When OTM producer Sarah Abdurrahman tried getting answers from the Department of Homeland Security for her border detainment story, she experienced first hand how opaque the behemoth federal agency can be with reporters. But her experience wasn't unique. Brooke speaks with New York Times contributor Susan Stellin and Rio Grande Valley correspondent for the Associated Press Christopher Sherman--two journalists that regularly come in contact with DHS and its various agencies--about just how difficult it can be to get information.
BOB GARFIELD: About a month ago, we aired a piece from our producer, Sarah Abdurrahman that generated a huge response. It was about her and her friends’ and her family's frightening and unexplained detention at the US border post at Niagara Falls on a return trip from a wedding in Toronto. They are all American citizens. Here's an excerpt.
KHALED AHMED: After we had been there about five and a half hours, a man came out, put handcuffs on me and took me to a back room that was basically a jail cell. They didn’t tell me what was going on. My only request was I just asked one of them, “Whenever you guys find out what’s going on, can you please just tell my family, can you just inform my family?”
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: While Khaled was still in the jail cell, the rest of his group got their passports back and were told they could leave. Here's his wife Alaa.
ALAA AHMED: The agent tells me, oh, he won’t be joining you guys. There is an agency coming to pick him up. I was like, well, what agency? He’s like, I can’t disclose that information with you. I was like, he’s my husband, you need to tell me where he is going. We waited here six hours. We’re American citizens. Don’t treat us like we’re criminals. Don’t treat us like we’ve done something wrong. [PAUSES/BREAKS UP] And he made it seem like it was the FBI coming to get him, like this was something serious. And then I just broke down.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: It turned out Khaled had an unpaid ticket for having a crooked license plate, which he got back in 2006.
BOB GARFIELD: That part of the story was about some friends also returning from the wedding, also citizens, who had been stopped the same day at the Detroit border post. No explanation, just hours of detention in a purposely cold room, device searches and dread. Sarah told Brooke:
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: How naïve was I to think that when we came back into the country, all smiles and happy to be home, that this wouldn't happen? You know, you always hear this over and over and over again, you don’t do anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide, you’re fine. And I really thought if there's due process, if there’s a legal system and I haven't done anything wrong, then nobody will treat me that way, and if somebody does treat me that way, there’s gonna be some sort of accountability later, for that. And what I'm discovering is there's nothing that any of us can do, absolutely nothing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Despite repeated attempts, Sarah never reached anyone within the relevant government agencies for clarity about their policies. In the face of our utter failure to get answers from DHS, we sought some insight from experts, Susan Stellin is a contributor to the New York Times and Christopher Sherman is the Rio Grande Valley correspondent for the Associated Press. Both Susan and Chris regularly report about and interact with agencies within the Department Of Homeland Security.
SUSAN STELLIN: I tend to write about travel, so the two areas where I have had the most experience with DHS is either the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration, or CBP, Customs and Border Protection.
CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN: And I’m based here in McAllen, Texas at the Texas-Mexico border, so naturally I write a lot about immigration and border security. So, on a very regular basis, I deal with Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol, as well as some of the other agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s part of covering any massive federal bureaucracy, is, is learning how to navigate it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And once you figured it out, it was totally smooth sailing, right?
CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN: [LAUGHS] What I've noticed has really been in, in the last year or so some information that previously had been provided, really without any hesitation, suddenly it, it was, what’s your story about, who else are you interviewing, how do these statistics or this data fit into your story? You know, they’re free to ask those questions and I’m free not to answer them, but oftentimes they delayed the process. And these weren’t stories where you would expect them to be especially sensitive, and I was asking for things that I used to get really without any question.
SUSAN STELLIN: Just about a year ago, I was able to get, you know, an executive director at the agency on the phone. They knew it wasn't just going to be easy questions. From there, it's really changed, where it's been very difficult to get someone to do an actual interview. I’ve been asked to send the topics in advance. There is that point where it does tip over into feeling like the motivation is really to find out what the angle of the story is and get as much information about it, even though at the end of that process the answer is we can’t make someone available for an interview. Here's a statement that says everything we do is about keeping Americans safe. Travelers have legitimate questions about this process: What are your rights, what do you have to do? So if the government isn’t willing to talk to reporters and clarify what these policies are, then that’s effectively saying we’re not making it clear to the public. You know, it may be no one wants to talk about it because there really isn't a policy to point to.
CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN: There have been situations where there's been a line of communications with contacts at an agency over a period of time. You may even have a contact locally who has said, okay, we can do the interview, and then the night before it’s supposed to happen, you get a phone call saying, I’m sorry, this interview is no longer approved.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As a person who does this day to day, do you wake up in the morning and go, [SIGHS] uhhh?
SUSAN STELLIN: It's frustrating, definitely. But if you have enough information from other sources for the story, sometimes the fact that the government won't comment on it or agency officials won't comment on it, that speaks volumes to me. So something gets across, even though there wasn't an answer to your question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN: From their perspective, I sometimes wonder why that choice was being made, because now the official spokesperson is completely out of the story and we’re talking to retired agents or we’re speaking with agents who have requested anonymity ‘cause they fear retaliation, or you end up talking to a union representative who, who feels safer speaking on the record. And I've heard, in private conversations with agents here locally, that they would like to have their voice there, they would like to be speaking on some of these subjects, but somewhere up the chain, it’s, it’s getting shut down.
SUSAN STELLIN: The other issue, I would say, that is more frustrating for me is making the effort to reach someone, via email, phone calls being sent to multiple people and then after the article appears, there’s been a couple of times where I’ve then heard from someone, as Chris said, higher up the food chain, who says, I'm shocked and disappointed we weren’t given the opportunity to comment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Since you say the stories get out there, what is the public missing because of DHS opacity?
CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN: A better understanding of, of why some of these policies exist, why some decisions are made, because we’re not allowed to have these conversations with the people who are actually making the decisions. At times, the low-level agents in the field seem as mystified by some of these things as I am. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Policies or by the lack of responsiveness?
CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN: Some of both. I’ve received questions from agents about policies. You know, it’s not entirely clear to them why they're doing something a certain way.
SUSAN STELLIN: The justification, I think, for not talking about a lot of things is, well, for security reasons, we can't talk about that. I think, to give one counter example, I would say that with the Transportation Security Administration, there was such an outcry over screening procedures - the pat downs, the x-ray machines - that ultimately they did engage the media much more. That did lead to some opening up and discussions of policies and, in some cases, rolling back certain policies, like the removal of x-ray machines from domestic airports.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you think your reporting would be different if the DHS and its [LAUGHS] associated agencies were more forthcoming?
SUSAN STELLIN: It opens up, potentially, a broader discussion about, you know, is this the correct policy or is this unnecessary policy. It used to be you could basically sashay across the border, and now, we are moving toward a time when everybody has these passports that have a chip in them and when you pass through all this data comes up on you. So this idea about protecting the border, what are we trying to accomplish here? How much money is being spent on it? And what are the costs just to privacy and civil rights that we’re accepting?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you can't have these larger discussions about these policies, if you can get a clear idea of, of what they are, how much they cost, what their impact is, and so on.
SUSAN STELLIN: Well, I think you can, it's just not a fully informed discussion. I mean, I think Sarah's broadcast really generated a discussion. People were really surprised at what had happened to her and her family. Stories like that, I think, do then prompt members of Congress to take a look at things. That’s been the case with some of the things that I've written about. Other media outlets report on it. So I don't know that it really shuts down this opportunity to have a broader conversation, but to have a fully-informed conversation that's based on data and information, that's the part that's harder.
CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN: So you do what you can to try to form a better relationship, a, a more trusting relationship, because you don't want to reach that step where it truly is a standoff and you’re finding yourself filing FOIAs every day. Once you take that step, you know it's going to be several months before you get your information. That – I mean, that’s not to say I, I don’t file FOIAs on, on a regular basis, but you really don't want to get to the point where you have to do that for things that have been given to you in the past, without the slightest hesitation.
SUSAN STELLIN: The main thing that they can hold back is data about things. You can write about a topic and you can find experts or people who are in the public who experience things, but it's more, I think, to get those numbers and to get the real facts about policies that does diminish the quality of what you can write about.
CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN: And that’s the stuff that we usually end up having to file FOIAs for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So after doing this coverage for so long, when you put in that request, do you still have just a glimmer of hope that you just might this time get a response?
CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN: Yeah, I do. [LAUGHS]
You know, it would become more difficult to come to work every day if you really didn't think there was any chance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris, thank you very much.
CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN: Thank you very much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Sherman is the Rio Grande Valley correspondent for the Associated Press. Susan, thank you too.
SUSAN STELLIN: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Susan Stellin is a contributor to the New York Times.