Border Patrol Stops Journalist From Heading To Dakota Pipeline Protests, Searches All Of His Electronic Devices
from the border-town-of-Chilling-Effects,-USA dept
If you’re having trouble quelling dissent at ground zero, maybe the next move is to limit the coverage. We’ve already seen local authorities issue arrest warrants for journalists covering the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Now, we’re seeing something more proactive, courtesy of Customs and Border Protection.
Award-winning Canadian photojournalist Ed Ou has had plenty of scary border experiences while reporting from the Middle East for the past decade. But his most disturbing encounter was with U.S. Customs and Border Protection last month, he said.
On Oct. 1, customs agents detained Ou for more than six hours and briefly confiscated his mobile phones and other reporting materials before denying him entry to the United States, according to Ou. He was on his way to cover the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline on behalf of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation.
Welcome to the Constitution-Free Zone, Canadians! Whatever protections you might have on your side of the border matter just as little as the protections we have on our side. You have to travel ~100 miles inland before your rights are respected. For Ed Ou, this meant a lengthy detention and an attempted strip search of his electronics — all before being told he wasn’t going any further than the Canadian border. From the letter the ACLU sent to the CBP demanding a few answers [PDF]:
After Mr. Ou applied for admission to the United States at the Vancouver airport, he was redirected to secondary inspection, where he clearly identified himself as a journalist. CBP officers nonetheless detained him for more than six hours and subjected him to four separate rounds of intrusive interrogation. The officers questioned him at length about his work as a journalist and his prior professional travel in the Middle East. They also questioned him extensively about dissidents and “extremists” whom he had encountered or interviewed as a journalist. Mr. Ou answered the agents’ questions fully and forthrightly and explained many times that he was a journalist whose credentials and background could be verified easily. The officers declined to inspect his press credentials.
CBP officers also conducted an unduly intrusive search of Mr. Ou’s belongings. In the course of this search, they made photocopies of his personal papers, including of pages from his handwritten personal diary. They also confiscated, examined, and searched—or at least attempted to search—his mobile phones. The CBP officers asked Mr. Ou to unlock the three mobile phones he carries to enable him to communicate in different locations worldwide. When Mr. Ou declined with an apology, citing his ethical obligation as a journalist to protect his newsgathering materials, including his confidential sources, the officers removed the phones from Mr. Ou’s presence. When the officers returned the phones to him several hours later, it was evident that their SIM cards had been temporarily removed because tamper tape covering the cards had been destroyed or altered.
The CBP’s statement in response to journalists’ questions is nothing more than the expected assertion that these actions were all within its rights. As it points out, anyone arriving in the US is subject to additional searches, which can encompass the contents of their electronic devices. The CBP generally has to have an articulable reason (but not anything rising to the level of “suspicion”) to do this, but a large majority of these intrusive searches go unchallenged and chanting “national security” — as the CBP does here — tends to make most complaints evaporate.
“Keeping America safe and enforcing our nation’s laws in an increasingly digital world depends on our ability to lawfully examine all materials entering the U.S.,” the statement said.
The CBP, however, seems less sure of its reasons for detaining the photojournalist. One agent said Ou was a “person of interest” wanted by an unnamed law enforcement agency, while another said his “person of interest” status had nothing to do with his detainment. That same officer also told Ou that his refusal to unlock his phones wasn’t going to help convince the CBP that he should be let into the country.
It did, however, scare up some paperwork citing a nonexistent legal authority for its refusal to admit him into the US.
The officers did provide Mr. Ou with a Form I-275 Withdrawal of Application for Admission stating that he had been found inadmissible pursuant to Section 212(a)(7)(A)(I)(I) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”). However, that is not a valid citation to the INA; indeed, the cited subsection does not exist. Section 212(a)(7)(A), moreover, pertains to those who seek admission as “immigrants”—persons intending to reside permanently in the United States. Mr. Ou plainly was not seeking admission as an “immigrant,” and neither the Form I-275 nor the questions the CBP officers asked Mr. Ou suggested any basis for concluding otherwise.
The ACLU’s letter goes on to point out that the CBP now has copies of data it perhaps acquired illegally and should make an immediate effort to destroy/purge anything it collected during its chilling little fishing expedition. It also asks that the CBP cough up the real reason it decided to detain Ou and search his devices, considering those performing the search couldn’t be bothered to come up with a coherent legal theory or an applicable statute to justify the intrusion.
This Constitutionless free-for-all at the borders is already a concern for US citizens, especially as the term “border” includes anything 100 miles inland. It’s even more of a concern for journalists — whether US citizens or not — who can be prevented from covering controversial events for apparently wholly imaginary reasons.