Passengers head for U.S. passport control at Dulles International Airport in a 2018 photo.

Passengers head for U.S. passport control at Dulles International Airport in a 2018 photo. Somphop Krittayaworagul / Shutterstock

DHS Opens Civil-Rights Investigation into Harassment of Reporter at Dulles

Watson's account of his interaction with a Customs and Border Protection officer received broad media coverage.

The civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will investigate the recent harassment of a Defense One reporter at a Washington, D.C.-area airport, a DHS spokesperson said Thursday.

On Oct. 3, Defense One’s news editor, Ben Watson, was passing through customs at Dulles International Airport. A Customs and Border Protection officer held Watson’s passport until the officer received an affirmative answer to his repeated question: “You write propaganda, right?” Later that evening, Watson went to the DHS website and followed its instructions to submit a complaint to DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, or CRCL

On Oct. 10, the DHS spokesman said CRCL will be opening the matter for investigation. 

The civil-rights office has a large portfolio. It handles allegations of denial of services and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability; and more. And it handles a lot of them: 10,877 allegations since fiscal 2016, according to an undated DHS fact sheet.

The spokesperson said CRCL officials review each allegation to determine whether an investigation is warranted. If so, the allegation — now dubbed a formal “complaint” — is sent on to the DHS Office of Inspector General, and an acknowledgment letter is sent to the complainant. The inspector general’s office may choose to investigate the complaint, or may return it to CRCL, which in turn may choose to do its own investigation or to send it to the appropriate DHS component: the Coast Guard, for example, or Customs and Border Protection. 

Once an investigation is concluded, CRCL reviews the findings and may work with the component to resolve the complaint. It also may recommend steps to be taken by the component to fix problems. Finally, it sends a “close letter” to the complainant.

Watson’s account of the CBP officer’s harassment has received broad media coverage, including by the New York TimesWashington Post, USA Today, the Associated Press, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, The Independent in the UK, and more. Various media-advocacy organizations also issued statements, including Reporters Without Borders and Military Reporters and Editors.

At a Tuesday press conference at the White House, Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan responded to a question about that incident and similar ones

“Let me say that any journalist — right? — that is stopped and harassed and treated improperly because they’re a journalist is absolutely unacceptable, unequivocally,” Morgan said, according to a White House transcript.