The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, NBC 7 San Diego, and its reporter Tom Jones have filed a federal lawsuit against four government agencies for refusing to turn over records about a secret government database, in violation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Citizenship and Immigration Services are accused of improperly withholding information responsive to FOIA requests submitted by NBC 7 and the Reporters Committee in March 2019.
NBC 7 San Diego and the Reporters Committee filed FOIA requests regarding a United States government secret database named Operation Secure Line which kept tabs of journalists, activists, and social media influencers that were actively involved in the reporting of the U.S./Mexico border showdown in 2018-2019. The database maintained by government held information of the aforementioned.
The Operation Secure Line database lists U.S. and foreign citizens who the government deemed should be subjected to secondary screenings at the border. In some cases, “alerts” had been placed on those citizen’s passports. Those alerts prevented at least three attorneys and a photojournalist from entering Mexico to provide legal assistance to caravan members, or document the caravan’s presence in Tijuana.
NBC 7 investigative reporter Tom Jones submitted a FOIA request to CBP seeking records on initiatives created to monitor migrant caravans, along with emails and memos related to the government database.
The Reporters Committee also submitted FOIA requests seeking access to records related to the government’s secret database, guidelines, and communications.
But the Reporters Committee nor Jones received any communications from the agencies after the initial confirmation of their requests.
The Reporters Committee Legal Director Katie Townsend says:
“NBC 7’s reporting that the government has tracked journalists and, in some cases, placed holds on their passports, apparently based on the subject matter of their reporting is deeply troubling. By not responding to the FOIA requests made by NBC 7 or the Reporters Committee, these agencies are preventing the public from knowing why the United States government is monitoring and, in some cases, stopping and questioning journalists about their work at the border.”
In the lawsuit, the Reporters Committee attorneys ask the federal district court in Washington, D.C. to order the agencies to immediately process the requested records, and to prohibit them from withholding all records not exempt under FOIA.
The Reporters Committee and NBC 7 are also seeking an award of attorneys’ fees.