“This Is America. I Can Ask You Whatever I Want.”

Should journalists be forced to spill reporting info at customs checkpoints?

Here’s the dilemma. You’re coming back from a reporting trip with notes and documents about, say, U.S. intervention in a Latin American country. Or maybe you were just doing a travel piece, or maybe meeting with journalists interested in doing investigative reporting in their countries.

The uniformed customs and border protection officer at Miami Airport examines your passport, notices you have visited several countries, and asks, “What were you doing on this trip?”

Then a second and third question, each demanding more specific information. What do you do?

That’s what happened to me last Saturday as I returned from two and a half weeks in Chile, Venezuela, and Brazil.

“I’m a journalist, I was conducting meetings and gathering information,” I said to the first question.

“I know what a journalist does,” the officer said. “Tell me specifically what you were doing.”

I stammered. I said something like, “I don’t think I should have to tell you. I feel I have a First Amendment protection and shouldn’t have to be interrogated about who I met with.”

“This is America. I can ask you whatever I want, and you have to answer for me to assess your status,” he insisted, and delivered the third question. “I need to know in detail what you were doing in the countries you visited.”

His name tag identified him as Officer Adams. He was aggressive but not offensive or impolite. He made it clear that if I didn’t want to answer, there was the alternative of going into the back room with his supervisor.

I had a flight to catch. So I started blabbing about the meetings, mentioning titles and descriptions of the people I had talked to. I felt I had to keep talking until he was satisfied.

OK, he finally said, in effect. Anybody can say they are a journalist. I needed to follow up to see if you got nervous or would get flustered about what to say.

He gave me to understand I had sounded enough like a real journalist to convince him I wasn’t a drug smuggler. So he stamped my passport.

In fact, I thought I had been plenty flustered. And I was embarrassed that I had given out information that no journalist should have to reveal to a U.S. government official, or to anyone unless I chose to write it in a story. I shouldn’t have mentioned the title of the Venezuelan opposition politician I met with, for example.

What should I have done? My dilemma was that if I stood my ground and refused to give detailed information, I would have to spend hours in a real interrogation with Officer Adams’s superiors in the back room.

After all, on this trip I hadn’t done anything particularly sensitive.

But what if it had been one of my previous reporting trips, when I was interviewing former military officers about help they got from the CIA during the military dictatorships of the ’70s and ’80s? Or had just returned from an excursion into guerrilla territory during the El Salvador civil war?

As I picked up my passport and moved away, I told the officer I understood he was there to do a job, but that I thought he had crossed a line with his questions; that the Constitution and First Amendment protections have meaning.

He replied he “hadn’t crossed any line,” but he said it in a way it was clear he didn’t think any line existed.

It turns out he was right, at least according to Customs and Border Protection, a US agency that is part of Homeland Security. CQ national security columnist Jeff Stein ran the incident by CBP Michael Friel, who said there are no restrictions on what officers can ask anyone, including journalists.

“There are no special procedures for dealing with a journalist,” Friel told Stein. “The officer’s role is to protect the borders,” he said, and to “determine a person’s admissibility to the United States.”

The questioning is designed not only to discover lawbreakers. Friel said the agents are also trying “to determine whether a person was doing legitimate activity abroad.”

My concern is that there should be limits to how the border agents can interrogate citizens, in particular journalists, about that legitimate activity. I can accept that the agents can ask a broad array of questions. But I should have the right to refuse to answer detailed questions about my activities as a journalist without being taken into custody.

Officer Adams was trying to do his job, I’m sure. But it’s hard to accept that protecting our borders requires abandoning the First Amendment. Freedom of the press isn’t an absolute, but if it means anything, it means that, without good reason to believe a crime has been committed, the government, in particular uniformed officers, should stay out of a journalist’s business.

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John Dinges is the co-founder of the investigative journalism center CIPERchile.cl in Santiago, Chile. He has written three books about military dictatorships and human rights in Latin America. The most recent is The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents. He is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.