Border Security and the DHS

Surreal story about a person coming into the U.S. from Iraq who is held up at the border because he used to sell copyrighted images on T-shirts:

Homeland Security, the $40-billion-a-year agency set up to combat terrorism after 9/11, has been given universal jurisdiction and can hold anyone on Earth for crimes unrelated to national security—even me for a court date I missed while I was in Iraq helping America deter terror—without asking what I had been doing in Pakistan among Islamic extremists the agency is designated to stop. Instead, some of its actions are erasing the lines of jurisdiction between local police and the federal state, scarily bringing the words “police” and “state” closer together. As long as we allow Homeland Security to act like a Keystone Stasi, terrorism will continue to win in destroying our freedom.

Kevin Drum mentions it, too.

Posted on June 16, 2006 at 9:31 AM26 Comments


bob June 16, 2006 9:59 AM

Why would there still BE a court date after you are found not guilty? To be given a stern warning “dont not do it again”?

Whats all the fuss anyway, customs agents had unrestricted powers like this for decades?

Anon Y. Mouse June 16, 2006 10:02 AM

Wasn’t there an incident (reported on the Interesting People list)
last year where DHS agents visited a small store in Oregon that
also had potentially violated copywrite?

Is the DHS really a covert arm of the RIAA/MPAA?

Just more evidence that our billions of tax dollars are paying for
more “theater” than actual security.

Moshe Yudkowsky June 16, 2006 10:17 AM

I don’t quite follow the logic here. If the person had been arrested because of an outstanding warrant for murder, would this story still be relevant? Would people still complain about the DHS checking identities at the border?

In other words, what are the criteria for deciding when a person should be in a national criminal database? If you allow murderers into the database, where do you stop? Or should a murderer be allowed to escape justice simply by travelling to another state?

derf June 16, 2006 10:23 AM

Sounds like the MAFIAA ( has made terrorists out of DHS. Soon we’ll need to pray to Hollywood once a day.

Boris June 16, 2006 11:01 AM

“Whats all the fuss anyway, customs agents had unrestricted powers like this for decades?”

The fuss, I believe, is that now they have interlinked databases so the DHS can access your parking tickets or civil code violations. They didn’t have that level of cooperation before.

Bob June 16, 2006 11:18 AM

Of course using DHS to retain people for non-terrorist, legal issues is just plain wrong. There should be a separate checkpoint manned by non-DHS federal employees checking people against federal databases. And then fifty more checkpoints checking people against databases for each of the fifty states.

Fifty-two separate checkpoints at every border crossing is not at all unreasonable. And I’m sure we could make it efficient enough to take no more than five or six hours.

Haninah June 16, 2006 11:22 AM

I’m not convinced by this one. It may be wishful thinking, but is it too much to hope for that he really was stopped for all the good reasons he gives (Pakistan, etc.), that while he was sitting there his documents were being run through some sort of check, and that when the check concluded that he was just an innocent journalist, he was released? That they told him the cover story because they don’t exactly want to tell every person they take in for questioning the details of how they operate (maybe even Malik didn’t know the real reason why he was told to chat this guy up for a few hours)? In that case, this would be a case of the system operating perfectly: an innocent person with legitimate flag-raisers is detained briefly, and ultimately released without having been subjected to any humiliating treatment or presumption of guilt.
I don’t want to be an inveterate optimist, but on the other hand, we do spend a lot of time on this blog assuming the worst about DHS, NSA, etc (oh, man, those NSA idiots, they don’t know s**t about networks, I bet I could program better than they could, etc.) Let’s be as suspicious as we have to, but let’s also not assume that just because someone works for the government, they’re utterly incompetent.

Andrew2 June 16, 2006 11:31 AM

The only thing wrong here is that the guy was let go. The Dept. of Homeland Security isn’t a narrowly-focused organization with the solitary mission of fighting terrorism. It inherited all the routine tasks that go along with the legacy organizations it took over. The border security part of this includes preventing people with outstanding warrants from entering the country. The fact that the warrant has nothing to do with terror is irrelevant.

Michael Ash June 16, 2006 11:50 AM


“we do spend a lot of time on this blog assuming the worst about DHS, NSA, etc”

The way I see it, we spend a lot of time assuming the best, not the worst. Take this case. We could assume your cover story deal; namely that DHS knew all of his shifty terrorism-related background but told him he was being held for selling T-shirts. So instead of mere incompetence, we have an agency with no oversight stopping people for hours, checking into their travel backgrounds, and then completely lying to them about why they were stopped.

When you get pulled over by the police, do you expect them to lie about why they pulled you over? Sure, sometimes their real reason is “you looked fishy” or “I just had a fight with my wife and I needed to feel powerful again”, but they always find a legitimate reason. And quite honestly the “let’s find a reason” stops are scary too, and not at all a good thing.

I wish, but don’t expect, my elected officials to tell the truth. I do expect government agencies to tell the truth where they could get involved in my life. The exceptions (CIA, NSA, military) aren’t supposed to be allowed to interact with me anyway.

In any case, DHS is not a spy agency nor a branch of the military. They are effectively police and they should act like it. But just like all of those Keystone Kops TSA agents I encounter at every trip through the magnetometer, DHS seems to want all of the privileges of being police but without any of the responsibility.

The choice is between being incompetent or malevolently competent; choosing the former is assuming the best.

