PUBLIC POLICY: Dozens Of Citizens Were Interrogated By A Secretive Counterterrorism Team At The Border, Government Report Finds

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A new government report has revealed that a secretive counterterrorism team interrogated dozens of American activists and journalists at the border as part of the Trump administration’s sweeping response to fears about a large migrant “caravan” that was making its way to the United States’ southern border.

A ProPublica story in May first revealed the involvement of the counterterrorism team. The new report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector General shows that the unit’s mission was much more extensive than previously thought.

According to the report, at least 51 U.S. citizens were flagged for interrogation — often based on evidence as flimsy as once having ridden in a car across the border with someone suspected of aiding the caravan.

Thirty-nine of those Americans crossed the border shortly after being flagged and were detained and interrogated. The report revealed that all interrogations were conducted by members the Tactical Terrorism Response Team. This unit, which is a lesser-known unit of Customs and Border Protection, was trained in counterterrorism and not immigration. The existence of the inspector general’s report was first disclosed by Politico.

Tarek Ismail of the City University of New York, who’s been investigating the role of the counterterrorism units and is part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking documents on them, told ProPublica that he’d never seen the unit’s work detailed in a government report before. He told ProPublica that there is so little information about the TTRT.

In the fall of 2018, thousands of Central Americans migrating together for safety had become a fixation of President Donald Trump and his administration. Operation Secure Line was a federal government operation that sent an influx of intelligence and security personnel to the southern border. This led to the dragnet interrogations.

The government initially maintained that it was investigating confrontations between migrants and agents. But the Trump administration then said it was looking into whether activists were abetting smuggling by “encouraging” migrants to enter the U.S.

Taylor Levy, one of the citizens targeted by CBP’s effort (and who was involved in the FOIA case that first disclosed the counterterrorism agents’ involvement this spring), told ProPublica the new report validated her suspicions. “I’m not paranoid. My friends aren’t paranoid. This actually happened. She said that it was a targeted campaign for surveillance.

In one case, the inspector general’s report says, two lawyers were flagged for interrogation because they had previously crossed the border with someone suspected of running a WhatsApp group associated with the caravan. Another case involved a U.S. citizen being flagged for crossing into the U.S. along with someone who was later identified as a potential caravan organizer.

The report notes that citizens are only supposed to be flagged for border interrogations when they are suspected of criminal activity themselves. Officials either didn’t know or ignored the decades-old policy. According to the report, at least two senior officials said that anyone could be stopped and interrogated for “virtually every reason.”

In a response included with the report, CBP agreed to update its training to clarify that flags “should only be created for law enforcement purposes.” It did not say it would limit future interrogations to people suspected of criminal activity themselves.

CBP referred ProPublica to its published response to the inspector general’s report, and it did not comment on whether any agents had been or would be disciplined in response to the report’s findings.

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