Rolling Stone journalist stopped for secondary screening, has electronics searched while asked invasive questions about reporting
After arriving on a flight from Mexico City on May 13, 2019, Rolling Stone journalist Seth Harp was stopped for secondary screening by border authorities in Austin, Texas. Over the course of four hours, the officers aggressively questioned him about his reporting and searched his electronic devices.
Harp, an Austin-based reporter, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he has traveled extensively for work, reporting from Mexico and as a war correspondent in the Middle East.
In an account of the incident he published in The Intercept, Harp wrote that he is usually waved through immigration after a few questions. This time, the questions were more aggressive than usual, and after Harp told the officer that he had spent a week in Mexico on a reporting trip, the officer asked what the piece was about.
“[That] didn’t sit right with me,” Harp wrote. “I tried to skirt the question, but he came back to it, pointedly.”
Harp recalled saying something to the effect of not having a legal obligation to disclose the content of his reporting. Shortly after, a supervisor told him that if he refused to answer the question he would not be allowed into the United States. Customs and Border Protection officials also repeatedly denied Harp’s requests to contact a lawyer, stating that he wasn’t under arrest.
When CBP officers returned to ask again about the content of his reporting, Harp wrote that he gave a glib, joking response.
“From then on out, the officers made it clear that I was in for a long delay,” he wrote.
Though Harp ultimately told the officers that he was finishing a piece for Rolling Stone about men gunrunning from Texas and Arizona to the Mexican cartel, the officers searched his suitcase and carefully read his journal containing personal and professional notes.
The officers then asked Harp to unlock his electronic devices so they could be searched as well.
“When the officers told me they only wanted to check my devices for child pornography, links to terrorism, and so forth, I believed them,” Harp wrote in his account. “I was completely unprepared for the digital ransacking that came next.”
Harp told the Tracker that while wary of compromising his cell phone and laptop, he decided to unlock them after being denied access to a lawyer in order to prevent officers from confiscating his devices. Over the next three hours, the officers combed through his photos, videos, emails, business correspondence and internet history. They also examined his text messages, including encrypted messages on WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram.
The officers frequently took his devices out of the room for long periods of time, and Harp told the Tracker that he suspects they may have made copies. They also wrote down his laptop’s serial number and three or four numbers and alphanumeric sequences found deep in his phone’s settings, including the phone’s IMEI number, a 15 digit identity code that can be used to track a phone’s physical location.
Over the subsequent hours, Harp wrote, the officers questioned him about all aspects of his work, his conversations with editors and colleagues and his political views.
“Interestingly,” Harp wrote, “they didn’t ask me anything about CBP itself. I had told them my current story was about gunrunning, but they didn’t think to ask if I’d done any reporting on their employer, which I had. In fact, my laptop contained hardwon documents on CBP.”
Harp told the Tracker that while he can’t be certain the officers didn’t review those documents, he didn’t see them reading the files and they didn’t ask him questions about them.
On three occasions during the course of his secondary screening, Harp wrote, an officer he identifies as Pomeroy “pronounced words to the effect that he was subjectively forming a reasonable belief that I might grab his service weapon.” Harp wrote that the “rhetorical move” and Pomeroy’s clapping his hand to his sidearm was an “implicit death threat.”
Four hours after he was pulled into secondary, an officer told him he was free to pack up his luggage and go.
Harp told the Tracker that the point of writing The Intercept article about his ordeal was to demonstrate the unchecked power that CBP has been accumulating. “CBP has gotten less reigned in and more aggressive, and with few checks on them they can do this to anybody for any reason.”
Harp wrote that when asked for comment on his article, CBP sent him a statement which read, in part, “CBP has adapted and adjusted our actions to align with current threat information, which is based on intelligence… As the threat landscape changes, so does CBP.”