Alastair Jamieson, a journalist for NBC News, was detained for hours and repeatedly referred to as “fake news” by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer when arriving in Miami, Florida, on Nov. 30, 2017.
Before leaving for the United States, a Homeland Security official, whom Jamieson identified as William Fernandez, had questioned him and searched his bag before allowing him to board at London’s Heathrow Airport. There Jamieson noticed his boarding pass was flagged with “SSSS.”
Jamieson told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that his boarding pass had often been flagged with the marker used to signal travelers for secondary screening, which he believed was due to his reporting trips to the Middle East and unusual travel patterns. He added that since registering with CBP’s Global Entry trusted traveler program a few years before, he had not been flagged.
Jamieson told the Tracker that after he landed at Miami International Airport at around 7:30pm, the automated machines at U.S. Customs flagged his picture with a red ‘X’ and he was directed into the normal processing line, a first for him since applying for Global Entry.
“When I got to an agent, he immediately sent me off, without explanation, to the secondary questioning area, so I knew I was in for a long wait,” Jamieson said.
The secondary screening, Jamieson told the Tracker, was “wild.”
“I had expected a long wait,” he said. “I had not expected to be barked at by CBP agents who were trying to create a kind of ‘boot camp’ atmosphere in which everyone was intimidated and in fear of giving the wrong answer.”
The CBP officer, whom Jamieson identified as Officer Jones, confiscated his phone and kept it out of his view. Jamieson noted that because he had a screen lock, he does not believe it was accessed or searched. Officer Jones questioned him over the course of an hour, repeatedly using the term “fake news” in reference to his job and asking inappropriate questions about his romantic life.
“She knew my job without asking, and had clearly Googled my social media profile. She would ask why someone ‘with a good job at an American company’ would visit ‘these kind of countries,’” Jamieson said, referring to Turkey and other Middle Eastern states. “She then went through the list of my Facebook friends to ask which ones were friends or which ones I’d had sex with, or both.”
Officer Jones also asked Jamieson to write out a list of countries he had visited—information listed in both the Global Entry and ESTA visa systems—but refused to give him a pen, and waited for him to borrow one from another detained traveler.
“Having written out a list of countries, she looked at it, said ‘That’s ridiculous,’ and ripped up the paper in front of me,” Jamieson said. Shortly after, she told him to take his passport and “get out.”
Jamieson was directed to the specialized baggage inspection area where an officer he identified as Officer Yueng mumbled a disparaging remark and questioned whether Jamieson was a cop or insurance salesman. When Jamieson said he was a journalist, the officer responded, “Ugh, worse,” and waved him away without searching his bag.
Jamieson filed a complaint with CBP on Dec. 6, detailing the encounters and expressing his frustration with a process he said was unnecessary and avoidable.
“Assertive and robust interrogation is a useful and important tactic for agents in keeping the US border secure. Yelling idiotic and vague questions, hurling insults and generally acting like elementary school bullies is neither effective nor an appropriate use of federal resources,” Jamieson wrote in his complaint.
CBP responded to Jamieson’s complaint on Dec. 19, writing, “Please allow me to express regret for any conduct that may have been perceived as rude or unprofessional during CBP processing. CBP takes allegations of employee misconduct very seriously and has instituted policies pertaining to abuses of authority.”
As a matter of policy, CBP does not disclose the outcomes of internal investigations or disciplinary actions taken against personnel.
In a 2019 interview, Jamieson told the Tracker that while he no longer works for NBC News, this incident has stayed with him. He said, “I haven’t been back to the U.S. since. Not exclusively because of this incident, but I’m certainly not in a hurry to return.”