American journalist detained by Customs and Border Patrol until he admitted that he writes “propaganda”

October 7, 2019 • 8:45 am

Last Thursday, Ben Watson, a journalist for the national-security news site Defense One, was detained at Washington D.C.’s Dulles Airport by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).  He was detained simply because he was a journalist and therefore supposedly wrote “propaganda”. You can read the story by clicking on the links at the Washington Post and Defense One below (the latter story is by Watson himself).

Learning that Watson was a journalist, the passport screener engaged in the conversation with Watson below (from Watson’s report):

CBP officer, holding Watson’s passport: “What do you do?”

Watson: “Journalism.”

CBP officer: “So you write propaganda, right?”

Watson: “No.”

CBP officer: “You’re a journalist?”

Watson: “Yes.”

CBP officer: “You write propaganda, right?”

Watson: “No. I am in journalism. Covering national security. And homeland security. And with many of the same skills I used in the U.S. Army as a public affairs officer. Some would argue that’s propaganda.”

CBP officer: “You’re a journalist?”

Watson: “Yes.”

CBP officer: “You write propaganda, right?”

Watson waited five seconds. Then: “For the purposes of expediting this conversation, yes.”

CBP officer, a fourth time: “You write propaganda, right?”

Watson, again: “For the purposes of expediting this conversation, yes.”

CBP officer: “Here you go.”

At that point, the CBP officer handed back the passport.

CBP is investigating the incident and Watson has filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Homeland Security.

Now one could say, as I thought when I first read this, that this is just an oddball CBP employee who has absorbed a dose of Trumpism, but the detention of journalists appears to be more pervasive than I thought. As the Washington Post reports:

A growing list of journalists say they have been startled by government officials’ harassment in a country that prizes freedom of the press. The encounters are raising fears that hostile rhetoric led by President Trump and his allies are damaging reporters’ ability to do their job unhindered.

This spring, the World Press Freedom Index called journalists’ treatment in the United States “problematic” for the first time in its 17 years of assessments — and singled out “President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric and continuing threats to journalists” as driving the deteriorating conditions. The U.S. ranking on the index has fallen for the past three years.

Journalists have had reporting run-ins with border agents for years, too.

In 2016, a Canadian photographer on his way to cover protests in the United States was detained for more than six hours. Ed Ou said airport officers took away his cellphones after he refused to unlock them, saying he needed to protect his sources. When Ou got the devices back, he suspected tampering and potential data copying.

As Andrea Peterson reported in The Post:

If Ou had already been inside the U.S. border, law enforcement officers would have needed a warrant to search his smartphones to comply with a 2014 Supreme Court ruling. But the journalist learned the hard way that the same rules don’t apply at the border, where the government claims the right to search electronic devices without a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing.

Several other journalists have described difficulties getting through airports in 2019.

In February, CBP apologized to a BuzzFeed journalist questioned at a New York airport about his news organization’s coverage of Trump and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. A few months later, a freelancer said he was detained by CBP officials for hours at an airport in Texas.

Then, in August, British journalist James Dyer described an “unsettling experience” as he flew into California to cover a Disney event. The film and TV writer said a CBP officer at Los Angeles International Airport called him a member of the “fake news media” and asked if he had worked for CNN or MSNBC, two frequent targets of Trump’s criticism.

“He aggressively told me that journalists are liars and are attacking their democracy,” Dyer wrote in a viral tweet thread.

He said he was allowed to move on after explaining that he was just trying to write about Star Wars.

And some more anecdotal evidence via Twitter:

Things have come to a pretty pass in America when border patrol agents harass journalists. This did not, as far as I know, happen on such a scale before Trump was elected, and is clearly a byproduct of the Chief Moron’s constant war with the media and cries about “fake news.” Just one more reason to impeach him and remove him from office. As for the officer above, he should be disciplined and told that he’d be fired if he ever did anything like that again.

h/t: Ken

47 thoughts on “American journalist detained by Customs and Border Patrol until he admitted that he writes “propaganda”

    1. Fox, of course, is the outlet that most closely resembles a pure propaganda source. Though there are cracks in the dam showing there, too. Shep Smith has always been a straight journalist and has done a bang-up, no-bullshit job on Donald Trump. Chris Wallace, too. And Judge Andrew Napolitano, the Fox legal analyst who’s been known to push a conspiracy theory or two, has been spot-on in calling out Donald Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors.

