Wall Street Journal Middle East reporter Maria Abi-Habib says on Facebook that when she arrived last week at LAX from Beirut, a Department of Homeland Security agent approached her, knew who she was, and escorted her to a "special section of LAX" with another agent. They questioned her for an hour about the years she lived in the U.S. and Lebanon, the names of people at the wedding she was here to attend, and other personal information. Abi-Habib says "I answered jovially, because I've had enough high-level security experiences to know that being annoyed or hostile will work against you."
But then the agents demanded that the reporter turn over her two cellphones. "We want to collect information," the female agent said, according to Abi-Habib. When she declined, the agents gave her a document that informed her Homeland Security agents can seize any cellphone at any port of entry, and 100 miles inland from the border. This applies even to journalists.
From her Facebook post:
So I called their bluff.
"You'll have to call The Wall Street Journal's lawyers, as those phones are the property of WSJ," I told her, calmly.
She accused me of hindering the investigation - a dangerous accusation as at that point, they can use force. I put my hands up and said I'd done nothing but be cooperative, but when it comes to my phones, she would have to call WSJ's lawyers.
She said she had to speak to her supervisor about my lack of cooperation and would return. I was left with the second DHS officer who'd been there since we left the baggage claim area.
The female officer returned 30 minutes later and said I was free to go. I have no idea why they wanted my phones -- it could have been a way for them to download my contacts. Or maybe they expect me of terrorism or sympathizing with terrorists -- although my profile wouldn't fit, considering I am named Maria Teresa, and for a variety of other reasons including my small child.
CNN confirmed with the Department of Homeland Security that agents had questioned the reporter. Wall Street Journal editor in chief Gerard Baker said that the paper is "disturbed by the serious incident involving Abi-Habib."
"We have been working to learn more about these events, but the notion that Customs and Border Protection agents would stop and question one of our journalists in connection with her reporting and seek to search her cell phones is unacceptable."
The CNN story says "this journalist's encounter last week highlights a little-known federal policy: Border patrol agents have sweeping powers to search a person -- even without 'reasonable suspicion' of any crime."
The policy was set in 2013 when DHS reviewed its own powers and concluded that its agents were clear to search at will.
"Imposing a requirement that officers have reasonable suspicion in order to conduct a border search of an electronic device would be operationally harmful without concomitant civil rights/civil liberties benefits," it wrote.