The House Committee on Homeland Security Thursday expressed “great concern” about a secret list used by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents to stop, detain, question and search 59 reporters, attorneys, and immigration advocates.
In a letter to CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, committee chairman Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., said CBP’s “targeting (of) journalists, lawyers, and advocates…raises questions about possible misuse of CBP’s border search authority and requires oversight to ensure the protection of Americans’ legal and constitutional rights.”
The Committee’s letter -- and other harsh criticism about the CBP surveillance program -- was prompted by a detailed report on the secret surveillance published Friday by NBC 7 Investigates.
To read the exclusive investigation, click here.
Rep. Thompson and Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., who chairs the panel’s Subcommittee on Border Security, set a March 14 deadline for CBP to provide them with a copy of the list of individuals subject to surveillance. Thompson and Rice also requested copies of any “dossiers” on those private citizens, details on how many times those individuals have been stopped for questioning by CBP, and other information.
The Committee also expressed concern that “some individuals have been required to allow CBP officers to search their cell phones before being released” from detention.
PHOTOS: Leaked Documents Show Government Tracking Journalists, Immigration Advocates
CBP Thursday issued a statement on the controversial program, describing it as a necessary response to assaults against Border Patrol agents in November 2018 and January of this year. CBP’s Assistant Commissioner of Public Affairs, Andrew Meehan, said the agency “identified individuals who may have information relating to the instigators and/or organizers of these attacks.”
Meehan said “efforts to gather this type of information are a standard law enforcement practice,” and assured critics that, “CBP does not target journalists for inspection based on their occupation or their reporting.”
CBP also revealed that its Office of Professional Responsibility launched an internal inquiry of the surveillance program last month, “to ensure that all appropriate policies and practices were followed.” The Office of Inspector General in the Department of Homeland Security is also involved in that internal review.
But that internal inquiry was apparently started after NBC 7 Investigates first questioned the agency about the controversial program and confirmed that it had obtained internal documents about the surveillance effort.
NBC 7 first contacted the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection and other agencies involved in the intelligence gathering effort on Feb. 27.
One of the immigration activists subject to government surveillance and included in the documents obtained by NBC 7 strongly criticized the secret CBP program.
“What is especially concerning is the number of human rights defenders and journalists who are being interrogated and added to this list, which is only designed to intimidate them and discourage them from speaking out,” said Alex Mensing of the pro-immigrant group Pueblo Sin Fronteras.
“It’s upsetting to know the U.S. government is using its resources to monitor human rights defenders and journalists who are doing their work,” Mensing said.
During a visit to San Diego Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom denounced the dossier project as a “Big Brother” abuse of government power.
Newsom also contrasted CBP’s extensive surveillance of private citizens with the government’s flawed effort to keep track of immigrant children separated from their parents at the border.
“I mean the irony of that shouldn’t be lost on anyone,” Newsom told NBC 7. “That we have better data collection against journalists than we do of children and their parents. That’s America in 2019. It’s a disgrace.”
Three local congressmen, all Democrats, also criticized the surveillance program.
“The Trump Administration should not be secretly tracking law-abiding journalists, lawyers, and advocates to stop them from simply doing their jobs,” said freshman Rep. Mike Levin, 49th District. “This is a stunning abuse of power and potentially unconstitutional.”
Rep. Scott Peters, 52nd District, called the dossier collection an “egregious abuse of power and another attempt by the Trump Administration to undermine the freedom of the press, which is vital to our democracy.”
Peters said Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen “should be focused on keeping track of (immigrant) children separated from their parents (and the border), not people lawfully doing their jobs.”
Rep. Juan Vargas, 51st District, described himself as “deeply troubled by the reports of U.S. and Mexican officials targeting journalists, attorneys, and immigration advocates at our southern border.”
NBC 7 Investigates requested a comment from Republican Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, 50th District, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration and staunch supporter of President Trump and his efforts to build a border wall. Hunter’s office has not replied to that request of comment on the CBP surveillance program.
The controversy also reverberated in Mexico City, where that country’s secretary of foreign relations denied any involvement in the surveillance program.
“The government of Mexico disapproves of all acts of illegal espionage against any person, domestic or foreign,” the foreign secretary said. “The Mexican government does not conduct illegal surveillance on anyone, for any type or category of activity.”
But the Foreign Relations Office also pledged to ask the U. S. government, via official channels, to “clarify any possible cases of illegal spying.”