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Border Patrol Official: Agents Who Talk to Journalists About Immigrant Children May Be Charged with Crime

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske downplayed the content of the email. “I am not a fan of telling people not to talk,” Kerlikowske said, but he did not say the directive had not been issued.

In an email the Associated Press obtained, an assistant chief patrol agent warns thousands of Border Patrol agents if they talk to journalists about the crisis with immigrant children crossing the US-Mexico border they may be charged with committing a crime.

Eligio “Lee” Pena warned “more than 3,000 Border Patrol agents that journalists looking for information about what Obama has described as a humanitarian crisis are likely to ask for information,” according to the AP.

Pena’s email also suggested that reporters “may try to disguise themselves” to get agents to provide information. “Agents should not speak to reporters, on or off duty, without advanced permission and warned that anyone who does could be charged with a crime or disciplined administratively.”

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske downplayed the content of the email. “I am not a fan of telling people not to talk,” Kerlikowske said to AP. But he did not say the directive had not been issued.

Previously, instructions have been issued to agents to encourage them not to talk to reporters:

Last year, the then-head of the Border Patrols’ Southwest border media division told public affairs officials that the agency would “no longer provide interviews, ride alongs, visits, etc., about the border, the state of the border and what have you.” In his Feb. 1, 2013, email, Bill Brooks advised that border officials should tell reporters that “you will have to see what you can do to get back to them” and then notify him.

But has any official in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) ever threatened agents with the possibility of criminal prosecution if they talk about this crisis?

The AP does not suggest what may have led to this email, but CBP is a part of the Department of Homeland Security. AP reporters Brian Skoloff and Elliot Spagat talked to a “Homeland Security official” for a story published on June 7.

That official claimed, “Mattresses, portable toilets and showers were brought in Saturday for 700 unaccompanied migrant minors who spent the night sleeping on plastic cots inside an Arizona warehouse.” And the same official also said “2,000 mattresses have been ordered for the makeshift holding center—a warehouse that has not been used to shelter people in years.”

It was apparently opened because the Department of Health and Human Services had no other options for taking care of the children.

Is this official who spoke to the AP the reason why this email was sent? I don’t know, but would it be surprising if this official received the email from Pena after speaking to reporters and then decided to forward it to the AP to basically show he or she could not be a source for the media organization anymore.

It also is remarkable to see reporters treated as a threat. It reinforces the content of a report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) produced on President Barack Obama’s administration and attacks on the press. The administration has promoted this culture of controlling the flow of information and cracking down on people who leak, which has led to a chilling effect against journalism.

Additionally, the Border Patrol is not necessarily concerned about reporters asking about immigrant children but that they will manipulate the crisis to find out other information.

The Border Patrol has insisted on secrecy for agents who kill people on the Mexican side of the border. Agents have killed over forty people in recent years.

The agency would not release a review of violence by Border Patrol agents that examined “use of force policies and practices” and made recommendations, which the agency initially did not want to adopt.

Pena would understandably want to remind agents that they need to continue to conceal information on deaths so evidence remains covered up, but that does not mean any agent should obey.

Photo by U. S. Customs and Border Protection, public domain.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."