      It’s the solid block of prime-time opinion commentators that unrelentingly pushes the propaganda line. But even there, Tucker Carlson (along with co-founder Neil Patel) recently penned an editorial in their e-rag, The Daily Caller, calling Trump’s shake-down phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy indefensible (though stopping short of saying it’s impeachment-worthy). Guess we’ll just have to wait’n’see if ol’ Tucker has the nads to break with the teevee party line by coming out and saying the same to the regular viewers of his weeknight White Power Hour.

      1. Carlson is an odd one. He seems to want to retain at least a quantum of respectability while at the same time engaging in the kind of racial dog-whistling that even Hannity would consider a bit much.

        I remember seeing him have a discussion with Jon Stewart(Carlson and another journo vs Stewart) and the latter was being quite thoughtless and smug I thought, and I actually came away thinking that Carlson had done a good job of exposing Stewart’s empty, anti-news-media populist rhetoric. I was mildly impressed – he seemed reasonable.

        Carlson’s a cleverer, sharper sort than people want to admit. Sadly, he’s also a completely awful human being and he’s become ever more revoltingly awful, cheap and pathetic since Trump was elected.

        The reason I note his intelligence is because I think he’s clever enough to see that most of the Trumpite media ‘stars’ are going to be completely radioactive once Trump has gone. They have hitched their wagon to him in a way that Carlson, cunningly, hasn’t.

        He can see that there will come a time when Trump, and the people who boosted and defended him for years, will be utterly toxic, like David Duke levels of toxic.

        So Carlson walks the line, and gives himself plausible deniability with these mild condemnations of Trump, while still going along with Trump’s ethno-nationalist bullshit.

        1. Yeah, I agree. Carlson at one time was a reasonably talented print journalist — a hardcore right-winger, to be sure, but reasonably talented nonetheless. He tossed it away to become a teevee yakker, then tossed away his credibility completely to go do his yakking for Fox News. Still, he’s the least-dumb one on their nightly line-up.

          I imagine Mephistopheles has remunerated him handsomely for his soul.

          1. What a riveting article. A lot to chew over there, including this:

            “Tucker was born in 1969, the older of two boys. Their mother, Lisa McNear Carlson, left the family when he was six. “Totally bizarre situation—which I never talk about, because it was actually not really part of my life at all,””

            An inconvenient truth for the ‘traditional family’ advocate, so he never talks about it. Sounds about right.

            Fascinating, the whole thing.

  1. I saw this reporter interviewed yesterday. Can’t remember who and what channel but it was probably CNN on a morning show. He also said many other journalists had reported harassment by customs. This is what happens when you have a moron running the country. You hear some saying Trump still has 40 percent or whatever they think of base support but all the latest polling data says no, it is about 24%. Even if he avoids impeachment, it is likely he will get buried in the next election.

  2. Trump’s fascism is as fake as everything else about him — he’s far to stupid hold any kind of philosophy and wouldn’t know how to implement it if he could. He can only look wistfully at what his superiors in other countries do (like to Warmbier and Khashoggi), and wonder why he doesn’t get to do that too.

    But the fascism of border guards and ICE agents and god knows who else in state service is genuine grassroots fascism whose life cycle is just beginning.

    1. Your last paragraph is a sad truth. Any American who doesn’t understand the depth of support for the emerging authoritarian, anti-intellectual culture has been blind to their surroundings for at least forty years.

  3. Also when you’re not a US citizen […] this takes on a much more threatening tone

    Which is the tone that is intended to be detected.
    Why aren’t the Trumpistas lauding Margaret Atwood and George Orwell to the rafters for the excellent instruction manuals they have written?

    1. They always ask that at the border. I think it’s to make sure you aren’t trying to take a job from an American and to show ties to your country so you don’t stay. If you use Nexus and change jobs, you have to tell them or they will revoke it.

      1. Well, I can’t speak for this particular case (which I think can be explained simply by parroting Trump) but often when CBP or TSA ask people those kinds of questions they aren’t just curious, they’re trying to find out if you’re lying. That’s why they might ask a question multiple times or put it differently. It’s not even really calculated – they’re trained to do it. If you give a slightly different answer it suggests you have something to hide. Or so the thinking goes.

        Heard this from a TSA employee..

        1. There is not TSA at land crossings and this wasn’t isolated. It’s one thing to say “I’m not letting you in”. It’s another to ban you for 5 years often because they think as a worker that does contract work that doesn’t tie you to Canada. This is happening once per month where it used to happen once every 3 years according to a US lawyer. Another article mentions that travelling to see a boyfriend or girlfriend can get you banned too because they think you are going to stay. This is actually funny to a lot of Canadians. We like living in Canada. We are usually just trying to buy cheap shoes or visit some friends or family.

