Homeland Security and Michael Yon: It's On

Michael Yon has provided us a unique and desperately needed perspective in two theaters of war when the rest of the media chose to end embedding with the troops.  Today, he brings us another perspective on Homeland Security.  When a friend of Yon’s from Thailand attempted to enter the US, she got a rather unpleasant introduction to America — and Yon himself got caught up in the bureaucratic wrangling:

Problems began when she entered the airport in Bangkok.  Aew had a one-way ticket to America, because we would travel back in the direction of the war before she would go home, but we did not know our exact itinerary, so she hadn’t bought a round-trip ticket back to Thailand.  Before boarding the flight from Thailand to America, Northwest Airlines required Aew to buy a return ticket for 53,905 Thai bhat, or about $1,200 for a return ticket, else they would not let her board the flight.  Aew paid by her credit card and pushed on.  Understandably, it raises suspicions when a foreign national doesn’t have a round-trip ticket in an age of massive illegal immigration — even if that person is an educated professional with a home and career, and even though Aew has a ten-year visa to the United States.  Nevertheless, Aew paid approximately $1,200 for the return ticket, and so now had a return ticket.  …

While the U.S. Immigration officer named Knapp rifled through all her belongings, Aew sat quietly.  She was afraid of this man, who eventually pushed a keyboard to Aew and coerced her into giving up the password to her e-mail address.  Officer Knapp read through Aew’s e-mails that were addressed to me, and mine to her.  Aew would tell me later that she sat quietly, but “Inside I was crying.”  She had been so excited to finally visit America.  America, the only country ever to coerce her at the border.  This is against everything I know about winning and losing the subtle wars.   This is against everything I love about the United States.  We are not supposed to behave like this.  Aew would tell me later that she thought she would be arrested if she did not give the password.

The Government of the United States was reading the private e-mails of a U.S. citizen (me).  The Department of “Homeland Security” was at work, intimidating visitors with legitimate visas.  They had at least 24 hours to check her out before she landed in the United States.  What kind of security is this?  The Department of Homeland Security was at this moment more like the Department of Intimidation.

Officer Knapp called my phone as I was driving to the Orlando airport.  I was going to be there two hours early to make sure I would be on time, so that she had a warm welcome to my country.  But instead, Knapp was busy detaining Aew in Minneapolis and was on my cell phone asking all types of personal questions that he had no business asking.  Sensing that Aew was in trouble, I answered his questions.  Mr. Knapp was a rude smart aleck.  The call is likely recorded and that recording would bear out my claims.  This officer of the United States government, a grown man, had coerced personal information from a Thai woman who weighs 90 pounds.  I asked Aew later why she gave him the e-mail password, and she answered simply, “I was afraid,” and “I thought I would be arrested.”

What could I say to alleviate any of this?  Could I say, “This is the U.S., nothing to be afraid of.”?  The world already sees us as senseless bullies.  Aew might have been detained indefinitely; even I was concerned that the Department of Homeland Security might detain Aew for no reason.  Essentially, she had no rights.  They had already coerced her e-mail password out of her head through intimidation.

I trust and respect Yon, and I’m certain that he has reported his experiences here accurately, from his perspective.  Anyone who deals with law enforcement at any level occasionally runs across those who believe themselves to be the biggest fish in their little pond, and do not brook questions or criticism without a heaping dose of scorn on those whom they purportedly serve.  In my previous career, I worked with law enforcement and emergency agencies all across the nation, and while most were pleasant and professional, I could have written a book about the exceptions.

However, it’s important to note that we are getting one side of this story.  Homeland Security exists to check each entry into the US closely for any indication of potential threat.  Ninety-pound people can be terrorists, too, and even people from friendly Thailand might have some bad intentions for entering the country.  Obviously, Knapp didn’t know Aew like Michael knows her, which is part of the reason for screening on entry.  I’d bet that the one-way ticket flagged her for further review in Minneapolis.

The part about the e-mail does seem quite disturbing.  Unless they had some tangible reason to suspect her of illegal activities, Homeland Security doesn’t have any business demanding her password for her Internet account.  Using the revamped FISA legislation, they could track her communications (even with a US citizen like Michael), but she should not have had to cough up her password to gain entry into the US.  At any rate, it’s a waste of time for Homeland Security to demand it, as Aew will have almost certainly changed the password by now, and probably did so immediately after being released.

Michael is correct in stating that we should treat visitors better than how he describes Aew’s ordeal, and that there are some legitimate questions surrounding her treatment.  It sounds like Aew ran into an officious, ego-tripping dink, and Lord knows we have enough of them in the government.  Hopefully, Officer Knapp is a limited exception to the rule of professionalism at Homeland Security.