Wikileaks volunteer detained and searched yet again at airport

Jacob Appelbaum, a security researcher, Tor developer, and volunteer with Wikileaks, reported today on his Twitter feed that he was detained, searched, and questioned by US Customs and Border Patrol agents during preclearance on January 19, returning to the US from Toronto, Canada. The incident took place in Canada, with US agents.

If this post sounds familiar to you as a regular reader of Boing Boing, that is because it is the third such incident Appelbaum has been subjected to at the hands of federal agents: first, in mid-2010 at Newark airport, then the same thing yet again just this month in Seattle. On both January 2011 trips, he did not carry any electronics with him in anticipation of repeated detention, search, and interrogation.

Appelbaum is not accused of any crime. This is what being on a secret government watchlist looks like.

An archive of his tweeted account from today follows, beginning with this post.

• I made it home to Seattle and was detained yet again. This time on the Canada side and it was quite strange.
• This CBP encounter was different as nearly everyone involved was quite friendly all of the time. No good cop or bad cop games
• I was detained for around twenty minutes in total this time and very lightly searched. They didn't want to image my USB disk this time.
• They put me in an interrogation room with a large window. Ironically, it had a view of a computer screen with my file on it.
• This time there was no forensics person waiting - the people questioning me claimed this was just a secondary search for prohibited items.
• I think it's quite amusing that while they claimed it was merely for fruits and vegetables, they were making calls, searching the net, etc.
• CBP edits and reads your file while simultaneously using Internet Explorer to search the web while you're detained. That seems cybersecure!
• The Toronto, Canada pre-customs clearance CBP detainment was nicer than Seattle. Everything is still an improvement on my Newark experience.
• I was happy to see that because of pre-clearance, Canada is treated as a domestic flight and so I had no ICE handler at my arrival gate.
• When I requested to see my file, the CBP agent denied my request. He said something like: "People would know someone is looking for them..."
• I pointed out my obvious detention in a CBP interrogation room. He agreed that his reasoning did not apply as they already had me.
• This is political harassment without question.
• The main reason that these detentions are getting shorter is because I have learned how to streamline their searches at great personal cost.
• I'm looking forward to a time when I'm not on a secret watch, search, harass, detain, interrogate, delay, annoy and stress list.


  1. The USG is the new Rome; the evil empire.

    But folks in glass empires shouldn’t fly drones.

    Obamabush should give its peace prize to Assange.

    The livestock of the US should not be surprised at the next
    feedback, but they will be. Silly dumb animals.

    1. We needn’t resort to metaphors and historical analogies to make the case that the US government is behaving obscenely. It is enough that the government is behaving in ways that aggravate the common senses. When a government acts in ways against the common sense of the society it represents, which is to say, acting in ways that do not represent the body of the society, the government is wrong. If we take the experiences of Appelbaum as a paradigm for how the US government treats citizens who have not been charged with a crime, that is to say innocent of any allegations, one must certainly ask: What exactly is the difference between being innocent and being accused?

  2. I’ll be outraged when DHS/ICE does it to you again. This was Canada, and they sounded pleasant, prompt, and professional about it. Keep that powder dry.

      1. No, but it wasn’t my government, nor his. It was a foriegn government – and they get to treat people as their people see fit.

        Sounded courteous and reasonable in execution, if not justification.

          1. “I made it home to Seattle and was detained yet again. This time on the Canada side and it was quite strange. ”

            So I read this as being the Canadian Border Patrol (CPB), not Customs and Border Patrol (CPB).

            I thought a meanspirited tone got you insulted around here, not a clearly stated misunderstanding of the circumstance, but hey, if you don’t feel up to clearly presenting what you’re saying, unpacking what someone (or two, or three commenters) obviously just misundertood, ‘cuz its easier to insult us, well, it is your blog. I will obviously defer to your judgements on its content.

    1. And more to the point the concept of the preclearance system has gone completely over your head. This had nothing to do with the Canadian government in any way shape or form other than in that they allow American officials to operate on our soil for (normally) everyone’s convenience.

      1. That is a really sensible objection.

        But I maintain, Canada’s choice to ascribe to whatever system flagged him. Seemed to handle and clear him with Canadian courtesy. That he’s coming and going at their discretion, yet makes the complaints of a citizen, rings hollow. Canadians can do something about this. Americans traveling for work, not as much.

        I get pretty mad hearing about being harassed by your own countrymen, the very gatekeepers of your freedoms, as you come and go. This just doesn’t anger or surprise me near as much as the other two occasions.

