March 12, 2019
Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20229
Dear Assistant Commissioner Meehan,
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), on behalf of the ACOS Alliance, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), are extremely disappointed that your office canceled our appointment last week, one day after postponing our long-scheduled meeting and two days after NBC San Diego reported on internal government documents that suggest U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) maintains a list of journalists whom it singles out for additional screening. We write to request that you reschedule our meeting as soon as possible.
For years, our organizations have documented serious problems with CBP’s secondary screenings of journalists crossing U.S. borders, including the warrantless searches of laptops and/or phones, and questioning of journalists about their reporting and contacts. We have raised these concerns in meetings with DHS and CBP officials–including you–and with the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Despite our efforts, CBP’s treatment of journalists at the border appears to have worsened in recent months. CPJ reported in February that CBP agents were subjecting journalists to invasive questioning regarding migration issues at the southern border during secondary screenings; the NBC report confirms our fears that such a practice was a coordinated effort.
Ahead of our planned meeting, we shared documents listing cases of journalists who recently experienced issues at the border, and questions about CBP policies and practices, in order to engage with you in a constructive manner. Despite this, we have yet to see any meaningful commitment by CBP officials to provide transparency surrounding practices and policies, solve the problems we have identified, or revise departmental guidelines.
In August 2017, we presented draft recommendations for how DHS and CBP employees should treat journalists flagged for secondary screening at U.S. borders, but these have been largely ignored. We learned in your statement to news outlets last week that CBP does have “specific provisions regarding encounters with journalists.” This contrasts with what you had represented to us in previous meetings: that the Office of Public Affairs was not aware of any special provisions for journalists.
In light of the NBC report, we are concerned about the continued lack of clarity surrounding CBP’s policies and practices regarding journalists. Targeted searches of journalists’ materials and electronic devices because of their reporting pose serious threats to press freedom. How the U.S. government treats journalists at its borders has implications beyond the individual reporters who are directly affected. Impinging a journalist’s ability to protect the confidentiality of sources can lead to self-censorship, which detracts from the public’s right to be informed. Furthermore, these high-profile incidents could serve as justification, or even encouragement, in more repressive countries for interrogating journalists or seizing their devices.
How CBP engages with press freedom and news organizations at a time of heightened concern reflects on the agency and its commitment to ensuring border security while protecting the rights of Americans.
We request a follow-up meeting as soon as possible to address these issues and discuss solutions that will protect the American people without risking violation of their First and Fourth Amendment rights. Given the severity of the threats, we reiterate our request to also have present at our meeting representatives from the DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Privacy Office.
We look forward to hearing from you shortly.
Courtney C. Radsch, Advocacy Director, Committee to Protect Journalists
Sabine Dolan, Interim Executive Director for North America, Reporters Without Borders
Gabriel Rottman, Director of Technology and Press Freedom Project, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Michael Friel, Deputy Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs, CBP
Sabrina Teichman, Chief of Staff for Public Affairs, CBP
Max Bluestein, Headquarters Branch Chief for Public Affairs, CBP
Shannan Barksdale, Office of Public Affairs, CBP
Cameron Quinn, Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, DHS
Jonathan Cantor, Acting Chief Privacy Officer, DHS