/ Trevor Timm / 1 pm Mon, Mar 3 2014
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  • Suspicionless searches at US border: the next battleground for press freedom

    Suspicionless searches at US border: the next battleground for press freedom

    Border agents detain American citizens for hours and seize laptops and phones without evidence or suspicion, Moreover, reports Trevor Timm, journalists are a frequent target.

    On The Media dedicated its whole program this week to addressing a growing and disturbing problem: the suspension of constitutional rights at the US border, where Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) can detain US citizens for hours and seize their electronic devices without any suspicion of wrong doing. Perhaps worse, the policies and practices of CBP are extremely secretive and in many ways unaccountable, and Freedom of Information Act requests to the agencies are largely stonewalled or ignored.

    As our board member Josh Stearns wrote recently, “The U.S. border may be the next battleground for press freedom.”

    On The Media’s coverage of the subject started when US Customs and Border Protection detained their own producer Sarah Abdurrahman, her family, and her friends for hours on their way home from Canada last year. But this week’s program expanded on her experience to document, as they put it, some of the “countless stories of inhumanizing intrusions and detentions at the border that would seem to be unconstitutional anywhere else.”

    Ms. Abdurrahman is far from the only journalist this has happened to in recent years. Huffington Post journalist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin wrote a powerful piece last month about his experiences repeatedly being detained while going over the border for the crime of having a Muslim name.

    New York Times reporters were detained and questioned before leaving on a reporting trip to Syria last year and have since sued the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the agency that oversees CBP, after it refused to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests about the nature of the questioning.

    In one of the best essays of 2013, author and journalist William Vollman described in Harper’s Magazine his repeated dust-ups at the border that included being detained for hours with no explanation.

    David House won a lawsuit against DHS last year after he was detained and his devices were confiscated merely for being associated with the news organization WikiLeaks. The same experience has repeatedly happened to journalist and security researcher Jacob Appelbaum.

    And in perhaps the most notorious case, filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras has been detained going over the US border over forty times since the release of her Academy award nominated film My Country, My Country in 2005. And this was before her reporting on the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden. She and her reporting partner Glenn Greenwald have yet to return to the US in part because of the risk of having their devices seized as they enter the country.

    As Poitras told the New York Times last year, she has had the same experience many interviewed by On The Media also reported:

    “It’s infuriating that I have to speculate why. When did that universe begin, that people are put on a list and are never told and are stopped for six years? I have no idea why they did it. It’s the complete suspension of due process. … I’ve been told nothing, I’ve been asked nothing, and I’ve done nothing. It’s like Kafka. Nobody ever tells you what the accusation is.”

    Things have gotten so bad the National Press Photographers Association has sued DHS in an attempt to prevent it from searching without suspicion many freelance journalists and photographers whose devices have been searched without suspicion for years now.

    In a way, the above people are lucky because they are journalists who can tell their story to a large audience to get the word out. As On The Media documents, this happens to “countless” people in the US, their stories receive no attention, and the have no recourse.

    Unfortunately this problem is not unique to the US, as the disturbing case of Glenn Greenwald's partner David Miranda indicates. One of Edward Snowden's legal advisors Jesselyn Radack also reported difficulties at a UK border checkpoint in February.

    How can you help? Well, there are many members of Congress trying to get more information out of DHS on this issue right now. On The Media has created a web tool and crowd-sourcing campaign to pressure the rest of Congress to act on this issue. You can help them by going here. You can also sign Free Press’ petition calling on Attorney General Eric Holder stop the harassment of journalists and others returning to the US.

    If you are a journalist (or anyone) crossing the border, you can read EFF's whitepaper on how to protect yourself and your electronic devices.

    Editor’s Note: Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of Freedom of the Press Foundation board of directors.


    Notable Replies

    1. It's even worse if you're not a citizen. I'm a legal US resident. I'm afraid to leave the States as last time I did CBP interrogated me for four hours and wanted to hold me in detention (aka jail) for the long weekend (I was traveling on the Friday before a Monday holiday) in Puerto Rico as they wanted a judge to decide if I should be allowed back into the country or not. Thankfully someone in there had a clue as I was ultimately allowed to enter the country on a 30 day pass and had my admission determined by a judge in the States. I was released with a piece of paper for ID and that's it. They seized my passport and my US drivers license and my US SSN card. While I got it all back 30 days later and I had to literally duck CBP/police at my transfer in LAX (I spent an hour hiding out in the loo) as my traveling companion heard them talking about picking me up for traveling without my passport. I'd done nothing, I've still done nothing. I've lived here for 35 years but I fear I may not get back into the country if I leave again. Worse still, I'm not sure if I want to stay...

    2. We must shutdown these agencies. They can not exist any longer. They have become a threat to the republic. Defund them, fire them, and tag them. We can not allow these people to enter civil society unwatched.

      Takedown these institution brick by brick. Elections are coming up soon. Time to put honest citizens in office instead of these scumbags that currently exist in office.

      PS. They don't need their retirement benefits either. We can take them too.

    3. It gets worse. For the purposes of search and seizure the government extends "the border" 100 miles inwards.
      (From the Wiki)
      ^ § 287 (a) (3) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 66 Stat. 233, 8 U.S.C. § 1357(a)(3) , which simply provides for warrantless searches of automobiles and other conveyances "within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States," as authorized by regulations to be promulgated by the Attorney General. The Attorney General's regulation, 8 CFR § 287.1, defines "reasonable distance" as "within 100 air miles from any external boundary of the United States."

      The ACLU has more

      Using data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, the ACLU has determined that nearly 2/3 of the entire US population (197.4 million people) live within 100 miles of the US land and coastal borders.

      The government is assuming extraordinary powers to stop and search individuals within this zone. This is not just about the border: This " Constitution-Free Zone" includes most of the nation's largest metropolitan areas.

      with examples.

    4. An agency with largely unaccountable and arbitrary power over individuals, operating with near-zero transparency. An agency operating with even fewer legal checks and balances than our already notoriously power-drunk street cops. What could possibly go wrong?

      If there was ever a poster-child for a police agency in dire need of a truly independent and aggressive oversight body, it's CBP. Because right now, they're successfully sweeping a whole bunch of cultural pathology and institutionalized malfeasance under the rug, and no one is able to call them on it.

      [And yes, the way CBP treated Peter Watts still infuriates me]

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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