There's Never Been a Better Time to Bribe TSA and CBP Officers Than During President Trump's Shutdown

An unedited photo of President Donald Trump at the White House on January 23, 2019
Photo: Getty Images

It’s day 34 of President Trump’s government shutdown with no end in sight. And while most of the media’s attention has been focused on the long lines at airport security and food that’s going uninspected, there’s another topic that isn’t getting much coverage: the potential for rampant corruption.

There’s literally never been a better time to bribe someone who works for a U.S. government agency—from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to U.S. Coast Guard service members and State Department officials overseas. The RAND Corporation has a startling new report about the potential risks.

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“U.S. adversaries could exploit the shutdown by trying to corrupt border agents and airport screeners who are doing their jobs but not getting paid,” Ryan Consaul, a senior researcher at RAND writes. “Transnational criminal organizations and drug cartels have tried to bribe officers before.”

Conasul notes that 144 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers were arrested between 2005 and 2012 on charges related to corruption, and that was when people were getting paid. Now that government workers are being forced to work for free, things could get much worse.

With over 800,000 federal employees not getting paid right now, many have resorted to begging for money on GoFundMe, visiting food banks, and selling personal items on Craigslist. The risk of corruption is only growing with each passing day. Otherwise morally upstanding people are more willing to break the rules to make sure that they can survive when things get really desperate. And things are really desperate at the moment.

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As the RAND report notes, Congress passed a bill in 2010 that attempted to curtail corruption at agencies like CBP, but that law was neutered by the Republican-controlled House in 2017 in an effort to speed up hiring.

From RAND:

One investigation was of a Border Patrol agent who worked with drug traffickers to smuggle marijuana across the Mexican border into the United States. The agent pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import marijuana and was sentenced to 20 months imprisonment and three years of supervised release.

The other investigation centered on a TSA employee who was observed meeting with a known narcotics/money courier in uniform at an airport and was later found with a bag containing $130,000. The TSA employee pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of house arrest followed by 48 months of probation.

These examples are, of course, the rarest of exceptions. Nevertheless, the financial pressures caused by the shutdown provide U.S. adversaries with an opening to possibly exploit.

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The new RAND article is primarily focused on agencies like CBP, but few people seem to be talking about other risks at places like the FBI and State Department—organizations that hold incredibly sensitive information, including state secrets.

If America’s New Cold War adversaries like China and Russia are looking to flip government officials and turn them into spies, now’s the time to strike. But they know that already. That’s one of the reasons that background checks for people in government positions include credit checks. Financially strapped police officers and diplomats have more of an incentive to betray their country. And unless President Trump gives up on his stupid and unnecessary border wall those incentives are only going to get more enticing.

Not only is President Trump simply a blathering idiot, he’s also making Americans less safe. Good job, Mr. President. Please open the government so that people can get on with their lives. You’ve done enough damage already.

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[RAND Corporation]

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Marc Benioff struggled for most of last summer with his decision to keep Salesforce's controversial contract with the US Customs Border Patrol (CRM)

salesforce tower san francisco marc benioff 5277Salesforce CEO Marc BenioffMelia Robinson/Business Insider
  • Marc Benioff struggled in deciding whether or not to keep Salesforce’s contract with the Customs Border Patrol (CBP) after employee backlash last June, according to a recent interview with CNBC
  • “[Employees] ask me questions I don’t have the answer to and I don’t have the authority or understanding to be able to opine on,” Benioff said. 
  • Ultimately, Benioff decided to keep the contract in place, though he vowed that in the future, an internal team focused on ethics would make these types of judgment calls. 
  • Political organizing groups who oppose the CBP contract tell Business Insider that they are still are not satisfied. 

Government agencies are attractive customers to Silicon Valley tech companies peddling software and services that promise to modernize the cogs of bureaucracy. 

But in an age of divisive public policy and rising employee activism, doing business with the government is not the slam dunk business deal it once was.

For Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, this reality hit hard last year, leaving the the industry’s most outspoken champion of progressive causes on the defensive. 

Benioff struggled with the decision to work with the Customs Border Patrol throughout last summer, he said in a recent interview with CNBC. And even after Benioff took steps to ensure that Salesforce is better prepared to address thorny issues like this in the future, the experience has left its mark on the company.

“What’s the right thing to do here?”

In June, more than 650 Salesforce employees sent an email to Benioff criticizing the company’s contract with the Customs Border Patrol (CBP).  “Given the inhuman separation from their parents currently taking place at the border, we believe that our core value of Equality is at stake and that Salesforce should re-examine our contractual relationship with CBP and speak out against its practices,” the letter said. 

The Salesforce founder and co-CEO ultimately decided his company would keep its contract with the CBP claiming that his company’s software was not used to separate families — though he“wrestled” with the judgment call for most of the last summer, according to a CNBC interview with Benioff

“[Employees] ask me questions I don’t have the answer to and I don’t have the authority or understanding to be able to opine on,” Benioff said in the interview. 