  3. If you read his twitter feed properly, you’ll notice that everything he said happened on the Canadian side, ie in the Canadian airport where he was departing form and where CBP has an “outpost” for pre-clearance to enter the US — like it happens when flying to the US from most Canadian airports. Upon his arrival in SeaTac he was in the domestic terminal, therefore no CBP at all.

    So your title and article is totally misleading as to where this happened. It was a “Canadian airport”.

  4. the us government can’t be too careful with this guy. with the company he keeps and the work he involves himself with, they’ve got to get him on a technicality if that’s what it takes.

    he should expect continued enhanced attention until he publicly renounces assange and announces he’s writing a book.

    1. “they’ve got to get him on a technicality if that’s what it takes”

      right. or he might continue his work uncovering the lies told by the worlds more powerful institutions.

      The way you’re handling this, Jacob, is an inspiration. Lessons learned.

  5. And the US would never lean on other governments to do their dirty work, right?

    Just like they’d never send people to torture-friendly countries because torturing them on US soil would be illegal?

    Even assuming it was Canadian agents, which it apparently WAS NOT, it would still be pretty highly suspect IMHO.

  6. There are 2 USAs. USA the tribe and USA the myth. Currently the tribe seems to be winning out over the myth. The tribe is the organization and protection of our flesh. The myth is the idea that that organizes the collective mind. The two are frequently at odds. If USA the tribe wins out the Applebaums, Mannings and Assanges will be killed for our own good. If USA the idea wins out, in the future they’ll be celebrated as heros who (hopefully) set the ball rolling that staved off the great fascist power grab by people who are using fear to manipulate the tribe to pursue their own ends. We’re at a huge turning point right now. How this whole thing is dealt with will become a precedent.

    1. @blendergasket

      I grew up in the Midwest and left for Canada in the late 60’s. Your summary of USA the tribe vs. USA the myth made my hair stand on end for its breathtaking accuracy.

      Is the allegorical battle imagery you describe totally your own, or does it come from other sources I could check out?



    1. Yes. Yes we do. If we just accept it and say nothing, and don’t tell each other, then… Well, silence never seems a good answer, to me.

      All some of us can do is take notice, but we have a duty to at least do that much.

  7. I’m looking forward to a time when I’m not on a secret watch, search, harass, detain, interrogate, delay, annoy and stress list.

    Sorry Jacob. Databases never forget, even if people do.

    1. Well, databases can be made to forget:

           DELETE FROM table_dhs_watch_list WHERE reasons = 'political';
      if (government == "new" or government == "democratic")  and country != "police_state";

      Would be so easy to do, if that was what they wanted.

  8. First time I travelled to the US for work reasons (pre 9/11), I was surprised to get a public interrogation by a (supposedly) American airline staff member just before the check-in counters at Arlanda airport in Stockholm. Got asked all sorts of questions in a loud voice about where I was going in the US, who was my manager, why I needed to go for x weeks and what project I was working on. Not everyone got the same treatment but there were quite a few who did. Unfortunately, the same thing got repeated to me (and only me) just before boarding at the gate. Same routine would get repeated on me at any stop in the US during my stay. Quite intimidating for my first trip there.

    I had to travel three more times to the US over the next couple of years and I’d always get pulled up somewhere for some extra checking. The worst was having to spend 20 minutes explaining to a low-IQ, TSA person (with poor English skills ) at the gate on a flight to Dallas (from Chicago again) that the single screw supposedly missing from the bottom of my work laptop was actually the point where the docking station attached to the machine and that I hadn’t secretly opened the machine myself and hidden something inside. For offering such a logical explanation, I got the “take off shoes, belt and empty your carry-on bag” punishment and was then asked if I had any tools that could open the laptop so he could look inside even though it had gone through the X-ray. I was the last to board the plane.

    I consider myself to be a fairly ordinary, well travelled person and therefore don’t have any idea why I got all this attention whenever I went to the US. I eventually stopped travelling to the US altogether many years ago and decided I would never travel there again until things changed. Unfortunately, it looks like it’s just getting worse.

  9. FYI, I flew to the States from my home of Toronto this week and was surprised to see a whole row of those gargantuan nudie scanners after the US preclearance area. I was told that I had been selected for an additional search and could choose between the scanner or a patdown.

    Another security-clad individual stopped the lady speaking to me for a moment, asking why she had selected 3 people in a row. “This line is 100% selection today.” “Oh.”

    My dad’s friend, a radiologist, advised him to avoid the nudie scanners due to radiation, so I that’s what I did. The guy who patted me down was expressionless but polite and respectful. It was a minimal inconvenience that was no worse than the inspection I used to get before entering nightclubs. No, he didn’t touch my package. Everything but.

    The whole thing was maybe 2 minutes. No biggie. Not that I didn’t resent it, but I felt I’d earned a bit of smugness by refusing them the privilege of using their expensive machines.

    Sadly, nobody else chose the patdown. Presumably they had better things to do with their 90 seconds.

  10. The government’s reaction to Wikileaks has told us more than all the leaks combined ever could.

  11. I’d have to assume that being a wikileaks volunteer would make you a known associate of Bradley Manning, currently being held pending trial under the UCMJ. Additionally I think it would be safe to assume that being the known associate of any accused felon would lead to more intensive screening when travelling internationally.

    Since logistical concerns prevent the border patrol and customs agencies from thoroughly searching everyone’s baggage (!) it seems like there are stupider ways to choose who to search. As to the interrogation, you don’t actually have to answer any questions at all if you are a citizen returning to the United States. They are of course allowed to ask them, but not to detain you longer than necessary to confirm the veracity of your travel documents and examine your baggage.

    I’m much more concerned with the fact that so many people pass through customs with only the most cursory of inspections, not that they would use this specific criterion for selecting whose baggage they inspect properly.

    1. I’m pretty sure everyone is an associate of a felon if you apply such loose standards. I know I would be; I’m even related to some. Mostly don’t like them or the things they do/did (if they were violent or assholes, anyway). Don’t think I should be subject to enhanced state surveillance wherever I go because of it.

      Any time I wonder how East Germany survived so long, someone turns up and inadvertently reminds me.

      1. I think that there’s a pretty big difference between warrantless domestic surveillance and searching the baggage of people entering the country. Given that they don’t comprehensively search all baggage, how do you think customs should choose who to pay more attention to? Working at a company that is generally acknowledged to have been working with someone being prosecuted by the US military seems like a pretty big red flag to me. It’s not really the same thing as having a cousin who once got into a barfight.

        1. Working at a company that is generally acknowledged to have been working with someone being prosecuted by the US military seems like a pretty big red flag to me. It’s not really the same thing as having a cousin who once got into a barfight.

          Mark, do you have any loose connections with anyone who has ever been accused of a crime? If so, please go report yourself to the authorities. As a matter of fact, just being suspicious enough for me to have to ask you that seems very suspicious to me.

          Boing Boing moderators, can we get this suspicious person’s IP address? I mean, being suspicious is only one step away from being a potential terrorist.

          Moderators, we have a potential terrorist on our hands here. Please report Mark’s IP address to the authorities. Mark obviously needs to be tracked, searched and harassed.

          We just can’t be too safe.

          1. Cow, you’ve skewed your analogy. If Appelbaum was just a non-affiliated, non-employed individual who just happened to know Assange then your analogy would hold. However since he is part of Assange’s company then it is indeed right for the government to think he is a person of interest given the statements and actions of his employer.

          2. You missed the point, but that’s OK. You’ll bob and weave it no matter how much I try to explain it to you, I’m sure.

          3. However since he is part of Assange’s company then it is indeed right for the government to think he is a person of interest given the statements and actions of his employer.

            So, please explain to me what will the harassment and intimidation achieve? What’s the goal here?

            And, do you support said goal?

  12. Might I suggest that future instances of this event be communicated by the usual photo of this guy with tally marks added to show the number of times it has happened?

  13. For flights from Canada to the US, there are US-CBP agents in each Canadian airport that serves the US. These folks are employees of the US Government and Canada has nothing to do with who/how/why they screen people. If Canadian manners have rubbed off on them, great, but the Canadian Government had nothing to do with it.

    As far as I know, Canadians get the same screening as anyone else entering the US, it just happens before we get on the plane, instead of once we get off it, and perhaps with more respect, judging from what’s described above.

  14. I’m a Canadian living in Vancouver, so this is certainly of interest to me. I recall boingboing published an article about PBS Democracy Now anchor Amy Goodman’s difficulties crossing the border to do a talk at the public library a few months prior to the 2010 Olympic Games. 75 minute detention. This sort of thing happened to several journalists, activists, and educators.

    I have a lawyer friend who works for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association whom I alerted about Mr. Appelbaum’s treatment when he crossed earlier this month. I’ll definitely be sharing this article with him. I will also contact the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and inform them.

  15. “I’d have to assume that being a wikileaks volunteer would make you a known associate of Bradley Manning,…”

    Um no, you wouldn’t.
    There is no evidence of anyone from wikileaks having any more than the sort of casual contact with Manning that you would have with the cashier at your local store.

    Yes wikileaks has copies of a bunch of material the US government would rather they didn’t have. The US government would also love to be able to arrest everyone involved with wikileaks. It’s funny though, in spite of weeks of trying, the US government hasn’t even been able to identify which law may have been broken by any wikileaks volunteer, let alone evidence showing which volunteer it may have been.

    Until such time as the US government can show which law is broken and at least some evidence of who broke the law, the US constitution forbids the sort of guilt by association and harassment that is currently occurring.

    1. Does wikileaks do anything besides release documents that Manning has admitted to sending them? I was under the impression that that was the bulk, if not the entirety, of their operations.

      If so I’d say that the relationship was more like being a cashier at a pawn shop where most of the inventory came from one person who is currently in jail charged with stealing all of those items. If said cashier followed all the requisite policies and procedures and had no (known) reason for believing the items to be stolen then they would not be guilty of a crime. Still, if that same cashier was travelling internationally I’d have to assume that the customs people would be interested in what was in their bags. At least I’d hope they would be.

      1. Mark, a quick look at the Wikileaks site answers that. While the number of documents leaked by Manning is larger than any other leak, it’s nowhere near the majority of the topics on the site.
        I did a quick count of the “latest leaks and censored media” section. Out of some 200 entries, over 80% were obviously not from Manning as they did not relate to the US military or diplomatic communications. That’s only the one’s I’m sure of. The actual percentage of leaks coming from sources other than Manning is probably even higher.

  16. It sounds like the sort of detention I had one time- except I ws kept longer. The difference is that I had six months worth of stuff and an employment contract and the US has for some time been very touchy about any foreigner entering to do work that supposedly US citizens are clamouring to do. Add to it the immense problem of illegal immigration from Canada (snicker) and you see why they held me. This gentleman however is a citizen with no luggage being bothered because he’s worked with people who happened to be given some embarrassing documents. No intelligent reason exists to detain him.

    1. Actually, I don’t think that there’s any legal justification to detain him at all. Once they have verified that he is a citizen then all they can do is mess with his baggage. Additionally it does not profit him to talk to the authorities at all, except in order to confirm his identity. Much like many police interviews/interrogations these interactions are actually not mandatory at all, people just tend to be afraid to repeatedly say things like ‘I’m done. I’d like to go now. Are you holding me against my will?’.

    2. US citizens would very rarely find themselves clamouring for work. We would be clamoring for work. ;)

  17. In Canada our agency is called the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) not Canada Border Patrol. The pre-clearance center at Pearson is not sovereign US soil but the RCMP and Canadian Gov’t generally lets them operate as such. This detention was carried out by US citizens employed by the US government to work at a location outside of the US. The ‘politeness’ is probably just something that rubbed off on ’em ;)

  18. Gees, like he’s the only guy in the world who’s had to go through secondary checks when entering a country, I don’t buy the claim of “political harassment” as lots more folks have had similar experiences.

    In my mind, “political harassment” would involve more then just a simple secondary search and question. You may have maligned plans against the government but you are still free to move about the country unfettered. An arrest or imprisonment yes, a roughing up yes, but polite questioning of someone who has expressed interest in the overthrow or damage of the government of the country he’s choosing to enter, that is indeed just how free America is, that is the true power and extent of the freedom of expression allowed in America.

  19. Exactly. Right or wrong you live with the consequence of your choices. If you engage in things the government doesn’t like, its going to make you a target. Thats how the world works. I guarantee you that in any country, if you irritate the government, you’re a target whether you know it or not. Its just common sense. Something a lot of folks around these parts with their selective outrage seem to lose sight of.

    People lose sight of simple concepts such as trafficking in stolen information will probably get you some unwanted attention. Whether you agree or disagree with Wikileaks goal isnt relevant to the entire situation surrounding Jacob. Jacob has ties with an organization that does traffic stolen information. I dont think anyone would dispute that without being disingenuous. Having those ties will garner some attention. If you dont want the attention, dont engage in or have ties with those that are doing the acts.

    These are the choices you make Jacob and these are the consequences of those. We may agree or not agree, we may be outraged. Regardless, accept responsibility and stop blaming the government for what at least I would call an expected response.

    1. You say “if you engage in things the government doesn’t like, its going to make you a target”, but I can call the President or a Senator a pinhead and the United States government isn’t going to target me. That is the way it works today, and that is the way we like it. The ability to criticize the
      government is one of the hallmarks of a strong and free country.

      Try to remember that the government works for us, not the other way ’round.

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