Concerned Citizen June 16, 2006 12:23 PM

All you security experts should wake up to the fact of corruption and gov. based terrorism to control the people and make politicians richer, ie, W. and Cheney & friends(Halliburton, Bachtel) etc . Check out and to see what our government has in store for us in the very near future. “Love the country, but fear the Government”

Haninah June 16, 2006 12:42 PM

@ Michael
I share your sentiments, but disagree with you on this case. Your constitutional right to know what you’re suspected of doesn’t kick in, in an ordinary investigation, till your case goes to trial. It’s perfectly normal for the cops to bring someone in for questioning without disclosing to them the full details of the suspected crime they’re investigating. Of course, if you’re being questioned, you have a right to know that that is what’s going on (and to have an attorney present), but it doesn’t sound like this guy was being questioned, merely (under my scenario) being held while a background check was being run. And it’s not just the police: I’m sure the IRS, for example, has the same power. In short, detaining someone for six hours at the border without telling them what it is that’s suspicious about them, assuming that they’re not being in any way abused or threatened during that time, is a long way from a Kafkaesque trial in which a defendant is never informed of the crime of which they’re accused.
Unfortunately, we now know that our country is also running that type of Kafkaesque trial, and, even worse, detaining people indefinitely without the prospect of any sort of trial, and under abusive conditions. But we’re as bad as the worst consumers of movie plot threats if we socially engineer ourselves into seeing a case of either incompetence or competent malevolence every time we hear from a total stranger that he or she had an interaction with a law enforcement agency which is not completely explained by the facts which are available to us. Don’t we need something more than mildly odd behavior (on the part of the law-enforcement agency) to trigger our suspicion?
To put it another way: yes, I do believe in slippery slopes, but that doesn’t mean that in a country where people are being secretly detained and tortured we should be wasting our time pondering the fate of a journalist who, on returning from some rather remarkable adventures abroad, was forced to submit for six hours to mediocre sports talk with a government employee (“a Pakistani, ironically” — and why exactly is the govt employee’s ethnicity so ironic?).
Just saying.

Andrew1 June 16, 2006 12:53 PM

Database creep. Checkpoint creep. Petty bureaucrats with no meaningful oversight.

We can do something about that last. Write your Congressman! Make a big nasty stink using your blog and the media . . .

“Question Authority, or Authority Will Question You.” Never been more true than today.

bwebb June 16, 2006 2:04 PM

“It’s perfectly normal for the cops to bring someone in for questioning without disclosing to them the full details of the suspected crime they’re investigating.”

Well, no, I don’t think that’s exactly right. They may extend an invitation for you to come down for an interview or perp walk, but you can decline. So, if they really want your presence, they have to get a warrant. Of course, the warrant might not disclose why. But as noted, you can then bring your atty.

On the other hand, government agents enforcing our borders have additional legal powers relating to searches and detentions. And the original author’s point that DHS is enforcing warrants, not for violent felonies, not for felonies, not for misdemeanors, but infractions (and civil complaints) should be of concern to all, I would think. It also appears to be an inappropriate use of our resources, that was in this case obvious to the NYPD. The DHS should perhaps survey other law enforcement agencies, and not detain people when they can know ahead of time that it is a futile waste of their time (as well as the detainee’s).

geoff lane June 16, 2006 2:44 PM

Remember the last country to have a Homeland Security division of government?

Of course they pronounced it “HeimatSicherheit”

Nick Lancaster June 16, 2006 3:50 PM

This is the inevitable question that gets asked when one is pulled over for speeding. “Why aren’t you catching the real criminals?”

It is not the cross-linked databases that are the problem, but, shoot, if you’re going to tag the guy for an outstanding warrant, how about one that actually involves public safety?

Bootleg Celtics’ shirts, indeed.

Anonymous June 18, 2006 12:14 AM

This guy’s story stinks of BS. I doubt we can decipher what the truth is, or even if this guy ever traveled out of the U.S. There are lots of dopes and wanna-bes out there allegedly working “to counter terrorism” on their own. It’s crap even if they really think they are combatting terrorism, and most often it’s just an excuse to be doing other things. The LA Times puts it all out simply because it follows their editorial line to criticize the Bush Administration.
Lots of folks here pretty down on those who have to do their best to make the critical decisions at the border and before. Wanting so to believe that horrendously bad decisions were made – not looking into the real situation. Keystone Monday-morning Quarterbacks.

Fordan June 18, 2006 9:31 AM

I don’t see the concern here. He had a warrant outstanding, in the very city he was flying into. Basically any law-enforcement officer he encountered and who became aware of his identity and the warrant is suposed to arrest him on sight.

The real question is why did they let him go before they could get the NYPD there?

Ralph June 18, 2006 11:07 PM

If his story is true, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, then it’s a lovely little piece.

Lovely because it reveals the Dept. of Homeland Security and the thinking that created it to be the emperors clothes that it is.

It would have made a great movie moment combining the pettiness of the small minded abuse of power with the humour of the obviously ridiculous, topped with the crowning glory of the incompetent twist at the end!

You would be hard pressed to create better from your imagination.

I love it.

Jack C Lipton June 19, 2006 2:16 PM

Y’know, I half expect the DHS to make money as a collection agency, keeping people who don’t have clean credit reports from returning to the country.

“Yeah, that’ll teach you to short a creditor!”

And, of course, there’s no way to clean it up, any more than you can clear yourself from any of the other lists that get made.

Another Kevin June 19, 2006 3:57 PM

@geoff lane: “Remember the last country to have a Homeland Security division of government? /Of course they pronounced it “HeimatSicherheit” ‘

That wasn’t the last one. I remember Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnoty rather more recently.

GiganticPussy(cat) August 17, 2006 2:52 PM

They probably didn’t even shoot him even after he shat all over them…

[or set up a heroin overdose like some clancy novel]

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