At least 10 journalists were tracked in a database authorized by the U.S. government as part of its surveillance around the migrant caravan in 2019, according to documents released in March 2023 in compliance with FOIA requests from San Diego TV station KNSD.
The NBC station first broke the story in March 2019 that Department of Homeland Security officials in San Diego had created the database as part of “Operation Secure Line” — the government’s code name for its response to the caravan. Agents compiled dossiers on at least 65 journalists, attorneys and humanitarian aid workers, and flagged them for additional questioning, searches and occasionally denials of entry at the border.
A Homeland Security Investigations agent, who later identified himself as Wesley Petonak, told KNSD he was alarmed when he came across a PowerPoint containing details from the database and so leaked screenshots.
“It seemed these people's rights were being infringed on,” Petonak said.
The TV station, together with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, or RCFP, filed FOIA requests seeking documents from Operation Secure Line, then sued in April 2019 when the government refused to produce the documents. In March 2023, the government began releasing the files. More than 4,800 pages have been released as of July 2023, according to reporter Tom Jones, who has led the reporting on Operation Secure Line, first at KNSD and now at WMAQ-TV in Chicago.
According to the documents, officers surveilled journalists, social media influencers, attorneys, aid workers and immigration advocates whom officials suspected were connected to a caravan of more than 9,000 Central American migrants seeking asylum in late 2018 and early 2019. The title of the PowerPoint leaked to the station identified those included as “Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators, and Media.”
Five of the 10 journalists indicated in the documents released so far were named — photojournalists Kitra Cahana, Ariana Drehsler, Bing Guan, Go Nakamura and Robert Wilson. Five remain unnamed, as the TV station censored the names and images of any individuals who did not provide permission to publish their information.
Cahana, Drehsler, Guan and Nakamura were each stopped at least once for additional questioning when crossing the border and asked about their work covering the Central American migrant caravan’s arrival in Mexico. Several had their equipment searched.
All four photojournalists, along with photographer Mark Abramson, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in November 2019 against the heads of the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, and its agencies U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The suit is ongoing as of July 2023, with discovery underway.
Wilson confirmed to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in July 2023 that he, on the other hand, had not been stopped for secondary screening while covering the migrant caravan. He said it may be in part because he was extremely cautious.
“The whole time I was [in Mexico] I kind of assumed I was going to be on a list, so I tried to really minimize my crossings,” Wilson said. “I only went across the border twice, and I waited for the heaviest traffic times and went across on foot.”
Following the initial revelations about the operation, DHS agreed to conduct an internal investigation, according to the station. The Office of the Inspector General for DHS announced it would conduct its own independent investigation.
While the OIG conceded in its final report that some of the “lookouts” placed on U.S. journalists, attorneys and others did not fully comply with U.S. Customs and Border Protection policy, it held that agents had legitimate reasons for flagging the individuals.
“Although we determined CBP’s lookouts on a number of journalists present at an illegal border crossing were unnecessary, we found no evidence that CBP placed these lookouts to harass the journalists,” the report said.
RCFP attorney Katie Townsend told KNSD she believes there is still more to learn about the surveillance effort.
“While the release of these records is a victory for transparency, the litigation is ongoing, and we anticipate that additional information will come to light,” Townsend said. RCFP is a member of the Tracker advisory board.
Jones told the Tracker that as far as he knows, and based on the OIG investigation, this was the only active surveillance effort that included journalists, attorneys and other American citizens.
“But the only reason we know about this surveillance effort is because records were leaked to us,” Jones said. “If it wasn’t for that leak, we would have never discovered this, so who’s to say there aren’t more efforts or lists like this out there?”
Operation Secure Line is not the only instance of CBP monitoring journalists: In 2021, reporters revealed that a secretive CBP division, known as the Counter Network Division, had been investigating as many as 20 journalists beginning in 2017.
According to a report by Yahoo News, CBP agents would run information and photos from passport applications through multiple government databases.
Also, in 2020, DHS compiled intelligence reports about the reporting and tweets of two journalists covering protests in Portland, Oregon, according to a Washington Post article. After the reports were made public, then-Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf ordered the office to cease all collection of information on journalists and announced an investigation into the reports.