Revealed: The FBI’s Secret Methods for Recruiting Informants at the Border

Government documents show how the FBI works with Customs and Border Protection to target travelers — not because they have done something wrong, but because they might be useful.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 10:  International air travelers are electronically fingerprinted as they are processed by US Customs and Border Protection agents upon arrival to Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), on December 10, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. December is the busiest time of the year for international travel and CBP is trying to educate the public on ways to get through the customs process efficiently.  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 10: International air travelers are electronically fingerprinted as they are processed by US Customs and Border Protection agents upon arrival to Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), on December 10, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. December is the busiest time of the year for international travel and CBP is trying to educate the public on ways to get through the customs process efficiently. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images) Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Think about arriving at the airport from a foreign country. You are tired from a long flight, anxious about your baggage, and thinking about meeting your family in the arrivals area. You may not have seen them in years. Perhaps it is your first time in the United States. Perhaps you do not speak English well. Perhaps you plan to ask for asylum. Perhaps you are coming from a country where interactions with people in uniform generally involve bribery, intimidation, or worse.

The FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Protection work closely together to turn these vulnerabilities into opportunities for gathering intelligence, according to government documents obtained by The Intercept. CBP assists the FBI in its efforts to target travelers entering the country as potential informants, feeding the bureau passenger lists and pulling people aside for lengthy interrogations in order to gather intelligence from them on the FBI’s behalf, the documents show. In one briefing, CBP bills itself as the “GO TO agency in the Law Enforcement world when it comes to identifying individuals of either source or lead potential.”

When the FBI wants to find informants that fit a certain profile — say, men of Pakistani origin between the ages of 18 and 35 — it has at its fingertips a wealth of data from government agencies like CBP.

The FBI gives CBP a list of countries of origin to watch out for among passengers, sometimes specifying other characteristics, such as travel history or age. It also briefs CPB officers on its intelligence requirements. The CBP sifts through its data to provide the bureau with a list of incoming travelers of potential interest. The FBI can then ask CBP to flag people for extra screening, questioning, and follow-up visits. According to the documents, the FBI uses the border questioning as a pretext to approach people it wants to turn informant and inserts itself into the immigration process by instructing agents on how to offer an “immigration relief dangle.”

It is no surprise that law enforcement closely monitors border crossings for criminals or terror suspects. The initiatives described in these documents, however, are explicitly about gathering intelligence, not enforcing the law. A person doesn’t have to be connected to an active investigation or criminal suspect in order to be flagged; the FBI might want them for their potential to provide general intelligence on a given country, region, or group. The goal, according to an FBI presentation on an initiative at Boston’s Logan Airport, is “looking for ‘good guys’ not ‘bad guys.’”

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer patrols outside of the departures area at Miami International Airport, Friday, July 1, 2016, in Miami. There is increased security at the airport on this Independence Day holiday weekend after Tuesday's terrorist attacks at Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer patrols outside of the departures area at Miami International Airport in July 2016.

Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP Images
The government materials published with this story were provided to The Intercept by an intelligence community source familiar with the process who is concerned about the FBI’s treatment of Muslim communities. The system, according to the source, amounts to an informal watchlist of people who have caught the FBI’s interest — not because they have done something wrong, or might be dangerous, but because they might be useful to the government.

Signs of the informant-recruiting pipeline have been noticed outside the government. Human rights and immigration attorneys interviewed by The Intercept said it was very common for Muslim clients in particular to be questioned at the border upon returning from an international trip, and then contacted by FBI agents within days.

“One client was straight-up approached at the airport by FBI agents as he was returning from his honeymoon,” said Diala Shamas, a lecturer at Stanford Law School, who worked as an attorney with Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility, or CLEAR, an initiative providing legal services to communities in New York impacted by counterterrorism policies.

The documents reviewed by The Intercept imply that the program is in place at airports nationwide, something the source confirmed. They do not include extensive data on how many passengers are targeted for intelligence purposes, except for a two-month period at Boston’s Logan International Airport. According to that data, in January 2012, nearly 6,000 passengers were screened through FBI databases, and CBP conducted 47 inspections. Thirty-two of those individuals were referred to “investigative squads,” but only two generated an intelligence report of value.

