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Report: Government Kept Tabs On Journalists, 'Instigators'

An image of documents obtained by NBC 7 of journalists, activists and attorneys who are reportedly part of a U.S. Government database.
NBC 7 San Diego
An image of documents obtained by NBC 7 of journalists, activists and attorneys who are reportedly part of a U.S. Government database.
Report: Government Kept Tabs On Journalists, 'Instigators'
GUEST: Tom Jones, executive investigative producer, NBC 7 Subscribe to the Midday Edition podcast on iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcatcher.

PBS is supported by the law firm of Mintz working with startups and growing companies. Many legal services can help clients raise capital secure space and protect intellectual property to achieve strategic goals. Moore admits dot.com myths built on excellence driven by change. Lawyers activists and journalists targeted for investigation by Homeland Security are named in documents leaked to NBC 7 investigates more than 50 people identified by photograph occupation date of birth and country are on the list along with information about whether they have been interviewed by border officials. Some on the list have had alerts placed on their passports. The leaked documents seems to confirm the suspicions of border reporters and refugee workers that they've been under increased scrutiny and observation by authorities. Joining me by Skype is Tom Jones executive investigative producer at NBC 7. And Tom welcome to the program. Thank you for having me. How did NBC 7 investigates obtained this document. So we had been speaking with a source a homeland security source who had discovered this operation. I guess you could call it under way and he had you know really big concerns because the agencies involved he told us you know these are criminal investigation agencies they're not intelligence agencies and what the documents show is that they're gathering intelligence on these individuals and that it appears they're gathering intelligence based on their profession in some cases which is what he said abuse of the border search authority which agencies are involved in putting together this secret database from what we know according to the source Customs and Border Protection Immigration Customs Enforcement ICE U.S. Border Patrol and some agents from the San Diego sector of the FBI. Can you give us a further description of the kind of information this database contains. Right. So for all of the individuals that are listed in it they at least have their photo their name their date of birth and then their role tied to the migrant caravan and some of those roles include instigators or organizers and these are roles that are assigned to them by the agencies. But some of the. And another thing is that you know a lot of the photos come from DMV photos passport photos but there are some photos that we've confirmed came from the individuals social media accounts Facebook in particular. So they're at least in there for secondary screening saying we want to do a secondary screening on these these individuals. Some of the individuals have dossiers created on them and the source shared with us one of those dossiers on an attorney and that included a lot more detailed information including the attorneys mother's name the car she drives as well as her work and travel history. Now NBC 7 has chosen to blur out most of the photographs on when you post the doc this document on your website. Did you speak with any of the people included on this list. Did any of them give you permission to use their photographs. Yes. And we made the decision to blur their photos and names until we've spoken to them and gotten permission to show them. But we've spoken to 20 people out of the 59 on the list and we're still continuing to speak to those you know try and find out the rest of the individuals on here make contact with them. You know we made this choice to blur and for those out there who think they may have been on the list they can email us and we'll get back to them within the next few days to check if they're there on the list. What was the explanation you got from CPB about why they're tracking these individuals so it was interesting when we reached out a week ago. They sent us a statement that basically you know went into detail on how this was to protect national security and that you know this was tied to criminal investigations or border violence. But then yesterday when our network colleagues reached out to CBP they gave them a different statement and they said this is specifically tied to border violence. And from November. What's interesting though about that is that at least for the journalists we've spoken to say they weren't there for that border violence and when they were pulled in the secondary screening they weren't asked about border violence. So if that was the goal of putting these individuals on here in El so you take witness statements from if you're conducting a criminal investigation you would want to ask them about the incident but at least for the journalist tell me that you know they were never asked about it. The ACLU has really released a statement. And in it it calls the compilation of this secret database an outrageous violation of the First Amendment. What did your source tell you about why he or she wanted to give you this information. I mean they were just very concerned that this was an abuse of power and that you know again kind of like I said before they're not an intelligence agency. They shouldn't be gathering intelligence and they shouldn't be flagging individuals passports. I mean we know of at least two journalists and an attorney who are denied entry into Mexico after these alerts were placed and that's already having a chilling effect. I mean we've spoken to other attorneys who say well we're we're not. You know this is before a story came out who said well I'm not crossing the border because I'm worried of having the alert placed on me. So yeah I think it's I think it it's it's really alarming. And once again where can people go if they want to actually see this document that you've obtained if you go to our Web site NBC seven dot com and search secret database. It should pop up. I've been speaking with Tom Jones executive investigative producer at NBC 7. Tom thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

The U.S. government kept a database on journalists, activists, organizers and "instigators" during an investigation into last year's migrant caravan from Mexico, infuriating civil liberties and media groups.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection kept the information that contained passport photos, date of birth, suspected role in the caravan and whether they had been arrested, the San Diego TV station KNSD reported Wednesday.

Some of the people listed in the Homeland Security documents provided to the station included 10 journalists, seven U.S. citizens, a U.S. attorney and 47 people from Central America. Some of the people on the list were denied entry into Mexico and had their passports flagged.

The intelligence-gathering efforts were done under the umbrella of "Operation Secure Line," which was designed to monitor the caravan of thousands of people who began making their way north from Central America late last year to seek asylum in the United States.

The government compiled the database at a time when the caravan was attracting considerable attention in the White House around the time of the midterms, with President Trump repeatedly tweeting about the group.

Customs and Border Protection officials didn't dispute the database, saying in a statement to The Associated Press that extra security followed a breach of a border wall in San Diego on Nov. 25 in a violent confrontation between caravan members and border agents. The confrontation closed the nation's busiest border crossing for five hours on Thanksgiving weekend.

Officials said it was protocol to follow up on such incidents to collect evidence, and determine whether the event was orchestrated.

Such "criminal events ... involving assaults on law enforcement and a risk to public safety, are routinely monitored and investigated by authorities," the statement said.

The statement didn't address specifics of why journalists would be on the list to have their passports flagged.

The American Civil Liberties Union condemned the operation.

"This is an outrageous violation of the First Amendment," attorney Esha Bhandari said. "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."

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Congress to investigate what it called a "disturbing pattern of activity," and representatives from the organization plan to meet with Customs and Border Protection officials to discuss the situation.

The documents, dated Jan. 9, are titled "San Diego Sector Foreign Operations Branch: Migrant Caravan FY-2019, Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators and Media." According to the station, the material was used by Homeland Security and other agencies, including some San Diego FBI agents.

Two freelance photojournalists confirmed to the station that the information in their dossiers was accurate. Both were pulled in for secondary questioning at border crossings and one, Kitra Cahana, eventually was stopped in Mexico, denied entry and had to fly back to the U.S. They were not told why they were targeted.

One dossier was on Nicole Ramos, the refugee director and attorney for Al Otro Lado, a law center for migrants and refugees in Tijuana. It included details such as the kind of car she drives and her mother's name, KNSD-TV reported.

"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 the station by email.