Declan McCullagh at CBS News reports on an incident with U.S. Customs and Border Protection at a Seattle airport.
A blogospheric flap complete with threats of legal action has arisen after Michael Yon, the popular war blogger and former Green Beret, said he was detained upon returning to the United States and asked about how much money he makes every year.
Yon posted on Facebook on Tuesday that he was handcuffed and “arrested at the Seattle airport” for refusing questions, including ones related to his annual income, that “had nothing to do with national security.” […]
Matters became a bit more complicated when a post on the military-themed BlackFive.net site from an account named Johnnie Von Bernhardi said: “Just refusing to answer a question about yourself and your travel does not get you handcuffed during a secondary inspection in customs. You have to do alot (sic) more. And Yon was lying in his post where he claims that the airport police rescued him. CBP does not answer to the airport police and the airport police has no authority to interfere with CBP actions.[” …]
Officially, CBP isn’t talking, except to say that there are “two sides to the story” and the Privaçy Act prohibits the agency from discussing the situation. But that BlackFive.net post does have the smell of a CBP agent trying to tell that second side of the story — and, in fact, the site administrator did some digging and reported on Wednesday that the Internet address of “Johnnie Von Bernhardi” is actually DHS.gov. […]
Any CBP official who handcuffed a U.S. citizen solely for refusing to answer a question about annual income is, of course, abusing his power and deserves to be fired. But the unfortunate truth of the matter is that unless security videos are released or depositions take place as part of a lawsuit, we may never know everything that happened during Yon’s encounter with CBP. All we have right now are a few Twitter-length messages on Facebook, not even an article-length post on his Web site. […]
And Yon is hardly the first to experience that kind of unwelcome interrogation. A report at FlyerTalk.com last February said a CBP agent at the Windsor-Detroit border asked about firearm and car ownership. Some reports say CBP has “a practice of asking intrusive questions of lawyers” entering the country. In 2007, Stephen Doggette, an IT manager from Dayton, wrote that CBP asked him “what I believed to be irrelevant and outright intrusive questions, including my current salary.”
The back and forth about the relevance to security of officials’ questions is reminiscent of a recent controversy over an incident at an airport involving the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. In November, it was revealed that the Transportation Security Administration had changed its rules concerning airport searches after a lawsuit by an angry aide to Ron Paul who was detained by TSA. Steven Bierfeldt was asked why he was carrying $4,700 in cash as well as several other questions “that bore no relevance to pre-flight safety screening. These questions included inquiries into his employment, the source of the money in his possession, and the purpose of his trip to St. Louis,” according to the lawsuit (pdf).
The ACLU received a copy of the September directive from TSA as part of the case documents and published it (download here from ACLU; Privacy Lives archive copy here (3 MB)). TSA told the ACLU not to publish the October directive, though this was also part of case documents.