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Journalist Sues US Government for Records on ‘Kafkaesque Harassment’ by Security Agents During Travel

Laura Poitras is a journalist and documentary filmmaker, who recently won an Academy Award for the documentary on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden called Citizenfour. But, between July 2006 and April 2012, Poitras was “subjected to ‘Secondary Security Screening Selection,” detained and questioned at the United States border on every international flight she took” to the US, according to her recently filed lawsuit.

When traveling from the US, when she was outside the US traveling internationally, and even when she was traveling within the US, Poitras was “occasionally subjected to secondary security screening.” More than 50 times she was given this designation, which allowed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents to subject her to extra scrutiny.

On January 24, 2014, Poitras filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), and TSA for “all agency records concerning, naming, or relating to Ms. Poitras.” She also submitted requests to the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

Poitras has, to date, received no records in response to her requests and alleges agencies are wrongfully withholding records [PDF].

“I’m filing this lawsuit because the government uses the US border to bypass the rule of law,” Poitras explained in a press release from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This simply should not be tolerated in a democracy.”

“I am also filing this suit in support of the countless other less high-profile people who have also been subjected to years of Kafkaesque harassment at the borders. We have a right to know how this system works and why we are targeted.”

One of those individuals, who Poitras may be referring to, is Jacob Appelbaum. He is a journalist, Tor developer, and WikiLeaks volunteer, who has been stopped and harassed at the US border multiple times. (He has also had his personal data connected to services, such as Twitter and Google, targeted as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into WikiLeaks.)

Airport security agents have previously informed Poitras that she had a “criminal record,” even though that is not true. She has been informed her name was in a “national security threat database.” During one stop, she was told she was on the “No Fly List.” Her laptop, camera, mobile phone, and her notebooks have been seized and copied. One time when she attempted to take notes while she was detained by agents, she was threatened with being put in handcuffs. The agents pretended to fear that she might use the pen as a weapon so she could not create a record of their interaction.

Poitras is not the first to challenge this abuse. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) have challenged suspicionless laptop searches by DHS through a lawsuit filed in 2010.

Detaining Journalists, Abusing Families, and Humiliating American Muslims

Abuse by US security agents at the border has become increasingly common. In February 2014, the podcast, On the Media, aired an episode called “Secrecy on the Border.” The episode focused on how Homeland Security violates the rights of people and refuses to provide any explanations.

It included the story of Sarah Abdurrahman, a producer for the show, who was detained with her family at the Canadian border for about six hours. Each person detained was a US citizen returning from a wedding. Border Patrol agents put the family in an extremely cold room. They had no access to food or drinks. They were forced to hand over their electronics and informed they may never get them back, regardless of whether they were needed for work. (Abdurrahman shared how other wedding attendees were detained and had their phones seized. Agents even demanded people unlock the phones.)

Four year-old Emily Ruiz was detained at Dulles Airport for twenty hours and, according to On the Media, agents refused to let her speak to her parents for over fourteen hours. She cried hysterically. Agents kept her inside a cold room. She had no bed, blankets, or a pillow. She was not given anything to eat other than a cookie and soda. She was a US citizen, but agents deported her. When she returned to the US, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

American Muslims are stopped and asked broad and humiliating questions about their religious beliefs and activities. They may even be subjected to strip searches that seem intent to make them feel violated.

Those who are stopped are told nothing. When citizens ask agents or confront agents over their detention and harassment, they are often told agents cannot provide additional information. Or, that agents do not know why they had a particular experience, but every situation is different. Sometimes questions lead to additional abuse by agents.

“Too Broad in Scope”

To date, Poitras has received no records in response to her information requests.

DHS has provided no records, even though Poitras provided additional information on difficulties she had encountered on international flights and domestic flights. CBP has not responded to Poitras’ request, even though it was submitted well over a year ago and the law is that an agency must acknowledge it received a request within twenty working business days.

After TSA received Poitras’ request, it claimed the request was “too broad in scope or does not specifically identify the records you seek,” as if Poitras is supposed to know what exact files the government is keeping on her. She submitted additional information on difficulties she had experienced, and TSA asked for more information. It still has provided no records.

CIS claims to have conducted a search for records. In April 2014, the agency determined it had no records. Poitras appealed. In July, CIS denied the administrative appeal.

ICE has not acknowledged it received the FOIA request, and the agency has not provided Poitras with any records.

“Withholding in Full” 

In February 2014, the FBI acknowledged it received Poitras’ request. It was not until more than one year later that the FBI replied on May 21, 2015, and indicated her request was denied. The agency found six pages but were “withholding in full” all the documents. The FBI claimed under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure they did not have to disclose the secret information they had collected on her.

Poitras appealed on June 3. It is unclear when the Office of Information Policy plans to decide on her appeal.

The ODNI denied Poitras’ request on February 25, 2014, and stated it could “neither confirm nor  deny the existence or nonexistence in its files of any information.” Whatever secret information the agency had on Poitras contained “intelligence sources and methods information” and had to remain classified.

David Sobel, EFF senior counsel who is representing Poitras, declared, “In refusing to respond to Poitras’ FOIA requests and wrongfully withholding the documents about her it has located, the government is flouting its responsibility to explain and defend why it subjected a law-abiding citizen—whose work has shone a light on post-9/11 military and intelligence activities—to interrogations and searches every time she entered her country.”

As Poitras previously expressed, “I’ve been told nothing, I’ve been asked nothing, and I’ve done nothing. It’s like Kafka. Nobody ever tells you what [is] the accusation.”

Creative Commons Licensed Photo of Laura Poitras speaking in Camden, Maine, in 2010, by PopTech

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."