The systematic targeting of travelers for the FBI’s intelligence purposes helps explain widespread reports of Muslim travelers, both immigrants and U.S. citizens, experiencing invasive questioning and searches at airports and border crossings. The FBI has also reportedly threatened individuals with deportation or delayed their visa applications indefinitely as agents try to convince them to cooperate. Others have alleged they were placed on the no-fly list after they refused to talk to the FBI.

The targeting is also an example of how the FBI has enlisted other agencies in its post-9/11 transformation into a hybrid intelligence and law enforcement agency where counterterrorism is the top priority. The bureau’s use of informants ballooned after 9/11, reaching more than 15,000 within about six years — and that only includes people officially opened on the FBI’s books as confidential human sources.

Many others pass on information in more informal ways. These documents show the expansion of counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering missions through efforts like Joint Terrorism Task Forces, wherein an agency like CBP — not traditionally considered part of the intelligence community — works side by side with the FBI. The documents boast of CBP’s “JTTF Footprint,” with dozens of officers assigned to task forces around the country.

Neither the FBI nor CBP responded to specific questions about the documents. An FBI spokesperson said that “the FBI uses a myriad of lawful investigative methods and sources of information to support investigations, including the use of Confidential Human Sources,” adding that “all Confidential Human Source relationships with the FBI are voluntary.”

In a statement, CBP detailed its process for screening passengers for potential threats, and said, “Some secondary inspections produce information that is invaluable to our interagency partners. CBP shares information with its law enforcement partners in accordance with U.S. law and [Department of Homeland Security] policy regarding civil rights and civil liberties.”

NEWARK, NJ - AUGUST 24:  A woman arriving from overseas gives paperwork to a border control officer  upon arriving into Newark International Airport August 24, 2009 in Newark, New Jersey.   Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection are introducing are introducing the Global Entry program, which allows pre-screening and approval of travelers and faster trips through customs and passport lines upon arriving into the United States.  (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

A woman arriving from overseas gives paperwork to a border control officer at Newark International Airport in New Jersey in 2009.

Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Placement, Access, Willingness

An April 2012 unclassified CBP presentation aimed at FBI agents, titled “US Customs and Border Protection Overview/Capabilities,” notes that the “airport is a great place to spot/assess” sources. After all, “travelers are already expecting law enforcement interaction,” and with the “wide variety of travelers,” agents “can look for passengers fitting key demographics as needed.”

In order to do this, the FBI makes use of the massive amount of information that CBP collects on travelers and cargo entering and exiting the country as part of its regular mission to control the border. CBP flags incoming passengers and shipments for possible extra screening according to rules based on perceived threats, a process sometimes referred to as “threshold targeting.” The targeting could be based on country of origin, but also “travel pattern, age, name, origin,” or they could be “scenario-based,” “list based,” or “affiliate based,” according to the “Overview/Capabilities” document. Travel to Yemen, Pakistan, or Somalia is also singled out as something that might be flagged. (This type of screening based on travel pattern appears to have put Ahmad Khan Rahami, accused of the bombings in Manhattan and New Jersey in September, on authorities’ radar, though the extra screening reportedly did not turn up any immediate concerns. Terror watchlists also factor into the targeting rules.)

CBP provides the FBI with a list of passengers arriving from “countries of interest” at a given airport over the next 72 hours. The FBI runs those names against its own databases and searches for them in public records, looking for any associations or background knowledge in which the FBI might have an interest, which can include ties as benign as geographic origin or knowledge of a particular demographic group.

A slide describing CBP and FBI cooperation to screen passengers and recruit them as informants.

A 2012 FBI memo, classified secret, describing the process as it works in Boston’s Logan Airport, insists that it is at CBP’s discretion whether to actually flag the person for an extra screening or interview, and that the FBI “merely provides all available intelligence related to the traveler.” FBI slideshows, however, imply a more active role — giving briefings on intelligence requirements to CBP officers and encouraging them to view their job from an “intelligence perspective.”

When the individuals arrive, CBP pulls them aside and questions them for the FBI to determine their “placement, access, and willingness”; in other words, what information they could obtain, and whether they would be open to cooperation. According to the Logan memo, the FBI could be present for those interviews.

