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.

Published 1:24 pm Mon, Mar 3, 2014

About the Author

Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a writer, activist, and lawyer who specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Harvard Law and Policy Review, Politico, PBS MediaShift and Salon. Trevor formerly worked as an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Before that, he helped the longtime General Counsel of The New York Times, James Goodale, write a book on the Pentagon Papers and the First Amendment. In 2013, he received the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award for journalism.

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