Michael's Dispatches

Border Bullies


The Department of Homeland Security in Action
04 January 2009

A Thai friend with whom I have traveled in Europe and Asia took time off from her job to meet me in Florida over the holidays.  This was a good time for me, as it was between reporting stints in the war. My friend, Aew, had volunteered to work with me in Afghanistan or Iraq, but I declined because many people around me get shot or blown up.  So we were looking forward to spending some vacation time together.  She comes from a good family; and one that is wealthier than most American families.  She didn’t come here for a job.  Well-educated, she has a master's degree and works as a bank officer in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Aew was excited about the prospect of visiting America for the first time, though she had traveled to many other countries and had the passport stamps to prove it.  She had no problem getting a U.S. visa, and she was paying her own way to fly.

Problems began when she entered the airport in Bangkok.  Aew had a one-way ticket to America, because we would travel back in the direction of the war before she would go home, but we did not know our exact itinerary, so she hadn't bought a round-trip ticket back to Thailand.  Before boarding the flight from Thailand to America, Northwest Airlines required Aew to buy a return ticket for 53,905 Thai bhat, or about $1,200 for a return ticket, else they would not let her board the flight.  Aew paid by her credit card and pushed on.  Understandably, it raises suspicions when a foreign national doesn't have a round-trip ticket in an age of massive illegal immigration -- even if that person is an educated professional with a home and career, and even though Aew has a ten-year visa to the United States.  Nevertheless, Aew paid approximately $1,200 for the return ticket, and so now had a return ticket. 

That is how it began.  She boarded the jet, eventually landed in Japan and then Minneapolis, before the final leg to Orlando.  While thousands of people have canceled trips to Orlando due to the failing economy, Aew was coming with cash to spend in Florida.  We would go to Disney, Kennedy Space Center and many other places; she'd be seeing the sights while I was meeting with military and other people in preparation for my upcoming return to Afghanistan for the long year ahead. 

I first met Aew in Indonesia during a break from the Iraq war.  I had gone to visit the site of the murder of my friend Beata Pawlak, who, along with about two hundred other people, was killed in a terrorist attack on the island of Bali.

After meeting in Indonesia, Aew and I stayed in touch.  We traveled at different times to Singapore, Great Britain, Thailand and Nepal.  Yet when Aew landed in Minneapolis, she was hustled away by an immigration officer.  After approximately 24 hours of exhausting travel, Aew was detained for about 90 minutes without cause, and as a result, she missed her connecting flight to Orlando.  She was brought into a small room where she saw a camera peering down.  The officer conducting the shakedown wore a name tag: "Knapp."  Five times she had traveled to China with zero problems, but Knapp grilled Aew with a long series of questions, rifling through her wallet, handling her credit cards and reading them carefully, questioning her piece by piece.  Her passport, thick with extra pages, showed stamps from countries around the world.  It contained the valid U.S. visa, and stamps and visas from countries she had traveled to, such as Great Britain, Japan, China, Nepal, Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Brunei, New Zealand and Cambodia.  She had traveled to some of these countries on multiple occasions, always paying her own way.  She never had problems.  Not even in China.  We had toured Parliament together in London, on a private expedition led by Member of Parliament Adam Holloway.  Aew was very interested to see the Royal Family, and was beside herself when I met Lady Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who at that time read this website.  The British, including military officers, had treated her very well and she left with positive memories of Great Britian.

But that was Great Britain.  The American shakedown was just starting.  Her sister, Puk, was sending me SMS messages from Thailand, worried that Aew seemed to have disappeared.  I had bought Puk's daughters, North and Nurse, who are 8 and 9, a "talking globe" so they could track the travels of their Aunt Aew.  The last time I saw North and Nurse, we had taken them to the Chiang Mai zoo, and also to an elephant camp where the elephants paint.  Puk's husband, Bey, is a high-ranking Thai police officer who, as part of his duties, helps organize security for the Thai Royal Family. 

While the U.S. Immigration officer named Knapp rifled through all her belongings, Aew sat quietly.  She was afraid of this man, who eventually pushed a keyboard to Aew and coerced her into giving up the password to her e-mail address.  Officer Knapp read through Aew's e-mails that were addressed to me, and mine to her.  Aew would tell me later that she sat quietly, but “Inside I was crying.”  She had been so excited to finally visit America.  America, the only country ever to coerce her at the border.  This is against everything I know about winning and losing the subtle wars.   This is against everything I love about the United States.  We are not supposed to behave like this.  Aew would tell me later that she thought she would be arrested if she did not give the password.

The Government of the United States was reading the private e-mails of a U.S. citizen (me).  The Department of “Homeland Security” was at work, intimidating visitors with legitimate visas.  They had at least 24 hours to check her out before she landed in the United States.  What kind of security is this?  The Department of Homeland Security was at this moment more like the Department of Intimidation.

Officer Knapp called my phone as I was driving to the Orlando airport.  I was going to be there two hours early to make sure I would be on time, so that she had a warm welcome to my country.  But instead, Knapp was busy detaining Aew in Minneapolis and was on my cell phone asking all types of personal questions that he had no business asking.  Sensing that Aew was in trouble, I answered his questions.  Mr. Knapp was a rude smart aleck.  The call is likely recorded and that recording would bear out my claims.  This officer of the United States government, a grown man, had coerced personal information from a Thai woman who weighs 90 pounds.  I asked Aew later why she gave him the e-mail password, and she answered simply, "I was afraid," and “I thought I would be arrested.”

What could I say to alleviate any of this?  Could I say, "This is the U.S., nothing to be afraid of."?  The world already sees us as senseless bullies.  Aew might have been detained indefinitely; even I was concerned that the Department of Homeland Security might detain Aew for no reason.  Essentially, she had no rights.  They had already coerced her e-mail password out of her head through intimidation.

This does not make me feel safe: Our Homeland Security was focusing on a 40-year-old Thai bank officer while there are real bad guys out there. Thailand and the United States have had good relations for 175 years, and Thailand is one of the few countries in the world that is proud to say they are friends of the United States.  There are no threats to Americans from Thai people -- who, among other relevant things, are mostly not Muslims.  The King of Thailand was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard.  I have never seen the King with a gun; only a camera.  His 2009 New Year’s speech was also a call for peace.  The King and his family helped bring widespread education to Thailand, which created a special problem.  Today there are large numbers of highly educated, successful women looking for highly educated men.  I remember General (ret.) McCaffrey, our former drug Czar, telling me a couple of years ago that the King of Thailand was incredibly important in wiping out opium poppies in Thailand.  The King of Thailand is highly respected by the government of the United States.  He is a very good man. 

During World War II, when the Japanese encouraged the Thai people to fight us, the Thai government actually declared war on the United States and Great Britain.  But the Thai Ambassador in Washington refused to deliver the declaration of war.  The upshot was that the United States refused to declare war on Thailand, and the Thai people formed a resistance against the Japanese.

Thai people refused to fight Americans.  Instead, they attacked the Japanese.  Has our government had problems recently with 90-pound, 40-year-old Thai women?  Do they blow things up?  Aew doesn’t even know how to light a match.  She doesn’t smoke or drink, and is more upright than your average southern Baptist.  She can’t even curse and gets upset if she hears me say a bad word about someone.  “Michael!” she says, “Don’t say that!” 

When I discovered that she had missed her flight, after about 24 hours of travel thus far, I called immigration at Minneapolis and asked to speak with Officer Knapp.  Knapp got on the phone, but this time it was me questioning him.  Knapp told me it was legal to read e-mails.  I asked for his first name, but he was afraid to give his first name, which was rather strange for someone working within the confines of an airport where everyone has been searched for weapons.  Where I work, in a war zone, soldiers give their first and last names and face Taliban and al Qaeda heads up, man to man.  I write about al Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorist groups who kill thousands of people.  My name is Michael Yon.  My first name is Michael.  Mr. Knapp hides behind a badge bullying a woman whose only activities are Yoga, reading, travel, and telling me what is healthy and unhealthy to eat.  Knapp is a face of Homeland Security.  How many other officers at Homeland Security bully 90-pound women, but are afraid to give their own names? 

Knowing that Homeland Security officers are creating animosity and anxiety at our borders does not make me feel safer.  How many truly bad guys slip by while U.S. officers stand in small rooms and pick on little women?

I have just returned from Afghanistan and Iraq on a trip with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and I can assure you that we can do better.  We do not have to violate human rights and insult our closest allies to maintain our security. 

Meanwhile, Aew had missed two flights; standby seats were full on the second flight, and I was considering flying from Florida to Minneapolis to get her myself.  I did not want Aew to have to sleep in the airport overnight.

I had intended to show Aew a bit of my country.  But it's taking a little while for her to get over her discomfort at being in America.  She was treated better in China.  So was I.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    ret7 · 12 years ago
    It'll take me a day maybe but I'll hit up my congress critters as well and Minnesota's regarding this ... past time to get some light on this problem.

    My apologies to Aew and you for having to put up with this kind of treatment
  • This commment is unpublished.
    ADH · 12 years ago
    My experience is that most Americans have no idea how difficult it is for LEGAL immigrants to come to this country, even for something as simple as a tourist visit. When I described the ordeal I went through just to get my wife into the country to family and friends they were shocked - they have a hard time believing it, in fact one of my friends still refuses to believe that the country he loves so much makes visiting so difficult.

    That was just to get her into the country - getting the green card was just as difficult, time consuming, and expensive. I have thick file folders of immigration filings and supporting documents at home as proof of the headache that is legal immigration to the U.S. I won't even bore you with the ridiculous and almost embarrassing "interviews".

