At least a half-dozen federal immigration agents have come under investigation since 2012 for snooping into law enforcement databases — computer misconduct ranging from "self queries" to accusations that one of them tried to use the databases to warn drug smugglers if they were under investigation.
The information, gleaned from highly redacted records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, includes the investigation of one Customs and Border Protection officer tied to a "drug-trafficking organization that has utilized compromised law-enforcement officers in the past."
Border analyst James Phelps, a professor at Angelo State University, estimates that as many as 300 law enforcement officers are under investigation for corruption near the border. He also said that having an insider with access to a law enforcement computer makes it easier to lure the next corrupt officer.
"How do you corrupt someone like that? It's real easy," Mr. Phelps said. "You offer them more money in a weekend than they make in an entire year."
"If you can get a hold of a person's driver's license, you can find out everything — the works," he said. "If the cartels can identify an agent by name and find out where they live, they can come and make an offer," Mr. Phelps said. "Take our money and turn a blind eye, or we kill your mom. Down in Mexico, the cartels have no problem doing that, and that's where you have a lot of agents fail."
Customs and Border Protection did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday or Thursday. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were unable to discuss specific cases summarized in records obtained by The Times.
"ICE agents and officers are held to the highest standards of professional and ethical conduct," ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said. "The agency does not tolerate misconduct, and reports of any such actions are swiftly investigated and dealt with appropriately."
The Times obtained the information as part of an investigation of computer misuse among federal employees.
The majority of cases at other agencies reveal misdeeds like looking at pornography in the office, but the computer misconduct at ICE and CBP largely stemmed from improper access to electronic law-enforcement records.
Several of the reports in the data provided to The Times were almost entirely redacted, making it impossible to tell the true scope of the problem — though the violations described involved "improper entry by alien," "bringing in or harboring certain aliens" and fraud.
Some of the snooping cases involved officers looking up their own names in law-enforcement computers, which is prohibited, but other examples hinted at a larger corruption problem.
In one case, investigators were tipped off about an official — whose name and job title were redacted — using his or her position to "conduct queries for friends and relatives engaged in criminal activity."
The same report included information from an FBI special agent who reported that a credible witness alleged the official was accessing "sensitive law enforcement information in order to warn friends and relatives of impending law enforcement activity."
That accusation was deemed "substantiated."
Insider threats remain a concern at CBP, where officials say corrupt employees accessing databases and IT systems can facilitate the flow of drugs across the border and even disclose gate codes, according to a redacted audit by the Department of Homeland Security IG last year.
From 2004 to 2011, 132 CBP employees were arrested or indicted for corruption — all of them "trusted insiders" who had been vetted and cleared for sensitive government positions, according to the report.
"They deliberately misused their positions for personal gain by misusing government computer systems, passing sensitive information, stealing money or property or deliberately circumventing operational procedures," the IG report stated.
ICE and CBP aren't the only agencies grappling with employees illegally accessing government databases.
Several State Department employees and contractors were fired and charged criminally in the wake of a July 2008 audit that found workers repeatedly snooped into the passport files of celebrities and politicians.
In April, The Times reported on a more recent case at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where an investigative analyst for the department's inspector general's office was fired for using the FBI's criminal database to dig up personal information.
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