2016 photo of a Customs and Border Protection officer at Dulles International Airport.

2016 photo of a Customs and Border Protection officer at Dulles International Airport. U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Glenn Fawcett

US Customs Officer Harasses Defense One Journalist at Dulles Airport

Repeating “You write propaganda, right?”, officer held passport until he received an affirmative answer.

A U.S. passport screening official held a Defense One journalist’s passport until he received an affirmative answer to this repeated question: “You write propaganda, right?” 

The incident took place about 4 p.m. on Thursday at Dulles International Airport. News Editor Ben Watson was returning from an assignment in Denmark when he entered permanent resident reentry aisle No. 17 at Dulles. After the Customs and Border Protection official asked the usual question about undeclared fruit or meat, the interaction took an unusual and unsettling turn.

Watson recalls the conversation: 

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.

The CBP official’s behavior appeared to violate the spirit, and possibly the letter, of DHS's internal Directive 0480.1, “Ethics/Standards of Conduct”; DHS Code of Conduct § 102-74.445; and possibly U.S. Customs and Border Protection Directive 51735-013A, “Standards of Conduct.” 

Watson has filed a civil rights complaint with DHS.

Update: In an email, a CBP spokesperson said that the agency is aware of and is investigating the "allegation about an officer’s alleged inappropriate conduct at Washington Dulles International airport," adding that the agency holds its employees accountable and does not tolerate inappropriate comments or behavior. The spokesperson declined to be identified.

In a separate email, a DHS spokesperson said that the agency's Civil Rights and Civil Liberties office has "received the information and is reviewing it." The spokesperson declined to be identified.

Over the past year, several journalists have reported being harassed and even detained by U.S. customs agents. In February, CBP officials apologized to a BuzzFeed reporter who was aggressively questioned upon entering New York’s JFK Airport. In June, freelance reporter Seth Harp described his hours-long detention by CBP officers in the Austin, Texas, airport. In August, British journalist James Dyer said he was harassed as “fake news” by a CBP agent at Los Angeles International Airport. “He wanted to know if I’d ever worked for CNN or MSNBC or other outlets that are ‘spreading lies to the American people,’ ” he tweeted, per a Washington Post story that links to other instances of CBP harassment of journalists.

The Post also noted that in April, the United States’ ranking in the annual World Freedom Press Index dropped for a third year in a row. It classified the treatment of journalists in the United States as “problematic,” a first in the 17 years the report has been issued. The report’s authors attributed the decline “to President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric and continuing threats to journalists,” the Post reported at the time.

Watson, who writes the D Brief newsletter and produces the Defense One Radio podcast, said that he’d never before encountered a CBP officer who’d tried to extract a statement in this way. And he noted that the incident was particularly striking in the wake of his reporting trip, during which Danish officials had voiced concerns about a global decline in respect for and adherence to a rules-based order, beginning in the United States.