          1. As teenagers, my friends and I would cross the border in the opposite direction to pick up cheaper (and stronger) beer and over-the-counter codeine with aspirin pills (“222s” aka “deuces”).

            Reckon that’s how I first embraced my pro-free-trade globalist outlook. 🙂

            1. I used to cross with a driver’s licence as my ID to go have wings in Buffalo. They didn’t even look at my ID, just asked what country I was a citizen of, I said “Canada” then away I went. The real hassle was dealing with Canada customs returning.

        2. I actually think they ask that because they want to make sure you aren’t working there. When I got my Nexus card you are interviewed by an American and Canadian border guard. The Canadian asked questions to do with me being a criminal (they already ran a background check) and if I carried other passports in addition to my Canadian one if travelled. The American asked me questions about my intent to work in the US. Some people have made really dumb mistakes with work permits when working in the US and that will get you banned. I always have all my shit together at the border. I either have return tickets and if I’m going to a conference I have all that info on me. They never care though. They just believe me when I tell them maybe because I have a return ticket who knows. The only time I got hassled badly in an airport was when the guard was trying to show off to another guard. She was unimpressed. Then Canadian customs can be real jerks.

    2. AIUI, they’re supposed to ask unexpected or oddball questions in order to trip up liars, detect suspicious behavior, etc. So asking someone their profession is well within the job description.

      Being a jerk about a reasonable answer, however, is harassment.

      Moreover this guy is arguably doing a worse than normal job at questioning people since he gave the citizen a reason to be irate, rather than asking a couple different oddball questions in order to detect whether someone is getting irate or upset when they shouldn’t be.

      1. Oops. I see you said the same thing I just did in response to Diana. You’re right – often it is a tactic, though I doubt in the incident cited here. Probably just a MAGA hatter being, well, a MAGA hatter.

  4. That is very, very scary. This is the scariest part of Trump’s support: the extent to which his supporters are employed – embedded – in the police, army, immigration, passport control, etc. and are willing to abuse them in order to intimidate the rest of America.

    What happens if/when he gets impeached, or voted out by a small margin? And then he starts ranting about ‘civil war’?

    1. “…the police, army, immigration, passport control, etc.”

      And of equal or greater importance, school boards.

    2. Yes, this incident is reflective of how Trump has inculcated his cult with distrust and disdain of American institutions, such as the press. This is a major tactic of populists and fascists — to create instability in society, which can only be rectified by the strongman. Even after Trump leaves (whenever that may be) the damage he has done to democracy will linger long after. As I have said several times before, the Trump cultists do not believe in democracy. What they want is their anxieties that were heightened by a changing country due to demographics be alleviated by any means possible.

      Trump’s musings about civil war are not to be taken lightly. At the Lawfare site Mary B. McCord warns that the right-wing militias are taken them seriously.

      1. The disdain for institutions like the press started well before Trump. Trump just cranked it up a notch and made it much more open and acceptable.
        We can thank the Republican propaganda machine, Fox News and right wing talk radio that spread conspiracy theories for fun and profit and taught the far right to distrust the ‘lamestream media’ and swallow any lie.

        I remember watching Glenn Beck spin lunatic conspiracy theories and thinking ‘who the hell would believe this idiocy?’. When I started hearing elected Republicans repeating talk radio conspiracy theories I thought sooner or later this is going to end with blood in the streets.

        Republicans have been spreading contempt for government institutions (including the institution of congress) as a means of securing power for a long time. Trump only expanded the number of institutions under attack.

        The militias are taking it seriously, so are some armed forces members, police, so called sovereign citizens and white nationalist groups.

        It appears to me the Republican party has been radicalizing itself for many decades, each new generation of elected brings more true believers and fewer who knew it was all just a con to get the rubes to vote for them.
        Republicans (and Rupert Murdoch) created a monster they can no longer control.

        I also blame mainstream media for their continuing to present ‘both sides’, even when one side is clearly lying or acting in bad faith, or when media just dump two opposing talking heads on the air.

        1. There is no doubt that the right wing through right wing religion, talk radio and Fox News have been attempting to undermine faith in institutions for decades now. This trend has accelerated greatly under Trump resulting in the transformation of the Republican Party to his views on domestic if not foreign policy. In a reversal of long standing tradition, Republican politicians now say they have no faith in the FBI and CIA. Because Trump now holds the levers of executive power, he now has the power to do what the right wing could not do before — transform for decades the judiciary to support the right wing agenda.

