It took a moment for Ben Watson to realize the officer was not joking.
Watson had just told the Customs and Border Protection staffer reviewing his passport that he works in journalism. Then, the seemingly routine Thursday encounter at Virginia’s Dulles International Airport got tense.
“So you write propaganda, right?” Watson recalled the CBP officer asking.
“No,” the news editor at national security site Defense One says he replied. He affirmed again that he was journalist.
The officer repeated his propaganda question, Watson said.
“With his tone, and he’s looking me in the eye – I very much realized this is not a joke,” Watson told The Washington Post on Friday. The exchange that ensued as Watson returned from reporting trip in Denmark – the editor says he got his passport back only after agreeing with the “propaganda” charge to move on – has sparked alarm about rising hostility to journalists as the Trump administration continues to attack the media as “fake news.”
Watson had heard a couple stories of similar encounters in the past, but says he did not realize until sharing his experience at Dulles just how many people in his field were reporting the same brand of harassment. U.S. airport border agents were at the center of several incidents that have raised reporters’s concerns this year.
“I’ve honestly never had a human attempt to provoke me like this before in my life,” Watson remembers telling his colleagues. “This behavior is totally normal now, I guess?”
Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that it is investigating the “alleged inappropriate conduct.”
“We hold our employees accountable to our core values of vigilance, integrity and service to country, and do not tolerate inappropriate comments or behavior by our employees,” the agency said.
Standards of conduct for the Department of Homeland Security, CBP’s parent agency, direct staff to “act impartially.”
An article from Defense One describes Watson’s full recollection of Thursday’s conversation. After the second alleged query by the CBP officer, Watson explained that he covers national security “with many of the same skills” he used as a public affairs officer in the Army.
“Some would argue that’s propaganda,” he added.
When the officer reiterated his question a third time, Watson says, he paused.
His wife had already circled the airport for 20 minutes. He figured he could get stuck for hours if he tried to call in the officer’s supervisor. So he gave in.
“For the purposes of expediting this conversation, yes,” he recalled telling the CBP officer.
The officer made Watson agree one more time before letting him through, Watson said. He says he’s filed a civil rights complaint with DHS.
“We are disappointed and concerned that any U.S. official would question a journalist, or any citizen, in this way,” Kevin Baron, Defense One’s executive editor, wrote to The Post.
Others in journalism circles and beyond were quick to point out chilling implications in the story.
Walter Shaub, an attorney who served as director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics until 2017, tweeted that incident should go to the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General office for review.
“A customs agent withholding the passport of a journalist until he agrees to say he writes “propaganda” is actionable misconduct, even in Trump’s America,” he said.
A growing list of journalists say they have been startled by government officials’s harassment in a country that prizes freedom of the press. The encounters are raising fears that hostile rhetoric led by President Donald Trump and his allies are damaging reporters’s ability to do their job unhindered.
This spring, the World Freedom Press Index called journalists’s treatment in the U.S. “problematic” for the first time in its 17 years of assessments – and singled out “President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric and continuing threats to journalists” as driving the deteriorating conditions. The U.S.’s spot in the ranking has fallen for the last three years.
Several other journalists have described difficulties getting through airports in 2019.
In February, CBP apologized to a BuzzFeed journalist questioned at a New York airport about their news organization’s coverage of Trump and Robert Mueller III’s special counsel investigation. A few months later, a freelancer said he was detained by CBP officials for hours at an airport in Texas.
Then, in August, British journalist James Dyer described an “unsettling experience” as he flew into California to cover a Disney event. The film and TV writer said a CBP officer at Los Angeles International Airport called him a member of the “fake news media” and asked if he’d worked for CNN or MSNBC, two frequent targets of Trump’s criticism.
“He aggressively told me that journalists are liars and are attacking their democracy,” Dyer wrote in a viral tweet-thread.
He said he was allowed to move on after explaining that he was just trying to write about Star Wars.
CBP’s response at the time was much like its statement on Thursday’s incident.
“Inappropriate comments or behavior are not tolerated, and do not reflect our values of vigilance, integrity and professionalism,” the agency said.
CBP did not address broader concerns about its officers’s treatment of journalists in its Friday statement on the Dulles Airport incident.