our volunteer attorneys are lying, and that speaking with us will only cause them more problems in their asylum cases before US authorities.

There have been reports dating back for many months about journalists, lawyers, and activists experiencing difficulties related to their work at the border.

Reporter Brooke Binkowski has repeatedly spoken out about being:

“…questioned, searched,and followed around and photographed in both Mexico and the United States over the past couple of years. They escalated it to the point that I stopped crossing, as I was worried that I would get my SENTRI or worse, my passport taken away, or that I would just be disappeared.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a project led by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists, has reported ten incidents at the San Ysidro crossing over the past month.

Manuel Rapalo, a freelance journalist, was stopped and pulled aside for additional screening measures while entering the United States on Feb. 16. During the screening, Rapalo was questioned about his work, and specifically his reporting along the U.S.-Mexico border. It was the third time in 2019 he was stopped by border patrol while on a reporting trip.

Rapalo, an American citizen, covered the migrant caravan from Tijuana, Mexico for Al-Jazeera. Every time he has re-entered the U.S. since the beginning of 2019, he says, he has been pulled aside for a secondary screening. Rapalo believes that a flag or marker has been placed on his travel documents because border officials have consistently stopped him only after scanning his passport.

He said he was pulled aside in February when re-entering the U.S. in Miami from Haiti. He was previously stopped for secondary screening measures when returning from Mexico on Jan. 5, when his notebooks were searched, and Jan. 26, when his notebooks and photos on his camera were searched.

Prior to the NBC7 report, stories at the Intercept revealed a pattern of heightened U.S. law enforcement scrutiny aimed at individuals with a proximity to the migrant caravans.

Last week, two attorneys with a leading legal organization challenging the Trump administration’s border crackdown were denied entry into Mexico. In a press conference, the lawyers — Nora Phillips and Erika Pinheiro, senior litigators with the Los Angeles- and Tijuana-based organization Al Otro Lado — blamed the U.S. government for their removal. Pinheiro, a U.S. citizen living in Mexico, was heading home to her 10-month-old son. Phillips, Al Otro Lado’s legal director, was on her way to a long-planned vacation with her husband, her 7-year-old daughter, and her best friend when she was flagged by officials at the Guadalajara airport. She spent nine hours in detention without food or water.

“It was literally just hell on earth,” Phillips said in an interview with The Intercept.

The attorneys’ expulsion was the latest in a series of escalating tactics used by U.S. and Mexican law enforcement to target legal service providers, humanitarian groups, and journalists on the border.

Simultaneously with Wednesday’s report about incidents at the border, the Nation magazine published a story on Immigration and Customs Enforcement tracking of protests in New York, based on Freedom of Information requests.

Included on a list were peaceful and legal actions promoting immigrants’ rights and opposing the administration’s deportation policies, as well as one protesting the National Rifle Association.

An event protesting a hate group organized by a sitting member of Congress was included:

On the balmy evening of July 31, 2018, Congressman Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat who represents parts of northern Manhattan and the Bronx, organized a rally at Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan to protest the white-supremacist group Identity Evropa. Just a few days earlier, a gang of Identity Evropa members had gathered at the very same park to unfurl a racist, anti-immigrant banner from a bridge there. “Stop the Invasion,” the banner had read. “End Immigration.”

Identity Evropa’s action was an affront to the local community, Espaillat says. The rally he organized in response, which was titled “Uptown Standing Together Against Racism and Xenophobia,” was meant to counter the group’s hateful message. Espaillat’s district includes a robust immigrant presence, many from his native Dominican Republic, and he himself is among the first formerly undocumented immigrants to serve in Congress.

“Our rally was about unity,” Espaillat says, noting that the family-friendly event was attended by more than 300 people, including children and young people, as well as New York State Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and State Assembly member Carmen de la Rosa. “It was about pushing back against hate and telling our immigrant neighbors, our Latino neighbors, our Jewish neighbors that we will always stand with them if they are targeted by racist and anti-Semitic groups.”

Despite this inclusive and peaceful sentiment, Representative Espaillat’s rally ended up on a government list. In an e-mail sent out on the afternoon of July 31, 2018, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), transmitted detailed information to an undisclosed number of recipients, including at least one Department of Homeland Security supervisor, about public protests planned by mostly liberal and left-leaning groups in New York City. The e-mail contained a four-page document, titled “Anti-Trump Protest Spreadsheet 07/31/2018,” which listed the time, date, location, and purpose of upcoming protests slated to take place around the city.

In February 2018, The Daily Beast disclosed efforts by Customs and Border Protection to create a more formal on the ground relationship with other intelligence agencies.

Some former intelligence officials cautioned that the hardest part of this change could be how it could change the internal architecture of DHS. For them, it’s not a question of why, but how. Under the prior administration, figuring out how to make this change was the most significant hurdle.

And CBP already gathers intelligence, and—per former senior officials—works with America’s spy agencies. Along with the Drug Enforcement Agency, CBP heads a sophisticated intelligence center in El Paso, Texas.

Many of its agents work under dangerous circumstances at the southern border, sometimes facing off against members of extraordinarily violent cartels smuggling drugs and trafficking people into the U.S. They are part of the country’s single largest police force, according to The Atlantic, with more than 40,000 total gun-carrying agents in CBP. That’s more than the total number of people—armed or not—in the entire FBI.

The former official who said CBP’s efforts were “revitalized” also cautioned that the increasingly formal relationship between law enforcement and intelligence brings the potential for abuse.

Bloomberg Law reported in April 2018 about Homeland Security seeking a contractor to “monitor hundreds of thousands of news sources around the world and compile a database of journalists, editors, foreign correspondents, and bloggers to identify top “media influencers.””

This is probably legit– back in the day it was called hiring a clipping service– except for the part of the request requiring an assessment of  a publication’s “sentiment.”

Finally, there’s this Associated Press story about the Census Bureau –having been thwarted thus far in its attempts to revise 2020’s questionnaire –seeking citizenship data via a back door from DHS:

The data that Homeland Security would share with Census officials would include noncitizens’ full names and addresses, birth dates and places, as well as Social Security numbers and highly sensitive alien registration numbers, according to a document signed by the Census Bureau and obtained by AP.

Such a data dump would be apparently unprecedented and give the Census Bureau a view of immigrants’ citizenship status that is even more precise than what can be gathered in door-to-door canvassing, according to bureau research…

…Amy O’Hara, who until 2017 directed Census Bureau efforts to expand data-sharing with other agencies, said she was surprised a plan was in the works for sharing alien numbers, which are assigned to immigrants seeking citizenship or involved in law enforcement action.

“I wish that we were not on this path,” she said. “If the citizenship question hadn’t been added to the Census, this agreement never would have been sought.”

So there you have it. I say where there’s smoke there’s fire, and there’s certainly plenty of smoke here, as the racists in the Trump administration seek to impose their vision on the United States.

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