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Border agency knew about secret Facebook group for years

Border agency knew about secret Facebook group for years

Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan pledged to hold any culpable agents accountable. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images employment & immigration Border agency knew about secret Facebook group for years Border Patrol leadership knew about photos posted to the group as far back as 2016, when agents reported them, according to a DHS official. By TED HESSON…


Kevin McAleenan

Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan pledged to hold any culpable agents accountable. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

employment & immigration

Border agency knew about secret Facebook group for years

Border Patrol leadership knew about photos posted to the group as far back as 2016, when agents reported them, according to a DHS official.

Customs and Border Protection officials have been aware for up to three years that a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents was posting offensive messages — far longer than previously reported.

Border Patrol leadership knew about photos posted to the group as far back as 2016, when agents reported them, according to a current Homeland Security official. The images — several of which were provided to POLITICO — show agents engaging in conduct that includes simulating sex acts and taking selfies while defecating. A former DHS official said he was aware of the Facebook group during the past year.

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Neither official knew of any serious punishment ever leveled at members of the Facebook group.

ProPublica reported Monday that comments in the “I’m 10-15” Facebook group posted as recently as last weekmocked the death of a 16-year-old detained Guatemalan migrant, made bigoted remarks about throwing a burrito at two Latina congresswomen, and posted obscene and misogynistic illustrations of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). The group’s name refers to the code used to signal “aliens in custody.”

Top Homeland Security Department officials, including acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan and Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost, denounced those posts this week and pledged to hold any culpable agents accountable.

wrote. “These statements are completely unacceptable, especially if made by those sworn to uphold the @DHSgov mission, our values & standards of conduct.”

But screen shots provided to POLITICO and interviews with the two DHS officials indicate that the agency wasn’t blindsided by ProPublica’s report. Staffers in CBP’s public affairs office monitored the Facebook group over the past year “as a source of intelligence” to see “what people are talking about,” according to the former DHS official.

“We were not talking about ‘10-15’ as a liability or an asset or as an item of concern,” the former official said.

In one screenshot that the current DHS official says was flagged in 2016 to then-Border Patrol Chief Mark Morgan, an agent — carrying a gun in a holster — simulated sex with a training mannequin in the desert. In another, what appeared to be the same agent smiled while holding what appeared to be a human skull. The caption made reference to handling “a little human remains” during canine training.

Morgan, who was recently named acting chief of CBP, did not answer POLITICO’s request for comment.

A third photo showed an agent’s unzipped green pants lowered below his knees while in a squatting position, in what appeared to be a selfie taken while defecating in the Arizona desert, according to the tagged location. The image was flagged to then-Tucson Deputy Chief Patrol Agent Felix Chavez, the current official said. Chavez did not answer POLITICO’s request for comment.

The former DHS official who declined to be identified argued that neither DHS nor CBP possesses the manpower to police all employee social media posts.

“Nobody in government can watch everything that’s being said about an entity in social media,” this person said. “What gets posted at 5 p.m. today will be buried under thousands of messages tomorrow.”

letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said the posts “appear to violate Facebook’s Community Standards,” particularly its ban on hate speech. Another House Democrat, Tech Accountability Caucus co-chair Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), told POLITICO, “It is Facebook’s responsibility to ensure its platform — either publicly or in private messages— is not a refuge for hate.”

The company declined to comment on whether it will take any enforcement action against the group, its members, or their posts.

The government’s response, meanwhile is complicated by the distinct free speech protections granted federal employees, according to Shannon Farmer, an attorney who represents employers for the D.C.-based firm Ballard Spahr.

The government, she said, is obliged to protect federal employees’ right to address matters of public concern, and may punish them only if their speech interferes with the performance of their jobs.

“Typically, if people are expressing political views, that is considered to be protected speech,” Farmer said. However, law enforcement officers who use racist or derogatory language may give the impression they won’t be able to perform their job without bias. “You really need to look at the very specific language that they’re using,” she said.

The punishment for such offenses can range from counseling or a reprimand to termination, she said.

Border Patrol isn’t the only law enforcement agency to struggle with workers posting inflammatory remarks or images online. The Philadelphia Police Department in June reassigned 72 officers to desk duty following a review of social media posts.

“Every single law enforcement agency has a group like this,” said one former DHS official.

Both CBP and a union that represents Border Patrol agents have condemned the posts since they became public this week, and said they don’t represent the mentality of most agents.

Still, the posts rattled some former officials. “If you’re going to joke about dead Hispanic babies and raping members of Congress on Facebook in front of 9,500 of your colleagues,” another former DHS official said, “what are you saying and doing in private?”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated Felix Chavez’s title. He was the Tucson Deputy Chief Patrol Agent.

Department Of Homeland Security

  • U.S. Customs And Border Protection
  • U.S. Border Patrol
  • Carla Provost
  • Kevin McAleenan
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
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