from the so-much-to-investigate dept
As you probably recall, a few weeks ago Twitter sued Homeland Security after it received a summons from Customs & Border Patrol seeking to identify any information about the @ALT_uscis account. USCIS is the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, and the "alt" part is similar to many other such accounts purporting to be anonymous insiders in the government reporting on what's happening there (whether or not the operators of those accounts truly are inside those organizations is an open question). Anyway, the issue here is that such a use of Twitter would be protected by the First Amendment, and unless the account was revealing classified info, it's unlikely that there would be any legit means to investigate who was behind the account. And, because of that, it certainly appeared that Customs and Border Patrol decided to use illegitimate means to get the info. Specifically it sent a 19 USC 1509 summons, which is an investigative tool for determining the correct duties, fees or taxes on imported goods. As you can see, identifying a Twitter user does not seem to fit into what that law is for.
Having been called out on this in federal court (and, one hopes, having DOJ lawyers chew out DHS/CBP folks), the feds dropped the summons hours later and Twitter withdrew the lawsuit.
However, abusing the law to seek out information like that is a pretty major abuse, and is one that shouldn't just let everyone move on afterwards without some sort of accountability. Senator Ron Wyden asked Homeland Security's Inspector General if it was investigating this and, in a fairly straightforward and open letter, DHS IG, John Roth, lets Wyden know that an investigation is ongoing and even clarifies what they are investigating and why. The letter itself is pretty clear, so I'll just post a chunk of it here:
While we typically do not comment on open investigations, it has come to my attention that there may be some confusion about the scope of DHS OIG’s work relating to this matter. Specifically, we have been asked to clarify which, if any, of the following three issues we are investigating:(1) Misconduct on the part of the owner of the @ALT_USCIS Twitter account, who CBP suspected was a DHS employee;
(2) CBP’s use of its summons authority in this particular case; and
(3) Use of summons authority across the Department.
Regarding the first issue, we were asked by CBP to assist their efforts to determine whether the tweets at issue disclosed any classified information. To that end, we helped CBP pull the content of @ALT_USCIS’s tweets off the internet and cross-reference that content against data in DHS systems to determine whether the information was classified. We have concluded that no classified information was released via the @ALT_USCIS Twitter account.
I’d like to make clear that DHS OIG has not played any role in attempting to identify the owner of the @ALT_USCIS Twitter account, and only learned of the issuance of the March 14, 2017 summons when it was reported in the media. Our investigation protocol includes controls for situations in which First Amendment activity is implicated, and we strive to ensure that our work does not have a chilling effect on individuals’ free speech rights. I can confirm that DHS OIG is not investigating, and will not investigate, any alleged misconduct on the part of the @ALT_USCIS account owner relating to his or her use of the Twitter account.
Regarding the remaining two issues, I can confirm that DHS OIG is investigating whether the investigation conducted by CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility relating to the @ALT_USCIS Twitter account was improper in any way, including whether CBP abused its authority in issuing the March 14, 2017 summons to Twitter. DHS OIG is also reviewing potential broader misuse of summons authority at the Department and/or its components.
That's pretty clear and makes sense. They looked and found no classified info being revealed, they've been careful to not seek any other way of identifying the owner of the account, or to do anything that might chill speech, and they are actively investigating if CBP abused its authority (beyond just this one case). I look forward to find out the results of that investigation.