WASHINGTON (AP) — Newly disclosed U.S. government files provide an inside look at the Homeland Security Department’s practice of seizing and searching electronic devices at the border without showing reasonable suspicion of a crime or getting a judge’s approval.
The documents published Monday describe the case of David House, a young computer programmer who had befriended Chelsea Manning, the soldier convicted of giving classified documents to WikiLeaks in one of the biggest intelligence leaks in U.S. history.
U.S. agents quietly waited for months for House to leave the country then seized his laptop, thumb drive, digital camera and cellphone when he re-entered the United States. They held his laptop for weeks before returning it. They acknowledged one year later that House had committed no crime and promised to destroy copies the government made of his personal data.
The government turned over the federal records to House as part of a legal settlement agreement after a two-year court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the government on House’s behalf.
The ACLU said the records suggest that federal investigators are using border crossings to investigate U.S. citizens in ways that would otherwise violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which addresses unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Homeland Security Department declined to discuss the case, saying it was still being litigated. But Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Friel said border checks are focused on identifying national security or public safety risks.
“Any allegations about the use of the CBP screening process at ports of entry for other purposes by DHS are false,” Friel said.
House said he was 22 when he first met Manning, who now is serving a 35-year sentence. It was a brief, uneventful encounter at a January 2010 computer science event.
But when Manning was arrested later that year, House volunteered with friends to set up an advocacy group they called the Bradley Manning Support Network.
House quietly landed on a government watchlist used by immigrations and customs agents at the border. His file noted that the government was on the lookout for a second batch of classified documents Manning had reportedly shared with the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks but hadn’t made public yet.
Border agents were given explicit instructions: If House attempted to cross the U.S. border, “secure digital media,” and “ID all companions.”
Investigators monitored passenger flight records and waited for House to leave the country that November for a Mexico vacation. When he returned, two agents were waiting for him, including one who specialized in computer forensics. They seized House’s laptop and held his computer for seven weeks, giving the government enough time to try to copy every file and keystroke House had made since declaring himself a Manning supporter.
President Barack Obama and his predecessors have maintained that people crossing into U.S. territory aren’t protected by the Fourth Amendment. That policy is intended to allow for intrusive searches that keep drugs, child pornography and other illegal imports out of the country. But it also means the government can target travelers for no reason other than political advocacy and obtain electronic documents identifying fellow supporters.
How Americans end up getting their laptops searched at the border still isn’t clear.
The Homeland Security Department said it should be able to act if someone seems suspicious. But agents also rely on a massive government-wide system called TECS, named after its predecessor the Treasury Enforcement Communications System.
Federal agencies, including the FBI and IRS, as well as Interpol, can feed TECS with information and flag travelers’ files.
Seven weeks after the incident at the border, House faxed a letter to immigration authorities asking that his devices be returned. They were sent to him the next day, via Federal Express.
By then agents had already created an “image” of his laptop, according to the documents. Because House had refused to give the agents his password and apparently had configured his computer in such a way that appeared to stump computer forensics experts, it wasn’t until June 2011 that investigators were satisfied that House’s computer didn’t contain anything illegal. In August 2011, the Army agreed that House’s laptop was clean and promised to destroy any files from House’s computer.
House said he didn’t ask for any money as part of his settlement agreement.
He is writing a book about his experiences.
“That era was a strange time,” House said. “I’m hoping we can get our country to go in a better direction.”
Associated Press writer Anne Flaherty contributed.