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 week mocked 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.
“Reporting this week highlighted disturbing & inexcusable social media activity that allegedly includes active Border Patrol personnel,” McAleenan 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-acting deputy Tucson Deputy Sector Chief 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.”
CBP did not respond to a request for comment. Gil Kerlikowske, who worked as CBP commissioner from 2014 until Trump took office in January 2017, led the agency during the period in 2016 when the images were allegedly reported to CBP. Kerlikowske said he didn’t recall being alerted to the “10-15” group.
Kerlikowske also said he wasn’t familiar with any of the specific images from the group that were reportedly shared with CBP leaders in 2016. From their description, he said, they sounded like the type of incidents “you would probably handle at a more local level,” and that “especially the defecation thing seems kind of juvenile.”
The former commissioner added that while the majority of Border Patrol agents perform difficult work in a humane manner, “it’s still no excuse” for anyone to post offensive content.
The DHS inspector general’s office — the department’s internal watchdog — has launched an investigation into the recent Facebook posts, officials said Tuesday.
But given free speech protections granted civil servants, the anonymity that social media provides, and the participation of many government retirees, it wasn’t clear as of Wednesday that either the Trump administration or Facebook would be able to shut the Facebook group down or punish many of those who joined it.
A Facebook spokesperson said Tuesday the company is “cooperating with federal authorities in their investigation” into the 10-15 group, but it wasn’t clear whether the social network would take any enforcement action against its members or remove any of the posts.
Facebook prohibits an array of harmful content on its platforms, from criminal behavior to hate speech to posts inciting violence or harassing individuals. Several of the posts surfaced from the secretive Border Patrol group would appear to run afoul of those standards.
The post that depicts Ocasio-Cortez being forced to perform a sex act, for instance, seems likely to violate the company’s rules against violent and sexually suggestive content.
Others, in which officers talked about migrants in derogatory and dehumanizing terms, could break Facebook’s rules against hate speech. Facebook defines such speech as any “direct attack on people” based on identity markers such as race, ethnicity or national origin. The spokesperson said the company applies those standards “across Facebook, including in secret groups.”
In a 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?”