ProPublica's Faulty Look at the Value of Border Searches

By Dan Cadman on March 14, 2017

ProPublica, which bills itself as "journalism in the public interest", recently published a piece by Patrick Lee, "Can Customs and Border Officials Search Your Phone? These Are Your Rights".

The article goes much farther than just phones, and digs generally into border authorities, including stops and searches. But I found it hard to actually get that far, because I myself was stopped — floored, in fact — by the very first paragraph:

A NASA scientist heading home to the U.S. said he was detained in January at a Houston airport, where Customs and Border Protection [CBP] officers pressured him for access to his work phone and its potentially sensitive contents.

Whoa, hold the phone. Let's go for a quick rewind.

A NASA scientist travels abroad with "potentially sensitive contents" on his phone, where it is susceptible to theft, cloning, or hacking by foreign intelligence services, and he objects to U.S. federal officers taking a look at it? They may even have been asked to do so by another government agency that suspected he had violated the rules governing protection of sensitive information (see below).

Reading about the incident, I'm obliged to ask, what does "potentially sensitive contents" mean? Were they or not? The scientist of all people would know. Or was he being coy because he knew it was a screw-up to take the device out of the country? There are strict — very strict — rules governing the protection of classified information, and taking electronic devices that contain such information out of the United States is a huge no-no that might result in a) prosecution, b) having your security clearance stripped from you, and/or c) getting fired. Why else would he object so strongly to CBP officers finding out if he had? Why didn't the journalist dig into all of this and ask the scientist such hard but probing questions that deserve answers, instead of relying in toto on a prior article on the matter in The Atlantic magazine that is just as hazy? Shades of Hillary Clinton all around!

So, to get back to the article in general: Lee clearly cites this little vignette, among others, as evidence of the many ways in which federal officers supposedly overstep the boundaries of propriety and civilization in their zeal to protect the borders. Does he know so little that the implications of the harm to national security this scientist may have caused are lost to him? What is more, is he aware that the scientist had no right to assert a privacy interest in a phone he didn't own; that was rather owned by the federal government, which government officers wished to examine? By placing this nonstarter of a scenario right at the beginning of his article, with complete blindness toward its larger implications, Lee lost any claim to credibility or value in the entire piece.

If journalists want us to believe that they are the arbiters of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, without whom democracy will die in darkness, then it seems to me that when writing a story, they ought to at least bone up with a basics-level class covering all the subject matter they will touch on so that they don't end up looking foolish, not to mention lacking in objectivity, that lofty goal of disinterested, honest journalists. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, would be journalism in the public interest.