A CBP briefing to the Buffalo, New York, Joint Terrorism Task Force, an interagency group comprised of federal and local law enforcement, including the FBI and CBP, notes that “important information elicited” during the CBP interview includes place of birth, “not just country but district/village,” and “current/former employment.” Another document gives sample questions such as, “What is the individual’s tribal/clan affiliation (if any)?” “What physical location(s) of interest does the person live/work/spend time?” and “Does the individual have established contacts overseas? (family/friends, etc.)”

“Prior coordination can help make interviews as quick or as long as necessary,” another CBP presentation notes.

The CBP materials indicate that as part of secondary inspections, CBP can search “pocket litter,” documents, and cellphones. The April 2012 presentation promises a “full cell dump, including #s, text messages, pictures, etc.” at certain airports. (It also notes, “We don’t do laptops.” It’s unclear whether this is for legal or technical reasons at all or just some airports; in recent years, judges have ruled that government agents needed reasonable suspicion to search electronics, but in 2012, the legality of those searches was still unsettled.)

All of this helps the FBI form a detailed profile of the life history and habits of a potential informant. Armed with that information, members of the local Joint Terrorism Task Force visit the individual at home to evaluate him or her as a recruit, the Buffalo briefing says.

“The initial interaction with CBP provides the JTTF with a pretext to visit the individual,” it adds.

Carolina Velasco Cedeno, second from right, looks up toward a mini camera as U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Roberto Alvarado, right front, records her picture and finger prints as Cedeno's parents, Carmen Cedeno de Velasco, center left, and Carlos Velasco Virgin, center right, look on upon their arrival at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport from Guadalajara, Mexico, Monday, Jan. 5, 2004, in Grapevine, Texas. In the background are other visitors waiting to be processed by other officers. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

A traveler looks up toward a mini camera as a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer records her picture and fingerprints upon arrival at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in Texas in 2004.

Photo: Tony Gutierrez/AP Images

The Immigration Dangle

When potential informants are not U.S. citizens, they may be particularly vulnerable to pressure from the FBI. Indeed, the bureau is counting on people thinking that FBI involvement in immigration decisions is normal, the documents indicate. In reality, FBI agents are expressly forbidden from promising immigration benefits to potential informants or threatening deportation.

A presentation from the FBI in Buffalo and the JTTF in Rochester, New York, describing an initiative to cultivate sources in the Yemeni community, appears to show one way the FBI skirts the prohibition. An officer from the local Joint Terrorism Task Force — which could be FBI, local police, or perhaps another agency — follows up with a potential source identified at the border. “If subject is deemed ‘recruitable,’” the slides state, then a “series of overt interviews set into motion.” If the person is “not recruitable,” then “NO HARM. Subject believes that the interview is part of the immigration process.”

The presentation also mentions an “immigration relief dangle,” presumably referring to the practice, widely reported but officially denied, of offering immigrants help with their legal status in exchange for information. Under the heading “Immigration Relief,” the presentation suggests that agents “pick subjects in line for immigration relief … who will ultimately receive their benefit anyhow,” or “require a lesser administrative burden to receive immigration relief/benefit.”

CBP is not the only U.S. government agency in possession of information on immigrants that the FBI can plumb. Though the documents provided to The Intercept mostly focus on CBP, they also contain material revealing the FBI’s interactions with the State Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

An FBI presentation on “Exploiting US visa data” runs through State Department processes, advising agents to check visa documentation and interviews for “skills, organization memberships,” and “associates,” and to “exploit family member visa information.”

Another FBI presentation, outlining the roles of different agencies in JTTFs, mentions ICE detention centers as a place for “source development,” noting “an average population of 32,000 detained aliens and … over 1.6 million aliens in removal proceedings.”

“The folks who are not citizens have more vulnerabilities in terms of their immigration status being used as a carrot or stick,” said Shannon Erwin, executive director of the Muslim Justice League in Boston. “But we’re concerned about U.S. citizens too; anytime they speak to the FBI they might inadvertently compromise themselves.”

A slide from FBI training materials teaching border officers to view their jobs from an intelligence perspective.

Intelligence Gathering or Profiling?

Human rights and immigration attorneys interviewed by The Intercept said that they have had many clients in recent years — most of them Muslim — who fit this pattern of CBP questioning closely followed by a visit from the FBI.