    Sometimes people ask me why her family doesn't come visit her. Simple: It's too difficult, time consuming, and expensive just to get a tourist visa. Not to mention that my wife would never allow her family to travel alone to the U.S. for fear of exactly the kind of experience Michael Yon's friend had upon arrival. My wife would rather fly back to Thailand and escort them through the arrival process to ensure nothing went wrong, especially since most of her family doesn't speak English. Again, because we fully expect the kind of treatment described in Michael's post above. While this example is a bit extreme (the e-mail thing is unnerving) it does not surprise us at all.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    TheOldMan · 12 years ago
    With videocams becoming small, keep one running as long as possible during the approach and interrogation.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Edwards · 12 years ago
    I am embarrassed as an American that your friend or any other friendly visitor to our country was treated in such a manner. Knapp should lose his job. I hope your friend Aew comes to know that all Americans aren't like him and has a pleasant visit for the rest of her trip.

    Sadly this is part of the "decline" of our nation. People in positions of authority often forget that their authority doesn't come from a title, honorific, badge, office, or anything other than "We the People". There are some very dedicated men and women in these positions who are honorable and decent, but these people seem to be dwindling. Look at our Congress and the people our incoming President has surrounded himself with, crooks the lot of them. More concerned with their own power and position than the well being of our nation.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Freddy Hill · 12 years ago
    Many commenters here conflate the TSA with the USCIS. They function under very different legal regimes. When you land in the US but have not yet passed immigration you are nobody, you are just a thing with no rights whatsoever. No right to legal representation, no right to privacy, no defense against unreasonable search and seizure, nothing. Illegal aliens once in US soil have more rights than somebody waiting in the immigration line. This applies to US citizens as well as foreign nationals (since your citizenship is unknown until a border guard accepts your passport as legitimate).

    This is not unique to the US. The French gentleman that claims that French immigration officers would need a court order to search his PC at the border is wrong. The French border guards can search his cavities and his PC's cavities for no reason whatsoever.

    None of this is to diminish the awfulness of what your friend went through, just to point out that the immigration officer, while obviously overstepping the limits of human decency, was probably acting within the limits of the law. There is nothing new in this, though, and the Patriot Act / Homeland security connection is a red herring.

    Officer Knapp wasn't looking for terrorists, he was looking for mail brides.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    fire@will · 12 years ago
    Michael - I take your word as near gospel. This is a most distressing story on several levels. Whether this sort of missbehavior is due to a faulty system - or simply a bad individual (I suspect both), I hope something can be done to address the problem. My deepest sympathies to you and your friend.
    I was saddened (but not surprised - I'm a Vietnam vet) to hear of all the uniformed service personnel who have been rousted, as well.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    RebeccaH · 12 years ago
    I hope someone apologized to your friend, besides just you, for the boorish behavior of the people who are supposed to be protecting us. I can't tell you how many times I (a Waspy-looking grandmother) have been stopped and searched, while unaccompanied Middle Eastern-looking men have boarded past me with no trouble.

    At any rate, for what it's worth, I'm sorry for what happened to your friend, and I hope she doesn't think all Americans are like that.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    tinfoilhatter · 12 years ago
    In a previous life as a charter pilot, I had many of the same experiences that Mr. Yon's friend had. Except of course, in my wallet was my military ID, concealed carry license, and my employer ID, all of which bespoke some kind of security vetting, in my case, a rather complete one.

    As a primary example, certain ports of entry would demand the use of a obsolete form, of which of course, they did not maintain copies. Customs preclearance paperwork, faxed and emailed to their offices to expedite the process, was routinely lost to the point my company just stopped doing it.

    Searches were often cursory, but the wait was often significant. One day the response from CIS would be quick, professional and competent, while the same station 24 hours later would be rude, inconsiderate, disorganized and perfunctory.

    One was forced to the conclusion that the individual stations were run as personal fiefdoms, and that the attitude of the commander was mirrored in his subordinates. Understandable? Yes. Acceptable as the public face of the U.S.? No.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Megan · 12 years ago
    That is absolutely pathetic and disgusting. Clearly this "man" is on a power trip - someone gives him a badge and all of a sudden he thinks he can do whatever the hell he wants. I am so sorry for your friend and hope that she will not think all of our law enforcement officials so pathetic.

    There must be something that can be done to get this situation noticed. The guy should be suspended or fired and no longer allowed to interrogate anyone. He should be moved to loading airplanes. Loser.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Eddy · 12 years ago
    Yeah, an ex from England got the shakedown whenever she came to the States to visit. She probably weighs 90 pounds soaking wet. Absolute Jack Booted Thugsƒ?›.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael J. Totten · 12 years ago
    Anyone you reads my work knows I'm a friend of Israel, but I have to say that their border procedures are even worse. They detain me every single time I enter and leave, and they once detained me for five hours. And they detained my traveling companion, as well, who just happened to me a member of the United States military. His Department of Defense ID did not prevent him from being treated like a suspected terrorist.

    The hilarious thing about the ridiculous treatment at Ben Gurion airport is that every single last interogator is a young attractive woman. It must make the Islamist nutjobs go crazy. I have no doubt whatsoever that they picked those women on purpose for that reason.

