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Operation Lone Star broke long-standing guidelines, investigation finds

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

National Guard intelligence officers often document the aftermath of a natural disaster or the damage from a riot. Guardsmen in Texas went far beyond that, according to reporting by the Texas Tribune and Military Times. Their investigation found that what was called Operation Lone Star intercepted human traffickers' communications and then had guardsmen pose as migrants to find out when big waves of people might arrive at the Southern border. Davis Winkie is a Military Times senior reporter who told me the operation ended when an internal investigation found it broke long-standing guidelines.

DAVIS WINKIE: These officers violated those rules, according to investigators, by collecting WhatsApp chats that were including migrants, smugglers and such in an effort to determine what cartel's capabilities and intentions were and where migrants might be planning to cross the border. In addition to that, an officer from that border mission is accused of having mishandled classified FBI intelligence by sending it back to colleagues on the border mission.

MARTÍNEZ: Is this kind of work something that is just way above these particular people's pay grade?

WINKIE: There's a reason why foreign intelligence is usually the import of the federal government. That's because diplomatic relations are an impossibly complex ecosystem, and spy missions coming to light can be something that really disrupts that. And then also, we have intelligence oversight rules on our military personnel because in the '60s and '70s, the Department of Defense got caught spying on anti-war activists and passing information to law enforcement.

MARTÍNEZ: Did you ever get a sense of why they did this or felt they could do this?

WINKIE: We had sources who had direct knowledge of these events who were disturbed by the way that this state militia mission, which is ostensibly to enforce Texas laws at the border, came to resemble a true military mission. One source compared it to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As part of that, these intelligence officers experienced extreme pressure to deliver military-style intelligence. And in an era where governors are using their National Guard for state purposes more than ever, I think that this is something that policymakers really need to have an eye on.

MARTÍNEZ: Would it be an oversimplification to say it was a good faith effort to stop human trafficking, but it was misguided?

WINKIE: The way that one expert from the Brennan Center put it to me was even when well-intentioned people trying to do the right thing break the rules because they believe their mission is important enough to warrant it, that erodes everybody's safety.

MARTÍNEZ: So what might the fallout be from your investigation?

WINKIE: We're still not certain how this is going to play out, both in terms of punishment to the officers involved and in terms of potential accountability for the leaders that the officers tell me approved this work or failed to stop it. But now you've got a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, calling for the Justice Department to investigate what he described as a misuse of federal resources in this intelligence operation.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Davis Winkie, senior reporter at Military Times. Davis, thanks.

WINKIE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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