Leaked Documents Reveal Alleged Government Surveillance of Journalists and Activists Covering Migrant Caravan

Photo: Rodrigo Abd/AP

Reporters from NBC 7 San Diego have obtained documents through an anonymous Homeland Security whistleblower that reveal a government database targeting journalists, immigration advocates, and activists who were involved with the migrant caravan traveling from Central America at the end of 2018.

Prior to this revelation, some journalists and activists who covered the caravan or provided aid to migrants noticed increased interrogation during border crossings, which led them to suspect that they were being targeted.

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From NBC 7:

One photojournalist said she was pulled into secondary inspections three times and asked questions about who she saw and photographed in Tijuana shelters. Another photojournalist said she spent 13 hours detained by Mexican authorities when she tried to cross the border into Mexico City. Eventually, she was denied entry into Mexico and sent back to the U.S.

These American photojournalists and attorneys said they suspected the U.S. government was monitoring them closely but until now, they couldn’t prove it.

It turns out they were right. Documents provided to NBC 7 showed that these journalists were placed in a database where government officials collected information about them and flagged their passports. This monitoring was done under the purview of “Operation Secure Line,” an operation tracking the migrant caravan.

The documents leaked to NBC 7 are titled “San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019, Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators and Media” and dated January 9, 2019.

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From NBC 7:

The individuals listed include ten journalists, seven of whom are U.S. citizens, a U.S. attorney, and 47 people from the U.S. and other countries, labeled as organizers, instigators or their roles “unknown.” The target list includes advocates from organizations like Border Angels and Pueblo Sin Fronteras. 

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The database was used by agents from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and some San Diego FBI agents.

Mexican government officials were also involved in the surveillance project. A seal on the documents indicates that they were produced by the International Liaison Unit, which coordinates intelligence between the U.S. and Mexico.

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According to the Homeland Security whistleblower, agents created illegal dossiers on the people listed in the database.

“We are a criminal investigation agency, we’re not an intelligence agency,” the source told NBC 7. “We can’t create dossiers on people and they’re creating dossiers. This is an abuse of the Border Search Authority.” 

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These files were disturbingly detailed. One entry, on Nicole Ramos, an attorney for Al Otro Lado, a law organization aiding refugees and migrants in Tijuana, included details about her car, her mother’s name, and her work and travel history.

“The document appears to prove what we have assumed for some time, which is that we are on a law enforcement list designed to retaliate against human rights defenders who work with asylum seekers and who are critical of CBP practices that violate the rights of asylum seekers,” Ramos told NBC 7. 

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CBP did not answer NBC 7's questions about the documents, nor confirm their validity.

“Criminal events, such as the breach of the border wall in San Diego, involving assaults on law enforcement and a risk to public safety, are routinely monitored and investigated by authorities,” a CBP spokesperson wrote in an email.

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“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,” the statement continued. “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.” 

After NBC 7's report was published, CBP said that all of the reporters and activists in the database were present during violence on the border in November. This most likely refers to migrants attempts to cross the border over Thanksgiving weekend, when images of American law enforcement shooting tear gas at migrants made national news.

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CBP told NBC 7 that it was tracking journalists to understand the causes of violence on the border.

Freelance photojournalist Ariana Drehsler was one of the people targeted by the agencies. She says she crossed the border dozens of times while covering the migrant caravan in 2018. During one December crossing, she was taken aside by Border Patrol agents.

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“Two people in plainclothes came down and took me to another room,” Drehsler told NBC 7. “They questioned me in a small room, asking me questions about the shelter, what was I seeing there, who was I working for.” 

“They said that I was on the ground and they’re not, which I thought was really interesting,” she added.

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Drehsler was released, but told that a flag had been placed on her passport. They couldn’t explain why. Drehsler says she was pulled aside during border crossing two subsequent times.

“I have so many questions; I have more questions than answers,” Drehsler said in reaction to the new revelations. “Personally, I don’t understand what [agents] are hoping to find.” 

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Another freelance photojournalist, Kitra Cahana, was denied entry into Mexico twice last month while covering a migrant caravan.

Cahana told NBC 7 that she’s in contact with the Committee to Protect Journalists and the ACLU in regards to her flagged passport. She noted that uncertainty around crossing the border could impair journalists’ ability to report on these stories.

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“In the current state of journalism, it’s really freelancers who are bringing so much news to the public,” Cahana told NBC 7. “And the uncertainty of having an alert placed on your passport and not knowing where and when that’s going to prevent you from doing your work is really problematic.” 

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