Journalist Says Customs Officer Held His Passport Until He Answered 'Yes' To 'You Write Propaganda, Right?'

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection official reportedly held a journalist's passport until he answered "yes" to "you write propaganda," and it's just the latest of multiple such incidents by federal officials during the Trump administration.

Defense One news editor Ben Watson reported on his media outlet's site Friday that he was arriving at Washington, D.C. through Dulles International Airport the prior afternoon, coming back from an assignment in Denmark, when a CBP officer screening passports turned the questioning in an unusual direction.

"What do you do?" the officer asked Watson, holding his passport.

When Watson replied, "journalism," the officer said, "So you write propaganda, right?" Watson responded, "No," and the conversation continued as follows, according to his recounting:

CBP officer: "You're a journalist?"

Watson: "Yes."

CBP officer: "You write propaganda, right?"

Watson: "No. I am in journalism. Covering national security. And homeland security. And with many of the same skills I used in the U.S. Army as a public affairs officer. Some would argue that's propaganda."

CBP officer: "You're a journalist?"

Watson: "Yes."

CBP officer: "You write propaganda, right?"

Watson waited five seconds. Then: "For the purposes of expediting this conversation, yes."

CBP officer, a fourth time: "You write propaganda, right?"

Watson, again: "For the purposes of expediting this conversation, yes."

CBP officer: "Here you go."

The officer handed Watson his passport back after asking four times if his job was to write propaganda. Asked why he thought it happened and if it had to do with President Donald Trump's rhetoric against the media, Watson told Newsweek, "I, of course, cannot say why it happened."

"I just know it did happen, and it was not normal," Watson said, adding that the officer's "troublesome four questions had nothing to do with re-entry into the United States."

Watson filed a civil rights complaint complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and said, "as far as what should be done, that's up to DHS."

"I know that as (a) former Army sergeant, we adhered to the standard of doing the 'right thing' and held soldiers accountable when they did not," Watson continued. "I knew holding my passport until I said I wrote propaganda was not the right thing by any measure that I was aware of at the time or in the almost 24 hours since."

What I told my colleagues shortly afterward:

"I've honestly never had a human attempt to provoke me like this before in my life.
This behavior is totally normal now, I guess?"

— Ben Watson (@natsecwatson) October 4, 2019

The officer's actions seemed to violate the spirit and perhaps even the letter of DHS's internal Directive 0480.1 and Code of Conduct § 102-74.445, as well as CBP Directive 51735-013A, Watson wrote.

Several other journalists have reported experiencing similar treatment from CBP officials in the past year.

Time reporter Vera Bergengruen shared Watson's story on Twitter and commented that it happened to her coming into the U.S. last year.

"A pretty aggressive questioning about who I worked for and 'fake news,'" she tweeted.

This has happened to me coming back into the country too, last year - a pretty aggressive questioning about who I worked for and “fake news.”

Also when you’re not a US citizen (I’m a permanent resident) this takes on a much more threatening tone if they could deny you entry.

— Vera Bergengruen (@VeraMBergen) October 4, 2019

A CBP official also reportedly grilled BuzzFeed reporter David Mack at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York in February. Freelance reporter Seth Harp said he was detained by CBP officers for hours at an airport in Austin, Texas, in June. British journalist James Dwyer said he was accused of producing "fake news" by a CBP officer at Los Angeles International Airport.

"Customs and Border Protection is aware of the allegation posed by a Defense One editor about an officer's alleged inappropriate conduct at Washington Dulles International airport and we are investigating the allegation. CBP officers take an Oath of Office, a solemn pledge that conveys great responsibility and one that should be carried out at all times with the utmost professionalism. 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," a CBP spokesperson told Newsweek.

"Travelers have the right to ask to speak with a Supervisor to immediately address any concerns they have. Travelers can also file a formal complaint so that CBP can investigate any alleged misconduct at," the spokesperson added.

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Newsweek on Friday regarding the incident involving Watson.

Update (10/4, 8:35 p.m.): This article was updated to include comment from a CPB spokesperson.

CBP Officer Passport Control
Leonel Cordova (L) and Noris Cordova speak to a CBP officer as they try to use their new mobile app at an entry point as the program is unveiled for international travelers arriving at Miami International Airport on March 4, 2015, in Miami, Florida. On Friday a journalist returning to the U.S. from Europe reported being forced to say he wrote "propaganda" by a CBP officer at Dulles International Airport. Joe Raedle/Getty