The border is a legal gray area where the same constitutional protections one expects inside the country don't necessarily apply. When graduate student Pascal Abidor had his electronic devices searched and seized at the border back in 2010, he filed lawsuit against the federal government. But in December, a federal judge upheld the government's right to search travelers' devices at the border without a warrant. Brooke speaks with Pascal about his experience at the border and the lawsuit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wouldn’t expect a local police officer to demand you hand over your laptop or phone without a warrant, but CBP does. And in December, a federal judge upheld its right to do so. That decision was a blow to Pascal Abidor, a graduate student in Islamic Studies at McGill University. He’s the one who sued the government back in 2010, after CBP seized his laptop and kept it for 11 days. Here’s his story of what happened when agents who boarded his Amtrak train from Montreal to New York took him aside for screening.
PASCAL ABIDOR: She turns on my laptop and says, “Put in your password, please.” And without thinking, I just entered my password. Almost immediately, she’s shocked but almost laughing, and she’s signaling to her coworkers to like come look at what’s on the screen. It was pictures of Hezbollah rallies and Hamas rallies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oy!
PASCAL ABIDOR: Yeah [LAUGHS], really, oy-oy-oy!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did you have that?
PASCAL ABIDOR: That was the question, at the time, and I said, “Well, it’s all stuff I got either, you know, photos that accompanied New York Times and other newspaper articles or by Google Image Search, and then I downloaded stuff. My research is on the Shiites of South Lebanon, so you’re gonna talk about Hezbollah at some point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you Muslim?
PASCAL ABIDOR: I was raised atheist. My mom’s French and my dad is a Jew from Brooklyn. But they raised me not as a believer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You just chose Islamic Studies because it happens to be I the headlines the last dozen years?
PASCAL ABIDOR: I, I would even go like 20 years. I can remember The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air being interrupted by the Gulf War. I think I have more than enough reason to be interested in it. And her reaction was, “Hezbollah?” It, it’s not even an object of study. It’s the enemy, apparently.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what did she do?
PASCAL ABIDOR: She told me, “We can’t hold up the rest of the train for you, so we’re going to have to take you back to the port.” I was not under arrest, but they would need to frisk me and put me in handcuffs. They took me to the port and put in a detention cell. As soon as the dock locked, I thought I was gonna throw up. I was afraid that I was about to be disappeared. It sounds hyperbolic, but it's true. I really thought I was going to Guantanamo Bay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the room itself?
PASCAL ABIDOR: Freezing cold. Even my jacket was not warm enough. It was alike a meat locker. Every once in a while, someone would come in just to ask me one or two questions - “Do you have a tattoo on your ribs? Have you ever had piercings? - asking me questions derived from photos on my MySpace page.
Eventually, they came in and they said, okay, we’re gonna – we have to ask you a whole bunch of questions, and they – walked me to an interrogation room.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Describe the interrogation.
PASCAL ABIDOR: Basically, every question you’re raised as an American to never have to be required to answer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like?
PASCAL ABIDOR: What religion were you raised? What is the religion of your parents? Are you a member of any political parties or political organizations or activist groups? Have you ever been to a mosque? Have you ever been to a rally, meaning in the Middle East? Had I, had I ever witnessed a flag burning? Would I join a rally or a flag burning, if I saw one? [LAUGHS]
They put me back in the cell, and a guy came and he introduced himself as a liaison from the FBI, and he asked me really, really, really detailed questions about my research. He got the most detailed synopsis of my research for my PhD that anyone had ever received, including my supervisor. He would say, oh, have you ever thought of working for the government? I told him, maybe if you guys didn’t do this to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So eventually, they let you go.
PASCAL ABIDOR: When they let me out of the cell, there’s – you know, the tables where your stuff gets examined, and my stuff is exploded everywhere. Well, let me rephrase that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
PASCAL ABIDOR: My stuff is scattered everywhere.
And as I’m gathering my stuff, they say, that, you know, we’re gonna have to hold onto your laptop and your external hard drive. And then they told me, you’ll wait for a bus to come and you’ll ask the bus driver if there is a seat free for you to take back to New York.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just give me a kind of overview of what it felt like that day.
PASCAL ABIDOR: The single scariest experience of my life. I was held for four to five hours. And it doesn't seem like a lot of time, but I wasn’t given a phone call, no one knew where I was. They could have done anything and nobody would have known anything.
I left this experience as though as though a bunch of gangsters threatened and intimidated me, gleeful in messing with me. When I got back to New York, I was not in a good way. I became convinced that I was being followed, that something bad would happen around me and then I would be blamed for it. I wasn’t comfortable taking the train. When I would walk, I would walk out walk in circles around blocks or randomly change direction. It messed me up. It messed me up for a good long while.
When I had an appointment set up with the ACLU, I said, if you help me get my laptop back, I will help you guys with anything you want to do with this case. This can’t happen again. It’s crazy. So they drafted a letter, sent it on Monday. Tuesday morning, I got a call from Claim Property of the Champlain port telling me, I have your laptop and your external hard drive, where can I send it back? And I got it Wednesday.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it wasn’t working so well.
PASCAL ABIDOR: Yeah, my external hard drive had been pried open and not resealed, and the keyboard had been removed and not replaced all the way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The contents been copied by the government, lots of personal stuff.
PASCAL ABIDOR: Oh yeah, they have the right to copy it and distribute the information to whatever agencies they deem should receive it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They can send it to foreign governments too.
PASCAL ABIDOR: Interesting, considering, in the judge's ruling, he does implicitly compare the United States to the government of Bashar al-Assad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In what way?
PASCAL ABIDOR: That, you know, Bashar al-Assad and the allies of Hezbollah would search my laptop.
So why shouldn’t the US government? And, more importantly, that it also – it happens so little that why should there even be a legal decision on the case. You know, the ACLU, what they wanted to do was challenge the very constitutionality of a suspicion-less search. And there is, as yet, no policy. You know, in the constitutional challenge to the policy, the judge himself cites CPB policy, saying that they’re allowed to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The CPB can unilaterally pass laws regarding the civil rights of citizens at the border.
PASCAL ABIDOR: And the entire territory of their jurisdiction which extends much deeper into America than the border.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pascal, thank you very much.
PASCAL ABIDOR: Thank you very much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pascal Abidor is a PhD student at McGill University.