Exclusive: Military Documents about US-Mexico Border are Now Classified to Prevent Leaks, Limit Media Coverage

The Defense Department is seeking to stamp out leaks and limit media coverage of military operations at the U.S.-Mexico border by making what historically have been unclassified orders and daily briefings classified, Newsweek has learned.

Last week, military officials released operation orders for 2020 which form a new request for assistance, or RFA, from the Department of Homeland Security for continued Pentagon support on the southwest border. While previous requests have been unclassified since U.S. forces first deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border in October 2018, the latest set of orders was disseminated over a secret network called SIPR.

The policy shift to classify border documents came from Lieutenant General Laura J. Richardson of the U.S. Army in response to negative news coverage and leaks of border documents under U.S. Army North's previous commander, Lieutenant General Jeffrey S. Buchanan, who retired back in July, according to three Pentagon sources with direct knowledge of the matter. The sources said that verbal commands—versus orders with a paper trail—are more commonplace under Richardson than under Buchanan's tenure.

An official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Newsweek that Buchanan wanted to keep as much of the border mission unclassified for transparency purposes with the American public but that Richardson said, "Move the mission to SIPR."

Contacted by Newsweek, Buchanan said he could not speak to current decisions made by U.S. Army North since leaving the command back in July, but said there are legitimate reasons for document classification such as information concerning law enforcement and intelligence briefs.

He added: "My default setting was to keep things unclassified as it just made it easier for communication between agencies."

US Mexico Border Pentagon Military Secrets
PENITAS, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 10: An active duty U.S. Army soldier scans a cotton field for undocumented immigrants with binoculars while manning a high-res surveillance camera near the U.S.-Mexico border fence (reflected), on September 10, 2019 in Penitas, Texas. U.S. military personnel deployed to the border assist U.S. Border Patrol agents with surveillance, although the soldiers are not authorized to detain immigrants themselves. John Moore/Getty

Since thousands of U.S. troops were first ordered to the southwest border by the Trump administration in October 2018, Newsweek has obtained and reported on intelligence briefs, operational orders, multiple requests for assistance between the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department, a memo signed by President Donald Trump about the use of deadly force and pre-decisional documents which contained information about various types of aircraft and troop numbers needed at the border. All of the documents except for the White House memo were unclassified but contained classification caveats such as "For Official Use Only" or "Law Enforcement Sensitive."

The Defense Department confirmed to Newsweek they were taking additional precautions to stem leaks about U.S. military operations on the southwest border.

"Because of our mission, the Department of Defense has to take appropriate measures to ensure sensitive information—electronic or otherwise—is properly safeguarded and appropriately handled. This includes classified and unclassified information considered "For Official Use Only" or "Law Enforcement Sensitive," said John Cornelio, the deputy director of public affairs for U.S. Northern Command.

He added: "Over the last year more than 20 documents with these caveats were inappropriately released without proper authorization. Unauthorized disclosure puts at risk our ability to coordinate operations and have access to sensitive or restricted information belonging to law enforcement agencies. As such, we are taking necessary and prudent steps to minimize the unauthorized release of unclassified, though sensitive information."

The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not reply to Newsweek's requests for comment prior to publication.

"Although it is not entirely unprecedented, the repeated need by agencies in the Trump administration to store unclassified information on classified systems is reflective of the difficulty the agencies have faced over the last three years in concealing controversial details from the public," said Brad Moss, a national security attorney at Mark S. Zaid, P.C., the same law firm that represents the Ukrainian whistleblower. (In his complaint, the whistleblower said White House officials were hiding call transcripts between President Donald Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on top-secret networks "solely for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive—rather than national security sensitive— information.")

The Trump administration and the U.S. military have long sought to keep a tight grip around the public narrative of active-duty troops and National Guardsman being utilized at the U.S.-Mexico border to support Homeland Security operations. Officials have limited or not allowed for journalism embeds, and military unit public affair officers have been instructed not to answer inquiries from journalists but instead to refer them to a higher-tiered communications strategy office.

A U.S. Marine official granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter told Newsweek the policy shift and the tight lid on the border is about stopping leaks, not national security.

"One of the most secretive military operations is the one happening in the United States and this just made it more difficult to keep tabs on," added the Marine official said.

James LaPorta is a senior correspondent for Newsweek covering national security and the Defense Department. He is a former U.S. Marine infantryman. You can follow him on Twitter @JimLaPorta