Read more: Salesforce is hiring its first Chief Ethical and Humane Use officer to make sure its artificial intelligence isn’t used for evil

After his decision, Benioff vowed never to put himself in that situation again. “I said I need a team that I can pivot to say, ‘What is the right thing to do here?’ And I’m like, it’s crazy that we don’t have a team like this,” he said. 

salesforce protest border patrol san francisco 5Katie Canales/Business Insider

According to the interview, Benioff tasked Salesforce’s Chief Equality Officer, Tony Prophet, with forming an internal team to own difficult ethics questions as they arise. Six months later, the group was complete with the hiring of Paula Goldman, the company’s first chief ethical and humane use officer. 

“It takes political clarity”

The hiring of a chief ethical officer and the offloading of Benioff’s decision making in ethically-hairy situations, however, did not satisfy those who continue to oppose Salesforce’s contract with the CBP, like the political organizing group Business Insider spoke to named Mijente

Mijente met with Tony Prophet and other Salesforce executives in an off-the-record meeting at Salesforce Tower last November, but ultimately, their demands to cancel the contract were not met.

“I think Salesforce is calculating the political risks of it,” Mijente member Jacinta Gonzalez said in a recent interview with Business Insider. “I think even though they know that it’s wrong, even though they feel the pressure, I think standing up to the government in these times takes courage. And it takes political clarity. And I think they’re struggling with that decision.” 

A Salesforce spokesperson told Business Insider: “We believe in a multi-stakeholder dialogue and that’s why we met with Mijente to hear their concerns.” 

Benioff’s strife over the CBP contract, highlights the struggle tech companies face as they balance working with the government, which is an important part of their business, with their progressive, Silicon Valley ethos. Google, for instance, has been providing AI technology to the Pentagon but decided to not renew its contract after an internal uproar last March.

“You don’t want to be a CEO or co-CEO and all of the sudden you get a phone call, ‘I don’t agree with your ethics, I’m leaving,'” Benioff told CNBC. “I could not imagine if that actually happened. I’d be very upset.”

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Documents: ICE, CBP Seize Billions In Assets Including Human Remains

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Over the last four years, two federal agencies tasked with protecting the borders of the United States have generated billions of dollars in revenue through extensive seizure of assets including human remains, bombs, airplanes, yachts, and cryptocurrencies.

Since 2014, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have seized $4,159,696,970 worth of property that was allegedly used in crimes, according to documents obtained by Splinter. (The ones linked here have been slightly altered for legibility, but researchers or reporters interested in obtaining the raw files can email the authors.) The records include every seizure that was entered into DHS’ massive asset forfeiture database, the Seized Asset and Case Tracking System, or SEACATS, from 2014 through early 2018.

In one operation in 2016, DHS seized a helicopter valued at $5,800,000 and a single jet valued at $2,500,000. In 2018, another seized jet was valued at $5,000,000, and an “inflatable boat/raft” at $500,000.

But perhaps one of the most startling line items in the SEACATS database is the seizure of human remains. In 2016 and 2017, the seizure of several human remains was valued at $0. But in 2018, a single seized “human remain” was valued at $3,500, and another in 2015 at $10,000.


In September 2015, Kentucky resident Gerardo Serrano took some photographs while waiting in his pickup truck to cross the border into Mexico. Objecting to his taking pictures, two CBP agents stopped, detained him, and ordered him to unlock his cellphone. After he refused, CBP agents began searching his truck.

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“We got him,” a CBP agent reportedly said while conducting the search. The agent had found five low-caliber bullets in the center console, which Serrano said he’d forgotten were even there. CBP seized his truck through asset forfeiture, claiming that it had been used to transport “munitions of war,” and Serrano spent the next two years of his life fighting to recover his truck.

Asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize and then sell property that it alleges was used in a crime. While criminal forfeiture can only occur after the property’s owner has been convicted of a crime, this is not the case for civil forfeiture. Anya Bidwell, an attorney with the Institute for Justice who represented Serrano in his fight for his truck, confirmed that her client had faced no charges in connection with this case.

“That’s exactly the problem with civil forfeiture. There is no requirement for charges, let alone a criminal conviction,” she said.

The ACLU has called civil forfeiture “tantamount to policing for profit,” saying law enforcement can use it as a tool to bolster department budgets under the guise of combating crime.

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By contrast, criminal forfeiture can only occur after the property’s owner has been convicted of a crime. The SEACATS database includes both civil and criminal asset seizures, but the breakdown is unclear.

“The process begins when an enforcement action results in an arrest, or when property is seized by CBP or ICE, and includes supporting information, such as: the violation, property description, quantities, and violator,” reads a SEACATS Privacy Impact Assessment from 2017. “Once an arrest or seizure case is initiated, the initiating officer must submit the incident report in SEACATS to his or her supervisor within 24 hours of the arrest.”