    Next time I go to Israel I'm bringing with me the cover story I wrote for the Jerusalem Post's weekend magazine about Hezbollah. That just might help speed up the process.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jerry D. Brown · 12 years ago
    I was a Airport Operations and Safety Officer from 1995 to 2004. In the aftermath of 9/11 I watched the formation of the TSA and the contractors who populate its rank and file.

    This incident is characteristic of, not exceptional to; the calibre of people wearing the white shirts. The people who showed up as TSA inspectors/screeners at my airport were for the most part the people who were unsuccessful or unqualified in competition to be hired by our Airport Commission, Police Department, the FAA, or the air carriers. A lot of them expressed a "chip on the shoulder" attitude toward existing Law Enforcement and Operations people.

    I just finished a hoilday cross country trek using domestic air carriers six different times and transiting four different airports. The problem still exists and now it is taking on the aspect of a bureaucratic characteristic.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Alec Caudell · 12 years ago
    Dear Mr. Yon.

    First I would like to apologize for the unethical treatment that Ms. Aew received from the over zealous Mr. Knapp. Sadly as a former employee of the United States Marshal Service I have seen first hand how issuing a badge to people will change them into a bulling, power hungry abuser. However, there are ways to rectify this problem that Ms. Aew suffered needlessly and to prevent it from happening again to other innocent people.

    First of all Mr. Knapp is just an employee of the US Government and is subject to rules and regulations that dictates his conduct while performing the duties of his job description. He, as all Government employees, has supervisors. These supervisors hate more than anything else is to have negative attention directed at them caused by a subordinate. Therefore you must report this manƒ??s action and attitude to DHS headquarters in Washington DC. Now, if I may ask a couple of questions?

    First, from your letter it appears that Mr. Knapp removed Ms. Aew from a public area into a private room; this in its self is not against the rules, however, was it only Mr. Knapp (a male) and Ms. Aew (a female) in the room without a female agent present at all times? If so, a male agent and a female subject alone in a private room, for any amount of time is absolutely against all rules and Code of Conduct of any law enforcement agency of the United States Government. If the room was under video surveillance there is still a requirement for a minimum of two agents be present except for a very brief time period.

    Next point, did Mr. Knapp go through Ms. Aew belonging without a female agent present? If no female agent present he has again violated the rules. This must be reported as well.

    Mr. Knapp was not required to give you his fist name, however, he is obligated to give Ms. Aew his first name. If he refused to provide this information, this must be reported as well.

    You need to send copies of your article posted here, plus a personal statement by Ms. Aew to the Congressional members of the State of Minnesota, and if you are a US Citizen, to the Congressional members of your home state. This should be forwarded to the Thai Embassy. A copy should be sent to the Attorney Generalƒ??s Office of the Department of Justice of the United States. If you have any influence with Sectary Gates, use it, have his office become involved as well.

    As you are well aware there is a power change in Washington this month. This can be used to great effect. Many positions in the DHS are by appointment. These people that hold these appointed positions do not want to lose their jobs. Having embarrassing problems with a low level agent is the last thing they want or need. Mr. Knapp will be thrown to wolves if enough negative attention is brought to focus on him and his supervisors.

    Therefore, make sure you attach a copy of the taped mobile/cell phone conversation you had with Mr. Knapp, both audio and certified transcript, to your and Ms. Aew statement and keep the pressure on him. Use any and all media outlets you have any contacts with to bring this sad affair to public attention.

    We cannot undue what occurred to Ms. Aew, however, you can help prevent this from happening to others and have the satisfaction of seeing Mr. Knapp be punished for his highly unethical and possibly illegal conduct.

    Again, my sincerest apologizes as a US Citizen to Ms. Aew.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Glenn Brown · 12 years ago
    Sadly, I have to report that every time I've visited America since 9/11 I've had very poor experiences at ports of entry, be it NY,Boston or LA. Once, exasperated at the time taken, the banal and seemingly pointless stream of questions, (such as: ƒ??You ever been involved with a terrorist organisation?ƒ?) aggressive body language and continuous shouting (ƒ??Take yer Goddamn shoes OFF!ƒ? ƒ??this to an elderly Asian couple who clearly didnƒ??t speak English) I produced my British Army ID card in addition to my UK passport. A vain attempt to ƒ??smooth the wayƒ??...Only to elicit the response: ƒ?? Whatƒ??s this? I am supposed to be impressed? If I want any extra ID, Iƒ??ll ask...this donƒ??t mean nothing to me..ƒ? Fair enough and admittedly, it was a selfish attempt to bring the painful process to a closure and I doubt anyone else on my flight was a serving soldier in the Army of Americaƒ??s closest ally. Still, a little professional courtesy wouldnƒ??t have been amiss. God alone knows what some poor Asian, Arabic (or indeed French!) people suffer as they try to make their innocent and peaceable way into the ƒ??Land of the Free....ƒ??
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tommy Barrios · 12 years ago
    1. Look at the folks hired for many of these TSA positions. It looks like affirmative action on steroids!
    2. How many of these people had any background or training in:
    A. Physcial security and protocols.
    B. Dealing with the public at large.
    . How many could get a major military/government security clearance (SCI, SSIR)
    4. Have an IQ over 50!
    It is no wonder we have the chaos in American airports with these kinds of people in place. From what I understand their training is a joke in professional security circles and the Israeli's (who have the best and most efficient airline security) regard ours laughable!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    T Sahlin · 12 years ago

    Stay Mad! Do what poster Alec Caudell advises! Do not let a few days of calming down lull you to inaction! Help get this unfit badge wearer fired. There is no telling how many others he has harmed. Please - make the complaint official!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    AFSister · 12 years ago
    This pisses.me.off.

