2 Records of Alleged Abusive or Improper Conduct involving “Tactical Terrorism Response Teams”

September 20, 2021

Politico revealed the existence of a DHS Inspector-General report, which would not be publicly released until October (original link). The report finds that CBP improperly targeted U.S. advocates and journalists whom the agency believed had some involvement with 2018-19 migrant caravans through Mexico. These individuals were subjected to more intrusive inspections when crossing the border into the United States, and “sensitive information” about them was shared with the Mexican government.

An October 11, 2021 article about the report at ProPublica focused on the Tactical Terrorism Response Teams, secretive CBP intelligence units that are “trained in counterterrorism, not immigration issues.” It found, “[A]t 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.” The Tactical Terrorism Response Teams were the subject of a September 4, 2021 investigation by The Intercept, which found that they had detained and interrogated 600,000 travelers at ports of entry between 2017 and 2019.

On January 8, 2022, the DHS Inspector-General published a heavily redacted report focusing on CBP’s revocations of “trusted traveler” status for those singled out as under suspicion (original link). Officers, the report concluded, “did not evaluate unsubstantiated information, and made unsupported conclusions” when they revoked the “trusted” status of two U.S. citizens whom they believed were aiding the 2018-19 migrant caravans.

On January 11, 2022, NBC’s San Diego affiliate spoke to a pastor who was suing because CBP officers, believing she was tied to a caravan, requested that the Mexican government deny her entry.

The intelligence episode was the subject of an August 11, 2022 investigation by Palabra, which cites John Sandweg, the former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Obama administration:

“One of the things CBP needs to be careful about is … they have great discretion to conduct warrantless searches at the border,” Sandweg said. “Stories like this can undermine that authority. The courts start believing this isn’t a tool that’s reserved only for those who are high risk travelers or have a criminal history … you start seeing it’s lawyers and journalists who are only doing their jobs who are getting secondaried 12 times, that’s the kind of thing that gets courts to start eroding the authorities CBP relies on today to stop terrorist from entering the country.”

— Daniel Lippman, “Watchdog: CBP improperly targeted Americans as caravans approached border” (Washington: Politico, September 23, 2021) https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/23/cbp-americans-caravans-border-513829.

CBP Targeted Americans Associated with the 2018–2019 Migrant Caravan, OIG-21-62 (Washington: DHS Office of the Inspector-General, September 20, 2021) https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2021-09/OIG-21-62-Sep21.pdf.

— Dara Lind, “A Secretive Counterterrorism Team Interrogated Dozens of Citizens at the Border, Government Report Finds” (Washington: ProPublica, October 11, 2021) https://www.propublica.org/article/a-secretive-counterterrorism-team-interrogated-dozens-of-citizens-at-the-border-government-report-finds.

Trusted Traveler Revocations for Americans Associated with the 2018-2019 Migrant Caravan, OIG-22-13 (Washington: DHS Office of the Inspector-General, January 8, 2022) https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2022-01/OIG-22-13-Jan22-Redacted.pdf.

— Meredith Royster, Tom Jones, Mari Payton, Alexis Rivas, “CBP Officer Who Asked Mexico to Deny Entry to Some US Citizens Speaks Under Oath” (San Diego: NBC 7 San Diego, January 11, 2022) https://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/investigations/cbp-officer-who-asked-mexico-to-deny-entry-to-some-us-citizens-speaks-under-oath/2835644/.

— Jason Buch, “Bad Intelligence” (Palabra, August 11, 2022) https://www.palabranahj.org/archive/bad-intelligence.

Sector(s): Border-Wide

Agency(ies): CBP, Tactical Terrorism Response Teams

Event Type(s): Intimidation of Humanitarian Workers, Misuse of Intelligence Capability

Last Known Accountability Status: Cleared by DHS OIG

Victim Classification: Advocate or Humanitarian Worker, Journalist, U.S. Citizen or Resident

September 4, 2021

The Intercept published information, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, about CBP’s Tactical Terrorism Response Teams, which operate at 79 ports of entry. Established in 2015, the teams “consist of CBP officers and Border Patrol agents who work closely with CBP’s National Targeting Center, which gathers and vets intelligence.” Their scope has since expanded beyond counter-terrorism.

The documents show that Tactical Terrorism Response Teams (TTRTs) detained and interrogated more than 600,000 travelers, about a third of them U.S. citizens, between 2017 and 2019. They denied entry to 8,000 foreign travelers and a handful of U.S. citizens.

“Within 100 miles of any U.S. land or coastal boundary, CBP can detain, question, search, and seize property with fewer restrictions than law enforcement in the interior of the country,” the Intercept recalls, adding that there are indications that some of the Tactical Terrorism Response Teams’ targeting has appeared “politically or ideologically motivated.”

Weeks later, starting on September 20, 2021, media outlets would begin reporting on DHS Inspector-General findings about Tactical Terrorism Response Teams’ targeting of activists and journalists during 2018-19 migrant caravans in Mexico.

— Melissa del Bosque, “Secretive CBP Counterterrorism Teams Interrogated 180,000 U.S. Citizens Over Two-Year Period” (Type Investigations, The Intercept, September 4, 2021) https://theintercept.com/2021/09/04/cbp-border-tactical-terrorism-response-teams/.

Sector(s): Border-Wide

Agency(ies): Tactical Terrorism Response Teams

Event Type(s): Misuse of Intelligence Capability

Last Known Accountability Status: Unknown

Victim Classification: U.S. Citizen or Resident