Last October, The Intercept published excerpts from ICE’s 2010 Homeland Security Investigations Handbook, which provides tips to agents about how to use various laws to justify seizing property. The handbook reads: “As a general rule, if total liabilities and costs incurred in seizing a real property or business exceed the value of the property, the property should not be seized.”

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It outlines how immigration agents can maximize profit through strategic seizures that are profitable, rather than wasting time and resources on lesser value assets, which it calls liabilities.

Serrano’s pickup truck was valued at just under $40,000 at the time it was seized in 2015—a drop in the bucket for the budgets of agencies like CBP and ICE. But his was just one of the more than 1,000 trucks ICE and CBP seized in 2015 alone, along with ambulances, buses, tankers, and vans.

According to a spokesperson for CBP, Import Specialists, who are trained to assess value of items, provide approximate value for domestic value of seized property.

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The property is transferred to the Department of the Treasury, which may facilitate the disposal of some assets. Bombs, for example, are turned over to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives for disposal, according to CBP.

“In general, the determination of whether seized property is destroyed, donated or sold at auction is determined by the type of property we’re talking about,” the CBP spokesperson wrote. “For example, typically counterfeit products are destroyed, primary because of potential harmful/ unknown substances used in their manufacture (i.e. lead paint), but also due to trademark infringement. However, vehicles/parts can be sold at auction. Any item which is illegal, such as illegal drugs and certain weapons, is destroyed by the appropriate agency (for example, ATF).”

Some assets, like real estate, are sold at auction by the Department of the Treasury. When asked about what happens to seized cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the CBP spokesperson said, “The virtual currency is not ‘cashed out,’ they are held until forfeited. Then it is sold at auction.”

It’s unclear how the agencies gain access to cryptocurrency wallets, and an ICE spokesperson declined to comment on criminal investigative tactics. But other federal agencies have sold cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin at auction.

The U.S. Marshals Service had held six Bitcoin auctions as of earlier this year. Participating in the auctions required a $200,000 deposit, which would be returned to non-winning bidders. The forfeited coin was sold in blocks, such as of 500 and 100 Bitcoin.

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Of ICE and CBP’s thousands upon thousands of seizures, it’s unclear how many people are able to ultimately recover their property. Doing so can require long and oftentimes expensive legal battles. Serrano ultimately recovered his seized truck back from immigration authorities, but he also filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of other U.S. citizens who had their vehicles seized by CBP.

“The government keeps the property, and the second there is a lawsuit, the government just gives this one item back, and continues with business as usual,” said Serrano’s attorney, Bidwell. Serrano and Bidwell aimed through their suit to require CBP to provide a prompt hearing when the agency seizes vehicles.

Although a federal judge dismissed Serrano’s lawsuit at the end of September, the Institute for Justice is appealing the decision.

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Bidwell highlighted the importance of continuing to fight forfeiture abuses for as long as they exist. “No one should have to lose their property without being convicted of, let alone charged with, a crime,” she said.

Camille Fassett is a reporter at Freedom of the Press Foundation and a researcher at Lucy Parsons Labs. Freddy Martinez is a technologist who researches the government using public records. He was previously a Mozilla/Ford Open Web Fellow hosted at Freedom of the Press Foundation.

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US border officers don't always delete collected traveler data


gashgeron via Getty Images

Privacy advocates aren’t just concerned about warrantless device searches at the border because of the potential for deliberate abuse — it’s that the officials might be reckless. And unfortunately, there’s evidence this is the case in the US. Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General has released audit findings showing that Customs and Border Protection officers didn’t properly follow data handling procedures in numerous instances, increasing the chances for data leaks and hurting accountability.

Most notably, border officers conducting advanced searches (that is, where they transfer data for analysis) didn’t always delete traveler information after they’d moved it to CBP servers. There were USB thumb drives with old search data at three out of five ports of entry studied, the Inspector General’s Office said. There also didn’t appear to be a written policy for scrubbing data despite trainers telling officers to delete everything.

The study also showed that agents didn’t always disable networking on devices to ensure they were only accessing local data. Moreover, out of 194 electronic media search reports auditors studied, 67 percent (130) had one or more problems. Officers would write vague or inaccurate descriptions, for instance. The CBP division governing field officers also didn’t renew search tool licenses on time, and didn’t have a way to measure the effectiveness of its advanced search pilot program.

The Inspector General’s Office unsurprisingly recommended fixes for all these issues, and CBP estimated that it would have solutions (including tighter monitoring and performance tracking) by June 30th, 2019 in most cases. Overseers said they wouldn’t be happy until there was evidence CBP had mended its ways, but the plan to change is a start — if also long overdue when device searches are on the rise.

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U.S. Customs Fails to Delete Personal Data After Electronic Searches at Border, Watchdog Says

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Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) searched through the electronic devices of more than 29,000 travelers coming into the country. CBP officers sometimes upload personal data from those devices to Homeland Security servers by first transferring that data onto USB drives—drives that are supposed to be…

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