    Of course this is the same TSA that detain our soldiers returning to the war after leave for having explosive residue on their boots. NOSHITSHERLOCK.

    I am not one to quote Spiderman, but this fits "With great power, comes great responsibility". But power and responsibility do NOT include bullying, terrifying, and intimidating people for no reason. And coercing email passwords??? UNFORGIVABLE. They had NO reason to suspect her. I can understand them coercing passwords from suspicious people, but this is unreal.

    I'm embarassed on behalf of my nation, Aew. I hope you found the rest of your trip enjoyable, and realize that not all Americans are asshats.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Alien · 12 years ago
    I'm a US citizen who has had problems on returning to the USA, so I appreciate the distress caused to your Thai friend, Michael. I have a Thai wife and live in Thailand, so my perspective is perhaps a bit different from the average. Thai citizens can easily get marriage documents, bank statements, air tickets, letters proving employment and more -- all of it fake. That bogus documentation can get one a visa to visit the USA. Overstaying the visa is a snap, thanks to the absurd policies of law enforcement and government agencies in the US. So Knapp may have been aware of the reputation Thailand has earned over the years. In minutes, he or someone like him has to decide whether all the paper is genuine. Not easy. That said, it does appear the guy is a thug and violated procedure, so he's got well-deserved problems. But the truth is more complex than "bully brutalizes tiny harmless female." It may be that Knapp knows that Thailand is corrupt from top to bottom and in ways that would stun most US types, and he may be trying to do his job. I fault him for doing it badly, but I remind you that there may be understandable reasons why this Thai lady was pulled out of line and targeted. International travel is a problem today, and getting passed through immigration quickly and politely may just be a sign that immigration is way, way too lax. Sad truth.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gilbert · 12 years ago
    I am curious Michael. In the article you say email password. Are you referring to the password for her laptop or movable media or an email account hosted by a server somewhere like yahoo or google. If it is the laptop or media then maybe I could see the argument that he was concerned about what data might be on it as she was bringing it in the country. But the last time I checked for email accounts hosted on separate servers by hosting companies, even the federal government has to have a federal judge sign warrants or subpoenas to access that information. And if it is a foreign based server work with that government to obtain the information.

    Looks like this is some slick way to circumvent the foundations of the constitution. So what if she is not a US citizen, if her email is hosted somewhere else go get a subpoena if he wanted to look at it. I can almost tell you want any judge would say.

    The more I read your article and the more I think about it, the more it smells like Mr. Knapp's approach is more suited for someone dressed in black with a red and black band on his arm, than a representative of American Values, People, and System of Government. I haven't checked but if you look at Lady Liberty I think she is crying today after she looked at your article.

    "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
    Benjamin Franklin
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kerry · 12 years ago
    I have friends, mainly from Europe, who visit the USA and remark (independently of one another)that the TSA and Immigration people are among some of the most petty and boorish on their itineraries. Something is way out of wack. I have felt it necessary to apologize for this kind of stuff on a regular basis.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    George C. · 12 years ago
    I want to repeat something said in an earlier comment. The person responsible was almost certainly not in TSA but was instead part of Immigration & Naturalization Services (INS.) INS run the passport control stations. Customs run the Customs control point. TSA would only be involved at the point your guest had passed the other two and was re-checking bags for her connecting flight. We need to find this Knapp fellow in the INS part of the MSP crew.

    I have travelled in and out of the U.S. for over 5 years. I lived in Russia for more than five years. I have learned that the people staffing the control point can wield power above their station in life and some of them enjoy abusing this rare taste of power. This is as true for the U.S. as anywhere. However, I have always expected more from the U.S. It is WRONG when a public servant can force a free citizen to cower and grovel simply to exercise their rights. INS, Customs and TSA should have large posters in every point of entrance inviting people to call a toll-free number to report abusive behavior. Why should that be hard?

