One of the more extreme government abuses of the post-9/11 era targets U.S. citizens re-entering their own country, and it has received far too little attention. With no oversight or legal framework whatsoever, the Department of Homeland Security routinely singles out individuals who are suspected of no crimes, detains them and questions them at the airport, often for hours, when they return to the U.S. after an international trip, and then copies and even seizes their electronic devices (laptops, cameras, cellphones) and other papers (notebooks, journals, credit card receipts), forever storing their contents in government files. No search warrant is needed for any of this. No oversight exists. And there are no apparent constraints on what the U.S. Government can do with regard to whom it decides to target or why.
In an age of international travel — where large numbers of citizens, especially those involved in sensitive journalism and activism, frequently travel outside the country — this power renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment entirely illusory. By virtue of that amendment, if the government wants to search and seize the papers and effects of someone on U.S. soil, it must (with some exceptions) first convince a court that there is probable cause to believe that the objects to be searched relate to criminal activity and a search warrant must be obtained. But now, none of those obstacles — ones at the very heart of the design of the Constitution — hinders the U.S. government: now, they can just wait until you leave the country, and then, at will, search, seize and copy all of your electronic files on your return. That includes your emails, the websites you’ve visited, the online conversations you’ve had, the identities of those with whom you’ve communicated, your cell phone contacts, your credit card receipts, film you’ve taken, drafts of documents you’re writing, and anything else that you store electronically: which, these days, when it comes to privacy, means basically everything of worth.
It’s hard to overstate how oppressive it is for the U.S. Government to be able to target journalists, film-makers and activists and, without a shred of suspicion of wrongdoing, learn the most private and intimate details about them and their work: with whom they’re communicating, what is being said, what they’re reading. That’s a radical power for a government to assert in general. When it starts being applied not randomly, but to people engaged in activism and journalism adverse to the government, it becomes worse than radical: it’s the power of intimidation and deterrence against those who would challenge government conduct in any way. The ongoing, and escalating, treatment of Laura Poitras is a testament to how severe that abuse is.
If you’re not somebody who films the devastation wrought by the U.S. on the countries it attacks, or provides insight into Iraqi occupation opponents and bin Laden loyalists in Yemen, or documents expanding NSA activities on U.S. soil, then perhaps you’re unlikely to be subjected to such abuses and therefore perhaps unlikely to care much. As is true for all states that expand and abuse their own powers, that’s what the U.S. Government counts on: that it is sending the message that none of this will affect you as long as you avoid posing any meaningful challenges to what they do. In other words: you can avoid being targeted if you passively acquiesce to what they do and refrain from interfering in it. That’s precisely what makes it so pernicious, and why it’s so imperative to find a way to rein it in.