Report On Leak Investigation By CBP Reveals Unrestricted Surveillance Powers

Posted on December 16, 2021

According to an investigation by Yahoo News, a little-known division of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was found to regularly snoop on journalists, nonprofit workers, and even members of Congress using CBP’s vast arsenal of surveillance tools. Moreover, these targets include American citizens operating well within the nation’s borders, individuals who are supposed to be outside the purview of CBP.

In an interview with Yahoo News, a member of the Counter Network Division (CND), under CBP’s National Targeting Center, revealed that there are essentially no protocols or safeguards governing how the division can use data to which it has access. This is apparently a primary thread in the fabric of the organization, as supervisors within the CND encouraged agents to pursue any lead by any means necessary to further investigations.

By querying passport application information, the CND can dredge up email addresses, phone numbers, photos, and more. From there, the CND can plug that information back into federal law enforcement data troves, including those aimed at counter-terrorism operations. CND assignments come from high up in the Homeland Security Department hierarchy, meaning that few within the department are aware of the division’s activities.

The applications of this surveillance data appear to be just as wide as the surveillance capabilities themselves. For instance, the division utilizes journalists to project an inflated degree of US state power to achieve geopolitical objectives. The interviewee from CND noted that he approached journalists in order to persuade them to publish stories that would exaggerate US capabilities to chill international criminal operations. Before these relationships are established, though, agents thoroughly vet potential media allies using CND’s spying powers, unhindered by any privacy safeguards internal or external to the division. In other cases, CND will vet NGO employees before soliciting access to their organizational resources to fight cross-border crime.

All of this is unsettling as it stands. But what makes CND’s activities truly alarming was revealed in the incident that prompted Yahoo News‘s investigation into CND in the first place. What began as CND’s standard procedure of vetting a journalist for a propaganda operation morphed into an investigation into leaks of classified information. Leveraging its wide latitude to follow any lead and peruse any database, CND was able to hand its case file off to the FBI. This effectively circumvents the restrictions on surveillance that ordinarily govern the FBI. CND agents could essentially claim they stumbled on potential classified data leaks, and they were free to feed surveillance-derived personal information to other law enforcement bodies.

Even with restrictions in place, surveillance abuse can sprawl dizzyingly. As Edward Snowden’s revelations proved, despite requiring approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court), the NSA’s activities are practically unencumbered. It regularly abuses loopholes to spy on Americans under the flimsiest pretext. If the NSA, which is bound by nominal red tape, can violate Americans’ privacy as a matter of course, how much more invasive is an agency unchecked by any safeguards? And how many more such agencies lurk in the depths of the security state which have yet to be dragged into the daylight? As this case lucidly illustrates, as long as any one agency has a free hand to spy, the rest all benefit from dipping into the same well. CND’s case is yet another sobering reminder that our privacy is only as safe as the least restrained intelligence outfit.

You can read the whole story from Yahoo News here.