Guilt by association
Thursday 22 March 2018
A $6 million Thomson Reuters contract to help track half a million illegal aliens in the United States every month has generated anger and outrage over its impact on the reputation of Reuters and the safety of its journalists.
Former editorial staff incensed by the deal have demanded action by Reuters president and editor-in-chief Stephen Adler and by the Trustees of Thomson Reuters Founders Share Company, guardians of the Trust Principles designed to guarantee Reuters integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.
They are concerned that it risks putting Reuters journalists in danger as suspected spies for the US government.
The five-year contract is being awarded by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arm of the Department of Homeland Security to Thomson Reuters Special Services (TRSS), a little-known division based in Maclean, Virginia.
TRSS promotes itself as “a trusted, agile partner who understands your challenges, delivering solutions that empower you to advance your mission”.
At its corporate headquarters it operates an “Intelligence Operations Center” where it “provides next-generation workstations and proprietary datasets to a cadre of watch analysts working critical missions”. TRSS said it developed the centre “to maximize its support for global, time-sensitive operations”.
The TRSS board of directors includes former people from the US law enforcement and intelligence community including senior staff from the National Reconnaissance Office, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Council and the White House. Among them is Peter Vincent, general counsel. The company’s CEO, Stephen Rubley, is a board member of the ICE Foundation, which supports ICE employees and their families.
Under the new contract, TRSS will help to track "aliens that pose a threat to public safety and/or national security".
To do this, Thomson Reuters must “set up a continuous monitoring and alert system to track 500,000 identities per month for specified new data, arrests, and activities”.
TRSS “is offering their commercial database alerting service at a bulk discounted rate which is a significantly lower rate than their published GSA pricing”, a US government notice said.
The company is seen by ICE as the only vendor that could offer the databases needed to assist the “Targeting Operations Division in meeting their mission”.
The Trump administration has significantly increased ICE’s enforcement actions, including deportation, against people in the United States illegally or in contravention of the terms of their visas.
ICE wants TRSS continuously to monitor and alert and “to securely process and return aliens’ information and addresses using the following types of specified data: FBI numbers; State Identification Numbers; real time jail booking data; credit history; insurance claims; phone number account information; wireless phone accounts; wire transfer data; driver’s license information; vehicle registration information; property information; pay day loan information; public court records; incarceration data; employment address data; Individual Taxpayer Identification Number data; and employer records.”
The contract raises many concerns.
Although it is with a Thomson Reuters unit and not Reuters news, Reuters' name is associated with it. The world will not draw a distinction.
Reuters’ name is often used as shorthand for the parent company, Thomson Reuters, because of its wider recognition.
For example, a report in the Financial Times today about Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters losing market share to smaller data providers was headlined “Bloomberg and Reuters see market share in data slip”.
Reuters’ name is attached to information gathering by a highly sensitive US government agency performing a highly contentious and secretive task - spying.
Did the Thomson Reuters Board fail to understand or fail to give full consideration to the implications of this contract?
Does Reuters news collected by journalists around the world feed into the data to be collated and supplied to ICE?
Might any prospective US immigrant suspect his personal details will be passed on to the US government by a Reuters reporter interviewing him or her about anything?
Whether it does or does not, was consideration given to the fact that around the world people will believe it does?
Was the current editor-in-chief consulted over this contract and did he agree to it?
How does he excuse this deal?
What do the Thomson Reuters Trustees have to say about it? Were they consulted?
Many former staff of Reuters have taken to social media to condemn the contract, describing it variously as “a disgrace,” “truly sinister,” and “the most egregious sellout yet.”
“Even if the news division is not involved, the very mention of Reuters sullies us all, present and past staff,” said one.
Another said: “The use of the once respected Reuters name for such activities is surely a violation of all that our company once stood for. The Trustees will no doubt have something to say.”
Rodney Pinder, formerly director of the International News Safety Institute set up to help protect journalists in danger worldwide, called it an appalling misjudgment that will reinforce those who propagate the old lie that journalists from Western news organisations are spies.
“Indeed, for all we know, this deal may make them just that. Anyone being interviewed by a Reuters journalist anywhere would be entitled to ask if their personal details will end up with Homeland.
“This ill-considered move - if indeed it was considered seriously by anyone - undermines Reuters news's cherished reputation for independence and freedom from bias. Where are the Trustees whose job it is to protect those principles? Where is the editor-in-chief?”