    My wife was a Russian citizen when we married. Several years later, we moved to the U.S. She was a legal resident and an executive employed by a Fortune 50 company. Until she qualified for citizenship, every time she left the U.S., she had to worry that she might be have her re-entyry challenged by some INS thug. During that same time, the "undocumented" visitors to our country passed freely to and fro without any bothersome attention. I forget whether it was Mark Steyn or Christopher Hitchens but one of them once quipped: "You know the old saying, Nothing human is alien to me. I think the INS motto is, Nothing alien is human to me." My experience with the INS matches this almost perfectly. I wish I could apologise to your visitor and say her experience was an exception but I am afraid this happens all too often.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Alex Nelon · 12 years ago
    I worked for nearly 20 years as a corporate pilot in international operations. I never had a problem with US Customs and Immigration until they became Customs and Border Protection, part of TSA, part of Homeland Security. The level of competence and professionalism dropped precipitously after the agencies were thrown in the blender and fortified with bodies that belonged, I swear, to the bottom of the barrel. I never saw slovenly appearance, I-gotta-be-me attitudes, or overly rude behavior on the part of the career Customs and Immigration officers who met me when I returned (many times) from overseas. After the Big Push to lead Americans to believe Something Was Being Done to secure the airports (particularly) and borders it was a whole new ball game. Chertoff and company had better get off their pedestals and take a look at how some of their people are behaving and put some teeth into the complaint process. Security screening doesn't have to be unpleasant as long as the people doing it know their role in the scheme of things.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joseph OGERSHOK · 12 years ago
    http://news.cnet.com/8 01-1 578_ -98 4495- 8.html
    December 14, 2007 5: PM PST
    Judge: Man can't be forced to divulge encryption passphrase

    http://news.cnet.com/8 01-1 578_ -98540 4- 8.html
    January 18, 2008 1:58 PM PST
    Feds appeal loss in PGP compelled-passphrase case

    DOJ: No comment on forcing encryption passphrases
    http://www.news.com/8 01-1 578_ -98 5 92- 8.html

    In Child Porn Case, a Digital Dilemma
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/15/AR200801150 66 .html
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tuptian · 12 years ago
    Thank you for your story of the unfortunate experience of your friend Khun Aew and the brief summary of US-Thai relation and their beloved king. From personal experience I can pick out may does and don'ts from the story you described. I have been traveling back and forth to Thailand multiple times a year for the past ten years to visit my girlfriend who I have known for over 15 years. We, as has Khun Aew, traveled to many countries though out east Asia with little trouble from the immigration officers, but these trips to include several trips to China were usually with a (Thai) group. The most trouble I have ever had was returning to the US. However, I have seen others in trouble at the boarder of other countries for what ever reason.

    We planned a couple of years ago that she would come to visit me and my family in the US. She lives in Trang, home of former Prime Minister Chuan Lee Pi who I have had the pleasure of meeting. Trang is 826 km from Bangkok by train. It is a long journey and to submit the application, interview, and back ground check is an expensive and time consuming process. The applicant must report to the interview on the Embassy's time table. And at any time the application can be rejected with or without cause and with no reimbursement. The council in Songkla has long since closed and is now occupied by CPR China. But, this is only to show the effort people will go though to come to this country they admire and appreciate in many ways. Just to get the visa alone is an intimidating feat as you know.

    My girlfriend, who is a teacher and is will known among her peers and who comes from a well founded middle class family, received the coveted visa. After 19 hrs of traveling she landed in Minneapolis, I waved to her as she walked off the plane heading to the ICE check point. It took over 90 minutes for her to finally pass through. It too was very shocking for her. While well educated, she is not an english speaker and after experiencing the technique of "the louder one speaks the more the recipient understands" was sent the room to be questioned further. While trying to make her forms in order she was fortunately helped only by woman of Hmong background who was also being detained. She does not have a computer and had the interrogator tried to call me would receive no answer as I have no cell phone but was standing at the doorway no less than a 100 yards away but might as well have been in Florida. It is an often related story to her friends.

    Much of the information I related above and the formation you provided have no relevance to the immigration agent. They have their own agenda. As earlier writers stated they are a law on to themselves and TSA has its own problems. I think I have seen your agent Knapp as I experienced needly intrusive questions at MSP and soon so will more people. Last year I brought her though SFO with little incident.

    Sawasdee be my laa choke dee mach mach na krap
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    Marcus Aurelius · 12 years ago
    On our return from our last trip to the Philippines we had a little green-card snafu while trying to enter in Detroit and got sent to the "principal's office". We sat down and just waited for our situation to be dealt with.

    Some guy who looked Indian was having a hard time of it. Mr. Behind Thedesk asks the guy to write his wife's name on a piece of paper. Indianish dude does so, Behind Thedesk then produces another scrap of paper and repeats the request. Indianish Dude complies and then Mr. Behind Thedesk asks Indian dude to explain why he spelled his wife's name differently both times. They were going back & forth not exactly having a nice chat and then I heard MR. Behind Thedesk exclaim "Ohhh, so now why are you deciding to tell me the truth?". I have no idea what it was about.

    Then some woman from Africa comes in with a couple of children. Their problem was address mismatch, but a phone call to her husband in Iowa got that straightened out without any contention.

