San Francisco - Recently obtained documents show that last year the Department of Homeland Security quietly reversed a two-decades-old policy that restricted customs agents from reading and copying the personal papers carried by travelers, including U.S. citizens. The documents were made public today by the Asian Law Caucus (ALC) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which sued the government under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain policies governing the searches and questioning of travelers at the nation’s borders.
The documents show that in 2007, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) loosened restrictions on the examination of travelers' documents and papers that had existed since 1986. While CBP agents could previously read travelers' documents only if they had "reasonable suspicion" that the documents would reveal violations of agency rules, in 2007 officers were given the power to "review and analyze" papers without any individualized suspicion. Furthermore, whereas CBP agents could previously copy materials only where they had "probable cause" to believe a law had been violated, in 2007 they were empowered to copy travelers' papers without suspicion of wrongdoing and keep them for a "reasonable period of time" to conduct a border search. The new rules applied to physical documents as well as files on laptop computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.
In July 2008, the Department of Homeland Security made public a new policy on examining travelers' papers and electronic devices that finalized many of the changes first implemented in 2007. The agency did not disclose, however, how much the new policy deviated from rules that had been in place since 1986. The FOIA documents from ALC's and EFF's suit included the original policy, which had been adopted after a group of U.S. citizens challenged the practices of the 1980s as violating First Amendment rights.
"For more than 20 years, the government implicitly recognized that reading and copying the letters, diaries, and personal papers of travelers without reason would chill Americans' rights to free speech and free expression," said Shirin Sinnar, ALC staff attorney. "But now customs officials can probe into the thoughts and lives of ordinary travelers without any suspicion at all."
In February 2008, ALC and EFF sued the Department of Homeland Security for failing to disclose its policies on searching and questioning travelers at U.S. borders. ALC, a San Francisco-based civil rights organization, received more than two dozen complaints since last year from U.S. travelers, mostly of Muslim, South Asian, or Middle Eastern origin, who said they were grilled about their families, religious practices, volunteer activities, political beliefs, or associations when returning to the United States from travels abroad. In addition, these individuals said that CBP agents examined their books, handwritten notes, personal photos, laptop computer files, and cell phone directories, and sometimes made copies of this information. The documents from the FOIA request show that CBP's wide latitude to collect this data attracted significant attention from other law enforcement agencies that sought to access it.
"Your laptop computer likely contains a massive amount of private information such as personal emails, financial data or confidential business records," said EFF Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann. "The Department of Homeland Security has given its agents increasingly broad authority to search, copy, and store that information. Congress needs to step in now to stop these invasive practices and protect travelers' privacy."
The newly released documents, which total 661 pages, also reveal that:
* In 2004, CBP adopted a directive on responding to "potential terrorists" seeking to enter the United States. The directive, which was revised in 2006, called for intensive questioning and document review of individuals who were flagged as "known or suspected" terrorists.
* CBP appears to have no policy constraining agents from questioning travelers on their religious practices or political views, in spite of the fact that many travelers have complained about being grilled on such First Amendment-protected activities.
* According to the Tucson, Arizona, field office of CBP, a database developed within that office to gather and disseminate intelligence on possible terrorists was to serve as a model for a national database.
ALC and EFF plan to challenge the government's withholding of portions of many of these documents in federal district court this fall.
For the complete set of FOIA documents and more detailed analysis:
To interview an individual questioned or searched by CBP:
Contact Shirin Sinnar at 415-848-7714 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Asian Law Caucus