Homeland Security Inspector General Pegs Back Misuse of Importation Summons Authority

by Paul Alan Levy

Last spring, Twitter received a fair amount of attention for fighting a patently bogus attempt by the Department of Homeland Security to abuse its statutory authority to investigate the importation of goods as the basis for to issuing an administrative summons seeking to identify the owners of a Twitter account  hostile to the new leadership of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. Twitter sued to block the summons, and the government withdrew it, mooting the litigation.

In response to a senatorial inquiry, the responsible agency (Customs and Border Protection) apparently tried to hide behind the DHS Inspector General, implying that the summons related to an OIG investigation of whether CPB staff were undermining their new president. The DHS Inspector General publicly repudiated that move, noting archly that OIG carefully considers First Amendment ramifications ("we strive . . . to ensure that our work does not have a chilling effect on individuals’ free speech rights"), but saying that the office was reviewing the question whether CBP had misbehaved in issuing the summons.

Late last week, the DHS OIG released a report condemning the summons as being impermissible under the statute. The report indicates that, in retrospect, Customs and Border Protection admitted that its staff have been taking an overbroad view of how they can use the summons procedure, and agreed to issue a new manual, to institute a new review process, and to provide training to ensure that such abuses are not repeated.

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