    Then another guy and official comes in and official gloves up and starts going through guy's suitcase one item at a time. Opening and paging through books, while dude was standing there. No idea what happened to him or Mr. Indianish. We were finally called, told they were keeping a hold of my wife's old & expired (and second) green card and we could go on our way and an explanation had been given to our carrier why we missed our flight.
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    bjh · 12 years ago
    This is in no way a defense of big brother, but people CAN and DO get off watchlists all the time-if the person is no longer a subject of investigation and/or is no longer deemed a threat. Also, many people share names, so if Michael Smith, DOB 4/15/196 is watchlisted, then Michael Smith, age 4, will have to demonstrate he's not the same guy, as demonstrated by being 4, and off you go. People are watchlisted with as many identifiers as the listing agency has available, in an effort to avoid snagging the wrong person. It would take some tremendously bad luck to get really screwed by this process.
    I work for the USG and travel on an Official Passport. I also share a name with a watchlisted person and every time I board a flight, or go through customs, we go through the same dance. I have a colleague with a diplo passport and the same thing happens to him, also because of a shared name.
    All this being said, some people want a gun and a badge for right reasons, and some for all the wrong reasons. Ideally the hiring process would sort out the bozos but clearly, as in the case of Mr.Knapp, this doesn't always happen. When they were just contractors, he'd be fired. But as Mr. Knapp is now a USG employee, he'd have to run naked down the hall smoking a crack pipe and shouting racial epithets before he'd be put on leave while he was investigated. Actually losing his job for being an unprofessional bully is a long-shot, unfortunately. Still worth following up and making his life miserable though, IMHO.
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    Carolyn J Butler · 12 years ago
    Dear Michael, as an American citizen, I have to agree with you that the disgraceful behavior of the Homeland Security employee does not make me feel safer, either. Is there any way this bully can be reported for his inhumane treatment of your friend? Please pass along my apologies to her, as a US citizen. I am terribly sorry for what she had to endure by someone who obviously enjoys abusing his position of trust, and makes his particular department look like the Department of Homeland Insecurity.
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    Chrissssss · 12 years ago
    Thanks for bringing this issue to the fore Mike. Friends of mine have had similar, horrible experiences. Intimidation at the border is shockingly common - physical and mental. Anyone taken in back is treated as guilty, threatened and told things like 'you have no rights here'. There is no accountability within the INS for these glorified, power abusing passport checkers. Complaints are not followed up. It is horrible that for so many foreigners their first experience in America is with rude, power abusing INS jerks.

    It is more than just a few bad apples. They should start immigration reform at the border and that includes our airports.
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    Cassandra · 12 years ago
    Hey Mike,

    The gentleman who commented an a male and female in the room alone is absolutely correct, it's against the rules. My husband did a short stint with Home Sec after trying to retire from the army and said it was a complete pain in the butt, and they did everything wrong. He left after a few months and gave in to the army again.

    I'm posting this on my forums in Compuserve and Netscape. My apologies to your friend and hope that the rest of her visit went well.

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    Scott Johnson · 12 years ago
    This is not acceptable, but I may be able to shed some light on why. My G/F was a flight attendant for 7 years, and explained the reason as this. It was merely the purchase of a one way ticket, just like the terrorist of 911. She told me that several airlines will not allow any single flight arrangements internationally, whether flying in our out of CONUS.
    This also happened to us when she purchased a one way ticket last month to Phoenix from Minneapolis. She got searched at the airport. No she wasn't interrogated, just searched.
    Again, this is in no way an attempt to defend unprofessional and demeaning treatment, just an attempt to explain "the why." Hope it helps.
    Michael-Fantastic site and writing!

    Scott Johnson
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    Lisa White · 12 years ago
    Please exent my sincerest apologies to Aew for her treatment in Minneapolis, and for the way Northwest treated her. I will be forwarding a link to your article to my elected representatives in Washington. Her treatment is in no way acceptable! I will also not patronize an airline that forces a person with a 10 year visa to purchase a round trip ticket, and I will let them know it! I hope that the rest of her stay in our country is enjoyable and "uneventful"!
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    Voyager · 12 years ago
    From what I can tell, the INS has operated much like this for a very long time. Even Steinback had strange what-the- issues with boarder agents of the time. Not to this degree, but he was a US citizen, and times were somewhat different.

    My suspicion is that the boarder patrols have very little visibility, as well as their low transparancy. We just don't do a good job of policing them, and they don't seem to have any natural constituencies. If we don't watch the watchers, then they go bad.
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    Dan Wilkinsson · 12 years ago
    To set the record straight, this officer works for Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP was born in March, 200 as a new agency in the new DHS. CBP consists of part of the previous INS (Justice), part of the previous Customs Service (Treasury), Border Patrol (Justice) and port of entry agriculture inspectors from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) with USDA. From the top down the agency stresses that every employee is to maintain professionalism at all times and to treat all passengers and crew members with dignity and respect. The fact that incidents such as described here by Mr. Yon still occur points out the gap between agency directives and reality.
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    Matthew Lusk · 12 years ago
    Michael - buddy I love your website, and will keep reading your posts forever, but lemme tell you how this story reads to me: WAAAAH! I really could care less you have a friend that got hassled getting into the US. Hell, I'm an american and a few times I have been treated badly coming in. How about giving a bit of lattitude to the system and people that screen forieingers like your friend? You have a few stamps on your passport, and I'm sure your friends do, too... I shop at K-mart a pretty good bit, and when I have a negative experience with a cashier, I don't pitch a fit and cry, I realize that the human I am dealing with, and the situation I am in are transient...a mere snapshot of the moving river that is K-mart commerce. Sorry your little globe-trotting friend had a bad day. I've had bad days. FYI I do't read your posts to hear about your foreign friends bad days in customs....
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    Voyager · 12 years ago
    I was just thinking how odd it was that no major news outlet has tried breaking a story on things like this, when a possible way of handling recording it struck me.

