Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

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. (Photo: CBP/flickr)

In fiscal year 2017 alone, these teams denied entry to over 1,400 individuals with valid travel documents. (Photo: CBP/flickr)

A Secret CBP Team Is Targeting and Detaining Innocent Travelers. We’re Suing.

For too long, the government has acted as if it has carte blanche at the border. No more.

Tarek IsmailScarlet Kim

 by Speak Freely / ACLU

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is deploying secret teams that target, detain, and interrogate innocent travelers. We’re suing to expose their activities.

In November 2018, three CBP officers detained Andreas Gal, a former chief technology officer at Mozilla Corporation and current Apple employee, at San Francisco International Airport after he landed from a business trip to Sweden. Andreas was offered no reason for the detention, except a receipt from a Global Entry kiosk that was marked with the letters “TTRT.”

The officers asked Andreas questions that focused on his First Amendment-protected speech and activism. Andreas is an outspoken proponent of online privacy and has spoken publicly about his opposition to warrantless mass surveillance and views on the current administration’s policies. The officers also repeatedly sought to search Andreas’ electronic devices, which included the contact information of his family and friends, correspondence, and further information about his opinions and views.

Andreas, a U.S. citizen, was eventually allowed to leave. Abdikadir Mohamed, an immigrant, was not so lucky.

Abdi was at JFK International Airport in December 2017. On his way to board a connecting flight to reunite with his pregnant wife and his daughter in Columbus, Ohio, two CBP officers approached him. By that point, Abdi had already cleared immigration and security screenings. Nevertheless, the officers asked to examine Abdi’s stamped documents, and his boarding pass, which he provided. Unsatisfied, they asked him to come to a separate room for additional questioning, and told him to unlock his cell phone.

After 15 hours of interrogation, the officers declared Abdi ‘inadmissible’ and sought to deport him. Abdi chose to contest his deportation and seek asylum, following which he was sent to ICE detention in New Jersey. After 19 months in detention, an immigration judge granted Abdi’s asylum claim and reunited him with his family in the United States.

CBP’s treatment of Andreas and Abdi is disturbing, and they are not isolated incidents. 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. We also learned during Abdi’s asylum proceeding that these teams are called Tactical Terrorism Response Teams, which we now know explains the acronym, TTRT, printed on Andreas’ Global Entry receipt.

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. Even more concerning, former CBP Commissioner and former acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan has indicated that TTRT officers may rely on their “instincts” or hunches to target travelers.

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. Finally, these teams’ activities raise due process and fairness concerns when information inappropriately gathered by them results in further government scrutiny, such as placement on a government watchlist. 

In fiscal year 2017 alone, these teams denied entry to over 1,400 individuals with valid travel documents.

There is still a lot that we don’t know about these secret teams, and CBP failed to respond to our request for information. Now, together with the New York Civil Liberties Union, we’re asking a federal court to order the agency to turn over information about these secretive teams.

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. We also want to know just how many individuals are subject to detention, questioning, and/or denial of entry into the U.S. by these teams, and the basis for these decisions.

There can be no meaningful accountability if there is no transparency. For too long, the government has acted as if it has carte blanche at the border. It’s time to shed light on the shadowy operations of CBP’s secret teams.


© 2021 ACLU
Scarlet Kim

Scarlet Kim

Scarlet Kim is a Staff Attorney for the ACLU's National Security Project.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

AOC Endorses Cisneros Primary Challenge Against Cuellar

"Cuellar, the last anti-choice 'Democrat' in the House," said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, "had a 70% voting record of siding with Donald Trump."

Jake Johnson ·


Dems to Biden: Overhaul Drone Program That Has Killed Thousands of Civilians

"In too many instances, U.S. drone strikes have instead led to unintended and deadly consequences—killing civilians and increasing anger towards the United States."

Brett Wilkins ·


War With Russia Over Ukraine 'Last Thing' US Needs, Say Progressives

Urging diplomacy over violence, foreign policy experts say "Biden's failure to acknowledge Russia's legitimate security concerns has led to the present impasse."

Jessica Corbett ·


Asked About Black Voters, McConnell Says Quiet, Racist Part Very Loud

"The othering of Americans who aren't white was never a 'quiet part,'" said Rep. Ilhan Omar, "it has always been loud and painful for everyone who has experienced it."

Brett Wilkins ·


'A Basic Human Right': Bowman, Markey Unveil Affordable Energy Bill

Sen. Ed Markey called the proposal "the ambitious and comprehensive legislation we need to help ensure the health and safety of American families and support a just transition away from fossil fuel consumption."

Julia Conley ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo