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

Laura Poitras, 2010

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. (more…)

Whistleblowers Testify on High Risk of Retaliation They Face for Going to Congress

Lt. Col. Jason Amerine
Lt. Col. Jason Amerine

United States government whistleblowers, who have gone to Congress in the past, have had a hugely positive impact. However, often government employees, who blow the whistle on fraud, waste, abuse and other examples of wrongdoing to members of Congress, face great risk to their livelihoods.

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing where whistleblowers testified about retaliation they have experienced.

An Army special forces officer, Jason Amerine, testified, “After I made protected disclosures to Congress, the Army suspended my [security] clearance, removed me from my job, launched a criminal investigation and deleted my retirement orders with a view to court martial me after I exercised that Constitutional right.”

In 2013, Amerine worked in an office tasked with freeing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has being held hostage by the Taliban. His office saw the dysfunction in the process of trying to rescue hostages and pursued an option that would have involved swapping a warlord and ally of President Hamid Karzai, Haji Bashir Noorzai, for seven American hostages, including Bergdahl.

According to Amerine, when the Taliban was at the table negotiating, the State Department said it would have to go with a swap between Bergdahl and the five Taliban.

Amerine claims that there was also “a great deal of evidence” that the Defense Department and FBI were implicated in an “illegal or questionable ransom” for Bergdahl. When he turned to Representative Duncan Hunter’s office, who is on the House Armed Services Committee, he eventually was put under criminal investigation.

Hunter setup a meeting between his office and the FBI. During the meeting, the FBI “formally complained to the Army that information” Amerine was “sharing with Rep. Hunter was classified. It was not.” Hunter was also told that the FBI had respect for Amerine’s work but they had to put him in his place.

Senior Special Agent Taylor Johnson of the Homeland Security Department’s Office of Investigations testified about blowing the whistle on corruption surrounding an EB-5 project. (EB-5 is a program that allows foreign nationals to obtain green cards if they make investments of money in the US.)

Johnson said she uncovered evidence of major fraud, money laundering, bank and wire fraud, as well as “ties to organized crime and high ranking officials and politicians, who received large campaign contributions that appeared” to have helped facilitate the EB-5 project.

She reported what she was uncovering through proper channels. Outside agencies and high-ranking officials complained, and the investigation was shut down after a “congressional complaint” was received.

Soon after, Johnson recalled, “I was escorted by three supervisors from my desk and out of my permanent duty station. I was not permitted to access my case file or personal items. I was alienated from my friends and colleagues, who were told by management to steer clear of me since I was facing criminal charges. I was removed from my permanent duty station and initially assigned to an office over 50 miles from my home and family,” a US code violation.

“I almost lost my youngest child, when an adoption social worker tried to verify employment and was told I had been terminated by the agency for a criminal offense,” Johnson further testified.

Jose Rafael Ducos, a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) chief officer, testified about being retaliated against for reporting overtime pay abuses and formally challenging his immediate supervisors’ conduct. He claimed he was discriminated against because he is Hispanic.

For the past three years, he described workplace harassment and intimidation by individuals in CBP. He involved Sen. Ron Johnson, who sent a letter to Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson on March 17, 2015, but he continues to be isolated and no longer is assigned to any permanent office.

“In my experience, congressional disclosures spark the ugliest retaliation,” Tom Devine, the legal director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) testified.

Devine suggested this is because Congress can be a “magnet for public attention” that “can act both to change the balance of resources and the rules of the game.” A “direct linear relationship” exists between “the threat posed by a whistleblower and the severity of retaliation.” In fact, FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley once suggested that the FBI “viewed Congress with as much and sometimes more hostility” than “enemy nations.”

Devine warned the committee that agencies are now relying on “creative harassment tactics” since the passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act in 2012.

“Instead of just firing someone,” agencies put whistleblowers “under criminal investigation but give them the choice of either resigning or facing a prosecutive referral,” Devine explained. It is “very attractive” and “much easier” for them than litigation. They do not have to “prepare formal charges.” All an agency needs is a “good investigative lawyer.” The worst that can happen is the agency has to close a case. But the next month the agency can open another case against that whistleblower under a “new pretext.”

Most alarming is the “sensitive jobs loophole” President Barack Obama’s administration is creating. Devine argued the government is on the “verge of replacing the rule of law with a national security spoils system.” (more…)