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US Borders: Secret Paths for Interrogation, Seizure, Detention of Whistleblowers' Associates

Government documents reveal widespread abuse of border authority to violate civil liberties

Sarah Lazare, staff writer

It turns out that the U.K. isn't the only country abusing its border authority to carry out politically motivated detentions, seizures and interrogations of travelers, as illustrated by the case of David Miranda.

Internal government documents released Monday by the ACLU show that U.S. government agencies collude with local authorities to use border crossings to bypass civil liberties protections and seize and search electronic devices that belong to people who associate with whistleblowers and other political targets.

The documents detailing this abuse were publicly exposed by 26-year-old David House, a fundraiser for campaigns to support WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning. House was detained and interrogated while traveling through Chicago’s O'Hare International Airport on a return trip from Mexico in 2010. House's laptop computer, mobile phone, camera and USB drive were seized, with all but his phone held for 7 weeks.

The ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit on House's behalf, charging that his 1st and 4th Amendment rights were violated. House and the U.S. government reached a settlement in May 2013 which stipulated, among other things, that the government must hand over documents related to the investigation of House and search of his electronics.

These turned out to be treasure troves of evidence.


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House discovered he had been flagged by the Department of Homeland Security on the grounds he might possess documents revealed by Manning. While House had been previously questioned about his relationship to Manning, no government official had, to that point, ordered a search or seizure of his belongings.

An agent with Homeland Security Investigations sent out a digital alert that House was wanted for questioning by the Department of Justice and, through this alert, learned that House would be traveling through the airport. Agents were then sent to intercept and detain House. The documents show HSI was working in collaboration with multiple federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, the Department of State and the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division, for purposes including arranging the detention and analyzing the seized data.

House is not alone. The New York Times reports:

Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, said that it conducted electronic media searches on 4,957 people from Oct. 1, 2012, through Aug. 31, 2013, or about 15 a day, which is similar to the average during the previous two years. About 930,000 people are screened daily by border agents.

Legal experts say that documents reveal systemic abuse of borders to erode civil liberties protections. "House’s case provides a perfect example of how the government uses its border search authority to skirt the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment," the ACLU declared in a statement. "The government enjoys wider latitude to search people and their belongings at the border than it possesses elsewhere, for the purpose of protecting our borders... It was simply an opportunity to conduct a suspicion-less search that no court would ever have approved inside the country."


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