          The thing we must remember that whenever Trump leaves the presidency, trumpism will not disappear. It will be a threat to democracy for decades. His cult will remain a threat to democracy and violence can be expected.

      2. Thanks for the link. Unfortunately, I think that a large increase in violence by the far right will occur when Trump loses in 2020.

    3. Has there ever been a “Civil War” whose wounds have “healed”? I was watching a program a few weeks ago about the hostile reception of archaeological digs exhuming victims of any of the sides in the Spanish civil war – healing there hasn’t happened. Clearly the cessation of hostilities in the American civil war was only temporary. There are still many of the tensions underlying the War of the Four Nations (a.k.a. English Civil War, which involved all four nations of the Atlantic Archipelago), and they’re re-surfacing in the rhetoric of Brexit.
      Can anyone give an example of a civil war which has actually had it’s wounds heal, rather than the involved nations getting completely torn up and divided amongst the neighbours (Rome, I’m looking at you).

  5. Do we know that the official was a Trumpist?

    Accusing a defence journalist of writing propaganda sounds like the sort of thing a leftist could say just as easily as a rightist.

    1. The official didn’t say ‘are you a defense journalist?’. He or she just said ‘are you a journalist?’.

      Why this constant reach for excuses?

    2. I was wondering the same, and read some Defense One stories to try to absorb their tone, and possible bias.
      If any are there, they are pretty subtle about it.
      Regardless, if the conversation was related accurately, it represents very unprofessional behavior by the agent.

      Since the story is “— says —-“, I plan to withhold outrage until some results of the investigation are revealed. Not that I have any particular doubts, but many such single sourced stories have turned out to be more complicated of late.

      1. In the article there are numerous other stories of a similar nature, involving govt officials of a Trumpian bent harassing members of the press. Isn’t that a serious cause for concern?

  6. Considering the personality traits that likely get selected for by desiring to and becoming a CBP officer, combined with the documented slide in the average cognitive function of US citizens and our rapidly degrading political process, it’s not a surprise. The Idiocracy is upon us.

  7. Canadians are being banned from entering the US for 5 years, somewhat arbitrarily because of the broad, sweeping powers of border guards. There has been an uptick of these bans if they decide you don’t have strong enough ties to Canada – this is a problem for people who work seasonally or people who are contract workers (which are a lot of people). It costs something like $1000 USD to appeal such a ban and for many Canadians that is a real problem because many flights pass through the US and you need to clear US security to take the flight. Most of the problems seem to happen at land crossings so I have no interest in crossing into the US until the situation changes.
    Some people have had their Nexus cards taken away for very minor things,

  8. The ear ache I got when coming back home from a job in Canada, and my expected flights being re-scheduled because of the first airport in the chain being shut by the snow … just to pass through America (carrying, it must be said, all of my work gear) seems to be a crime these days.
    I really should get a copy of the new Margaret Atwood book. I expect she’ll have mentioned some of these strategies in her discussion of the rise of Gilead.

  9. Your points seem resonable assumptions Historian. But… where’s the money? In particular,Trumps, the guy loves the stuff more than anything. So far the only thing commented about is politics, policymaking and repercussions but what about the money, ‘his precious’ how far would he go to jeopardize his wealth. Is he confident he could survive intact?
    Would he worry the super angry would dismantle his towers first? Maybe or maybe not, after all it is Trump, and he probably has a bunker hidden somewhere full of portraits of himself.
    Sniff out his ‘money’, see where and what he’s doing with it, for it is certain, his aim is not true when it comes to his wealth.

  10. I just returned last week from Stockholm (for a funeral) via Amsterdam, crossing in Detroit, a trip I’ve taken many times but the first in the past 7yrs.

    Expecting potential problems, I even took a copy of the funeral notice, but instead there were no pointed questions, and the customs part of re-entry seemed easier. Before, you went past customs agents and then to passport control. (I always used to bring a can of fish and go thru the red line where I’d get waved right thru on account of that.) Now, they’re one and the same, nobody questioned the funeral part, and there were no dogs investigating a guy with a long beard coming in from Amsterdam.

    Go figure.

  11. In almost all other countries, claiming to be a ‘journalist’ is usually a helpful get-out-of-jail card with the police. Must remember the opposite applies in the land of the First Amendment…


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