Some people were questioned as part of a security screening or at the gate before their departure, while others were pulled aside on arrival and sometimes held for hours, their luggage and electronics searched. Oftentimes the clients were bewildered as to why they had been singled out, other than the fact of their religion or nationality. Some reported that FBI agents were involved, while others didn’t know which agency interrogated them, or were afraid to ask. Many assumed they had no choice but to answer any question put to them by someone in a uniform.

Over the years, American Muslims and travelers from majority-Muslim countries have reported being asked at the border how frequently they prayed, and for information about their mosques or tribal connections. Last year, The Intercept reported on a questionnaire used by ICE that included questions such as “What house of worship do you attend” and “Do you have any friends or relatives who have been martyred in defense of their beliefs?”

For the most part, the clients of the attorneys interviewed for this article declined to speak on the record, because they feared retaliation from the authorities or because their immigration status was still unsettled. Masih Fouladi, a legal advocate with the Council on American-Islamic Relations for the Los Angeles area, recounted the recent experience of one man he represents, a U.S. citizen of Indian background who is in his 20s.

CBP officers stopped him coming home from a trip to Canada and questioned him for about three hours. They asked him “what mosque he attends, about his social media use, about the shootings in San Bernardino,” according to Fouladi, as well as about his trip and plans for future travel. He told CBP that he planned to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.

A few months later, the young man got a visit from the FBI. “They started by saying, ‘We just want to get some information on people at the mosque you attend, or from your travel, you’re not in any trouble, actually you could really help us,’” Fouladi said. The man declined to answer the agents’ questions and contacted a lawyer, but he has since experienced delays and questioning each time he has flown internationally.

An American political analyst at an international NGO, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his work in the Middle East, was subjected to several hours of questioning when he returned to the United States after a research trip in May. Border officers asked him about his contacts in the country and looked through his phone. An officer said they were part of a new task force at the airport and asked if they could be in touch with further questions, gave vague offers of help in his future travels, and texted him a few times after he left the airport.

The analyst described the officers’ efforts and knowledge of the region as “pretty amateurish,” but even as a U.S. citizen, he said, he was intimidated and unsure how much information he was obligated to give up. The next several times he flew, he received extra screening, but no more interviews.

Federal law enforcement agents have broad authority to search and question people at the border; in fact, border agencies are even exempt from recent attorney general’s guidance barring racial profiling in law enforcement operations, although the CBP spokesperson told The Intercept that CBP follows those guidelines.

The presentation on threshold rules obtained by The Intercept states that the rules are “not profiling, targeting.”

The documents provided to The Intercept do not mention religion, although the country examples they use are majority Muslim countries with a connection to terrorism: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Several documents mention “clan” and “tribal” affiliation, something attorneys reported that Somali and Yemeni travelers are often asked about.

Diala Shamas, the former CLEAR attorney, said that she prepared her clients “to recognize a line of questioning by CBP officers that goes beyond legitimate questions — whether related to their identity, border enforcement, the safety of the flight, or customs enforcement — and into the realm of intelligence gathering.”

Farhana Khera, president of the group Muslim Advocates, also said she found the FBI’s exploitation of new arrivals troubling.

“One of our fundamental concerns about this kind of intelligence gathering happening at the border is it is an inherently coercive context,” she said.

Ramzi Kassem, a professor at CUNY School of Law who directs the CLEAR project, emphasized that “the mission of Customs and Border Protection is emphatically not intelligence gathering or source recruitment.”

“Tasking CBP officers with duties they are neither trained nor equipped to perform leaves lots of room for error and bias. The cost of this ill-conceived initiative will inevitably be borne by travelers returning from countries with large Muslim populations, which seem to draw the program’s focus,” he said.

Documents published with this article:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Overview/Capabilities
CBP Role in CHS Development
CBP and FBI Targeting Flowcharts
CBP/JTTF Briefing – Buffalo
Exploiting U.S. Visa Data
HUMINT initiative at Logan Airport
IOIL Reports from an Intelligence Perspective
Logan Annex CHS Development Initiative
Placement, Access, Willingness questions
Source Targeting & Recruitment Initiative and additional slides
CBP/JTTF: Confidential Human Source Development Program
CBP and ICE Overview
CBP & FBI’s Airport Initiative Intelligence Focused Secondary Inspections

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