ACLU Sues CBP for Information on 'Secret Teams' Targeting 'Innocent Travelers' at Airports

The American Civil Liberties Union has launched a lawsuit against the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to shine a light on operations of "secret teams" the organization says has been deployed at airports across the country "to target detain and interrogate innocent travelers."

According to the ACLU's claim, CBP units dubbed "Tactical Terrorism Response Teams" have been deployed to at least 46 airports and other U.S. ports of entry.

The organization said it has established that one high-profile detention in November 2018, which saw three CBP officers detain Andreas Gal, a former chief technology officer at Mozilla Corporation and a current Apple employee, had been carried out by a TTRT.

Gal, who is a U.S. citizen, had been stopped at San Francisco International Airport after landing in the U.S. following a business trip to Sweden.

He claimed he was never given any reason for the detention, other than having been given a receipt from a Global Entry kiosk marked with the letters "TTRT."

According to the ACLU, Gal was questioned on his activism, being an outspoken advocate for online privacy and being a vocal critic of the Trump administration's policies.

The technology worker was also requested to share information on his electronic devices with the CBP workers.

While Gal was ultimately allowed to leave following the interrogation, the ACLU said others have not gotten off so easily.

Abdikadir Mohamed, for example, had been on his way to board a connecting flight at JFK International Airport in December 2017 when he was detained by CBP officers.

He had already cleared immigration and security screenings, the ACLU said, and was on his way to meet his pregnant wife and daughter in Columbus, Ohio when he was approached.

"The officers asked to examine Abdi's stamped documents, and his boarding pass, which he provided," the ACLU said in a blog post published online. "Unsatisfied, they asked him to come to a separate room for additional questioning, and told him to unlock his cell phone."

The interrogation went on for 15 hours, the organization states, before officers decided that Mohamed, an immigrant, was "inadmissable" and moved to deport him.

The father contested his deportation, however, and sought asylum in the U.S., which led to him being sent to ICE detention in New Jersey. After 19 months in detention, he was ultimately granted asylum and able to reunite with his family.

"CBP's treatment of Andreas and Abdi is disturbing, and they are not isolated incidents," the ACLU said.

According to a 2017 testimony from then-CBP Office of Field Operations Executive Assistant Commissioner Todd Owen, in that fiscal year alone, TTRTs denied entry to more than 1,400 people with travel documents, with the teams having operated at dozens of airports.

"We now know that the officers that targeted Andreas and Abdi are part of a secretive team CBP has deployed to at least 46 airports and other U.S. ports of entry," the organization said.

"While TTRTs operate largely in secret, we know from public statements by CBP officials that the teams are explicitly targeting individuals who are not on any government watchlist—as flawed as even those are—and who the government has never identified as posing a security risk," the ACLU said.

Further, the civil liberties organization noted, former CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who would go on to become the acting chief of the Department of Homeland Security, had also suggested in a September 2018 interview that TTRT teams operated based on "instinct."

A Customs and Border Protection officer's patch is seen as they unveil a new mobile app for international travelers arriving at Miami International Airport on March 4, 2015 in Miami, Florida. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing CBP for information on 'secret' teams operating in airports. Joe Raedle/Getty

"The Tactical Terrorism Response Team concept was a conscious effort by the Office of Field Operations to get back to that mission imperative in the field, to take advantage of those instincts and encounters that our officers have with travelers to make decisions based on risk for people that might not be known on a watch list, might not be a known security threat, and they've been a tremendous success in identifying previously unknown individuals that present a security risk and in denying entry to folks that were not watch listed prior to their travel," McAleenan said in an interview with the Combating Terrorism Center.

"So it's been a real way to galvanize our counterterrorism mission and ensure field officers remain engaged," he said.

The ACLU has argued, "An officer's reliance on 'instincts' creates the risk that these secretive teams are targeting travelers based on explicit or implicit biases. Such targeting may result in unlawful profiling if officers detain, search, and/or question travelers on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin. It may also result in officers detaining and questioning travelers because of their speech or associations, which may be protected by the First Amendment."

The ACLU argued the public needs more information on how TTRTs operate. "The public has a right to know how these teams operate, how their officers are trained, and whether the guidelines that govern their activities contain civil liberties and privacy safeguards," the organization said.

Newsweek has contacted CBP for comment.