Harassing Journalists Is ‘Absolutely Unacceptable’: Acting CBP Commissioner

By Bradley Peniston

October 8, 2019

It’s “absolutely unacceptable” for Customs and Border Protection officers to harass journalists, the acting CBP commissioner said Tuesday.

At a White House press conference, Mark Morgan was asked about several incidents in the past year in which journalists coming through various U.S. border-control points reported being harassed, and in one case detained for several hours, by CBP officials. 

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. “We, proactively, if we see something in an article, even if it hasn’t been reported, we're going to report it to our Office of Professional Responsibility. Because here's one thing we can say: We can disagree all we want, right? I learned from Lieutenant General Lear a long time ago: Disrespect doesn’t mean disagreement. Right? And there's a little thing in the country called freedom of speech. So anything that we do that would impede that, we are going to hold people accountable as unacceptable, 100 percent.”

Morgan did not explicitly mention the harassment last Thursday of Defense One News Editor Ben Watson at Dulles International Airport. In that incident, a CBP passport control officer held Watson’s passport until he received an affirmative answer to the question: “You write propaganda, right?”

Related: US Customs Officer Harasses Defense One Journalist at Dulles Airport

CBP spokeswoman Stephanie Malin confirmed that the incident has been reported to CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility. She also said that it is pending review by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, CBP’s parent agency. 

Malin explained that the DHS inspector general maintains the investigative “right of first refusal” on all allegations involving the department’s employees. 

If the OIG elects to investigate the allegation, CBP will fully cooperate,” she said. “Alternatively, if the OIG opts to refer the matter back to CBP, the allegation will be investigated by CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility.”

At the conclusion of the investigation, she said, its findings will be sent to CBP management for review and evaluation. If the investigation shows that there was a violation of agency policy or of CBP’s Standards of Conduct, Malin said, “appropriate corrective action will be initiated in accordance with applicable law, regulation and collective bargaining requirements.”

By Bradley Peniston // Bradley Peniston is deputy editor of Defense One. A national security journalist for two decades, he helped launch Military.com, served as managing editor of Defense News, and was editor of Armed Forces Journal. His books include No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf, now part of the Chief of Naval Operations' Professional Reading Program.

October 8, 2019