The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Friday that it has ordered agents to stop compiling and circulating "intelligence reports" on journalists.
The move came a day after The Washington Post reported that a DHS office had created three reports on two journalists covering demonstrations in Portland, Oregon, that were distributed to federal law enforcement agencies.
The reports, compiled by the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, noted that the journalists had published leaked, unclassified documents about the deployment of federal agents to protests in Portland. The office is tasked with integrating DHS intelligence and distributing information to state and local authorities, as well as private partners.
In a statement, the Intelligence Office said that Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf had suspended the collection of information on journalists and ordered an investigation.
"In no way does the acting secretary condone this practice," said DHS spokesperson Alexei Woltornist. "The acting secretary is committed to ensuring that all DHS personnel uphold the principles of professionalism, impartiality and respect for civil rights and civil liberties, particularly as it relates to the exercise of First Amendment rights."
Details of the intelligence reports came amid unrest in Portland and New York City, where plainclothes law enforcement officers have been spotted pulling protesters into unmarked vans. Portland police have livestreamed protests, which the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon alleges violates state law blocking police from collecting information on law-abiding citizens.
The Post reported that the intelligence reports contained images and descriptions of tweets by Mike Baker, a journalist at The New York Times and Benjamin Wittes, editor-in-chief of Lawfare, a blog that focuses on national security and policy. The reports included the number of likes and retweets the social media posts received.
Baker had co-reported on two internal DHS memos related to protests and unrest in Portland: a July 18 article detailing a memo that warned federal agents in the city "do not specifically have training in riot control or mass demonstrations." and a Tuesday article on a memo in which the department acknowledged it lacked "insight into the motives for the most recent attacks" in Portland. The Times published both memos in full.
Wittes, also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, tweeted images of internal Intelligence Office memos about leaks to Lawfare and Washington Post reporter Shane Harris, who later broke the news of the DHS reports. Wittes had reported that the DHS in mid-July authorized its personnel to monitor social media posts and collect information on people suspected of damaging public monuments.
In a Twitter thread about the intelligence reports, Wittes said that he was considering his legal options.
"What is troubling about this story is that [the Office of Intelligence and Analysis] shared my tweets 'as intelligence reporting,'" wrote Wittes. "I am not sure how my reporting of unclassified material constitutes any kind of homeland security threat that justifies the dissemination of intelligence reporting on a U.S. person, particularly not one exercising core First Amendment rights."
Analysts warned that the move appeared to threaten the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech in the U.S.
"Even if individual reporters are not quivering in their boots, potentially, I think it does set a very troubling and potentially unconstitutional tone," said Nora Benavides, director of U.S. Free Expression Programs at Pen America, a nonprofit advocating for free expression and press freedom. "Other reporters may think twice before engaging in these types of investigative and journalistic practices."
Benavides described the intelligence reports as a "very serious threat to the First Amendment."
"We should not be in a position, and journalists should not be in the position to question whether they should do their job at the risk of being added, potentially, to an intelligence report and being investigated as if they are committing some criminal act," Benavides told VOA. "Journalism and a free press, those are not inherently criminal. Those are the types of tactics we see ... in undemocratic governments."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press condemned the intelligence gathering and called on the DHS to make public the findings of its investigation.
"Federal law prohibits the creation of 'dossiers' on journalists precisely because doing so can morph into investigations of journalists for news coverage that embarrasses the government, but that the public has a right to know," Gabe Rottman, director of the technology and press freedom project at the Reporters Committee, said in a statement.
The DHS reports on journalists are not an isolated incident, said Benavides. Multiple U.S. federal agencies collaborated last year to create a secret database of journalists, activists and attorneys covering a large migrant caravan.
NBC7 in San Diego, California, reported that the database listed 10 journalists and 48 others whom officials recommended be targeted for screening at the U.S.-Mexico border. Each entry contained a photo, data of birth, "country of commencement," alleged tie to the caravan, and any alerts placed on a subject's passport.
Benavides said the reports on journalists "appear to harken back to the types of chilling practices in which a federal agency is using its ability to investigate individuals, especially reporters, to try to 'chill' them or prevent them from investigating."