Lawmakers call for federal investigation into Texas Guard intel ring

Texas DPS special agents take a group of five undocumented migrants from Honduras that were caught in private property as part of Operation Lone Star in Kinney County near Brackettville, Texas on Nov. 8, 2021. The owner of the property did not sign an affidavit for arrests of undocumented migrants to be taking place at their property so the group will be processed by Border Patrol instead. (Verónica G. Cárdenas For Propublica/The Texas Tribune, Verónica G. Cárdenas For Propublica/The Texas Tribune)

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This article is co-published with Military Times, an independent news organization reporting on issues important to the U.S. military. Sign up for its daily Early Bird Brief newsletter here.

A member of Congress and a Texas state legislator have called for the Justice Department to investigate the Texas National Guard’s intelligence work at the state’s border with Mexico.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, and state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, another San Antonio Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate, both issued statements via their official accounts on X, the social media site better known as Twitter.

The lawmakers’ remarks came after an investigation published Tuesday by Military Times and The Texas Tribune revealed how Texas Guardsmen at the state’s border with Mexico spied on migrants via WhatsApp and allegedly mishandled secret documents. At least three internal whistleblowers independently reported their peers’ actions to watchdogs, sparking an investigation that ultimately led the state to disband the border mission’s intelligence directorate in fall 2022.

The Texas National Guard inspector general faulted at least two officers for the WhatsApp work, and at least four have faced interim administrative discipline. Two officers implicated in the operation told Military Times and the Tribune that the state failed to give them clear guidance on what intelligence work was allowed, and they also claimed their commanders — now-retired Col. Kevin Boates and Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis — disregarded concerns raised by oversight personnel.

“[Gov. Greg] Abbott’s officials pushed National Guard troops to misuse federal resources for a state-sponsored spy ring & punished officers who raised concerns,” Castro, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said. “We need a full federal investigation or this incident will set a dangerous precedent for domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens.”

Abbott’s office did not immediately provide a comment for this story.

Gutierrez, an immigration attorney outside of political life, argued the intelligence operation was “unconstitutional” and said “there must be a full [Justice Department] investigation...with swift action and accountability.”

Castro and Gutierrez’s worries echo those of troops familiar with the intelligence operations who spoke to Military Times on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from state officials. Those service members said they were worried that without clearer policies and guidance in place, governors around the country may abuse their state authority over the Guard to deploy their federally-trained intelligence personnel for dubious missions to enforce politically controversial laws.

One soldier said he welcomed the call for a federal investigation, adding that he hopes such scrutiny would help the government develop “clearer...instructions and guidelines” for intelligence operations under state authority.

If the Justice Department were to launch an investigation of Operation Lone Star’s intelligence work, it would be at least the third federal probe of the state-run border mission.

The Texas Tribune and ProPublica reported in July 2022 that the Justice Department’s civil rights division was investigating whether the state’s trespassing arrests of migrants violated federal civil rights laws.

The federal government also sued Texas for placing floating barriers in the Rio Grande in July. Mexico’s government claimed the buoys violated treaties that govern the international border, and the Justice Department claimed Texas was not authorized to install the barrier. The state had denied that claim, and the lawsuit is in progress.

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