Wednesday, July 1, 2009

VETERAN JOURNALIST ABUSED BY CUSTOM OFFICIAL

Jeff Stein, CQ - A veteran American journalist returning from Latin America on Saturday was closely questioned by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent about where he went and whom he talked to. John Dinges, a former NPR managing editor for news and currently professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism, landed at Miami International Airport June 27 after visiting Venezuela and Chile.

After examining his passport, he said, the CBP agent asked him, "What were you doing on this trip?"

Returning Americans are routinely asked such general questions.

"I told him I was a journalist," Dinges said, "conducting journalistic business in Chile and Venezuela.". . .

He said the agent demanded to know "exactly" where he went and whom he met with.

"I told him I was not comfortable answering those kinds of questions," said Dinges, who has written three books on Latin America.

But the agent was adamant. "He said, 'This is the United States, and I can ask you anything I want,'" Dinges recounted.

The agent said, "You have to answer, for me to assess your status."

When Dinges again objected, saying, "I feel protected under the Constitution," the officer told him, "If you don't want to talk, we can go to the back room, and you can discuss this with my supervisor."

Feeling threatened, and having to catch a connecting flight within the hour, Dinges relented, and "started to talk about meetings and where and who I'd talked to."

"I felt I had to keep talking and give him details until he was satisfied," said Dinges, who was also a foreign desk editor for the Washington Post, and reported frequently for the paper from Latin America. He joined the Columbia faculty in the 1990s. . .

As it turns out, Customs and Border Protection officers can indeed ask anyone, including journalists, anything, according to spokesman Michael Friel.

"There are no special procedures for dealing with a journalist," Friel said in an interview.

"The officer's role is to protect the borders" and "determine a person's admissibility to the United States."

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