Secret CBP Teams New DHS Weapon of Mass Surveillance
by Jayson Hawkins
The American police state and accompanying surveillance apparatus has a long history dating back to the first Red Scares and beyond. The exponential growth of police presence engendered by the “wars” on crime and drugs did not result in any serious consequences for the politicians who fostered them, and so it should be no surprise that the “war” on terrorism that followed the 9/11 attacks brought yet another surge of police and surveillance agencies into American life.
Each new crisis, real or imagined, begets yet another intrusion of police presence destined to quickly grow beyond the situation that ostensibly justified its creation. Worries about immigration and the alleged threats to American peace and stability have been no exception, and so the agents of Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) have followed the time-honored path of expanding their mandate, creating secretive task forces, and finding innovative ways to tread upon the civil liberties of the people they are charged to protect.
CBP is part of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) and is responsible for policing America’s borders. The agency, which includes the U.S. Border Patrol, operates at airports, land crossings, and seaports. Unlike other law enforcement agencies, CBP has been empowered by Congress to conduct warrantless searches within 100 miles of any U.S. land or coastal boundary. The agency can detain, question, search, and seize property with few restrictions across areas that encompass the homes of 200 million people and include some of the country’s biggest cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami.
CBP is apparently not concerned about concealing this extraordinary power, considering they regularly put it on display in episodes of the reality program “To Catch A Smuggler,” which airs weekly on the National Geographic Channel. What CBP has worked to conceal is the existence of its Tactical Terrorism Response Teams (“TTRTs”), which operate at 79 individual points of entry across all 20 Border Patrol sectors nationwide. Since their inception in 2015, TTRTs have expanded the scope of their operations to include counter-intelligence, transnational organized crime, and biological threats, according to a CBP spokesperson.
According to information acquired through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The Intercept, the ACLU, and the legal advocacy group Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility, the secretive CBP teams interrogated more than 600,000 travelers between 2017 and 2019, roughly a third of whom were U.S. citizens. More than 8,000 foreign visitors with legal travel documents were denied entry into the U.S., along with a handful of U.S. citizens whose denials are the subject of federal lawsuits that, judging by extensive Supreme Court precedent, the CBP is likely to lose. The CBP opted not to responds to questions about this practice.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of TTRT operations revealed by the documents is the accumulation of massive amounts of data, including information downloaded during warrantless searches of cell phones and laptops owned by U.S. citizens. All of this data are collated in a massive database DHS calls the Automated Targeting System (“ATS”), which shares data with at least 14 other databases within the DHS, FBI, and NSA, including the Terrorist Screening Database and other watchlists. According to reports compiled at the Brennan Center for Justice, this information is then used as part of the algorithm-driven risk assessment process. The result is that the discretionary and often random actions of TTRTs can put anyone into the gristmill that could eventually get them flagged as a threat by the ATS or other watchlists. This results in interrogation and invasive searches every time they travel or, even worse, being prevented from entering or leaving the U.S.
Astonishingly, unlike the more publicized no-fly lists, ATS flags cannot be legally challenged. Recent revelations show that the ordinary border-patrol operations of CBP have morphed, and like so many of its police-state brethren, it has become yet another instrument of the surveillance state rather than a guardian at our borders.
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