    Bluetooth enabled cell phones are vulnerably to remote hyjacking, and one of the things one could do with that is turn the phone into a remote listening device/camera, without any action, or knowledge on the owner's part. The problem would be doing it in such a way that it would remain undetected, and intact, if someone tried to use the phone during that time; I suspect it would get exceptionally ugly if the Officer "Knapp" realised they were being recorded, and I don't know if one could get police intervention if they decided to become violent.
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    Paul Garner · 12 years ago

    Please forward my personal apologies to Khun Aew for the unwarranted disrespect that she received when she entered this country. There never is an excuse for this type of behavior.

    I am a 71 year old handicapped while male who is a retired GS-11 ands also a retired Air Force Sergeant. Should I run afoul of Mr. Knapp, or any others of his ilk, the first thing I will do after turning my cell phone on record is to demand (not ask) is to see his supervisor and file a formal complaint. I do not suffer fools gladly. My next stop would be an attorney's office where I institute a criminal complaint. I suspect that I could make a case of a violation of my constitutional rights. Finally, as an ex-Union Stewart, I would contact his local and file a formal complaint. Hit the bastard from both sides so to speak.

    Bureaucrats hate to have waves made. The solution is to make waves, many many waves. Go to the newspapers. Do blogs. Make formal complaints to your congressperson AND follow these complaints up. A friend of mine carried a small copy of the Constitution with certain passages marked. He got some rather funny looks when he pulled it out of his pocket and quoted it. More fun.

    This is our country. I do not feel safer with the jack booted thugs of the TSA in charge. They have violated the Constitution more often than all the terrorists in the world - all in the name of "making us safe".
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    Solid · 12 years ago

    I have been an avid reader of yours for quite some time and needless to say that I respect and admire what you have done in your life and continue to do to bring the story of the two wars to the home front.

    There is nothing I can say that will bring relief to the anger you must feel and the fear that Aew felt. I will not second guess the officer in question because I was not there, but you must know that there are those of us who hold that line and take our sworn duty to uphold the Constitution very seriously. The brave men and women who work the border, from the airports, to the seaports, to the land borders and in between are there around the clock to do our best to make sure that Americans and all within Americas borders are safe. I know that you know this, but I think it is important to point out to your readers and posters that the great majority of us do our jobs to the best of our ability.

    To some of the posters on this forum: You are entitled to your opinion and I respect you fully for it, but I must respectfully implore you to please not denigrate the lot of us for the transgressions of a few. Please trust that the majority of us out there genuinely want to do right thing.

    On the border Humbly,

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bui · 12 years ago
    In 1999 I sold a company I had in Europe, and since I had always loved New York City I decided to start my new business there. The first thing I did was to go to the US Embassy in my native country, and inquire what visa and permits I would need.

    After getting the visa I was directed to get, I rented an apartment, and started work on my business, things where going well. When 9 11 happened, I was on my way to the airport after a weekend at home, I took the next flight to Canada and a bus down to NYC. The next few months things where hard but in the end things got good. In fact so good I started a business in Moscow as well. I was loving life and decided I wanted to emigrate to the US, I bought a building in Manhattan and started planing the renovation for my business. When the plans for the renovation were approved I decided to go home and celebrate with my family. At this time I was flying in and out of the US at lest 1 per month on average.

    Upon my return I was stooped by a officer at the airport that informed me that, I was spending to much time in the US for my visa and he would not let me in, and my only options where to go in front of an immigration judge after spending the night in jail or going back home and talking to the embassy. I had no intention on spending the night in jail so I got the next flight out of the US, this was the biggest mistake ever, now I was on the refused entry list, I was told I would not go on any list.

    When I came back home after buying last minute flights, you all know how expensive that is. I went to the embassy only to be told the visa i had was the right one and the border control was wrong, at this point I got nervous, I was stressed about my building sitting there and no work happening and ........ to make a long story short after looking into my options the best one was to sell the company and all it's assets and start a new. That was not so simple no one wanted the company with out me running it for at lest a year (I could not work with out a visa), this made things worse and after about 6 moths of looking I finally signed a deal for a year contract (H1B visa) to run the company and money to pay debts, and some pocket money.

    This was 7 years ago, I still get in trouble every time I go to the US to visit friends or vacation, but I will not stop going I have to many friends, and I'm not giving up my apartment in NYC.

    When I convince my girlfriend, I'd still like to emigrate, and be a part of the greatest experiment in freedom of choice the world has seen.

    Thanks Michael love your site.

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    Jack E. Hammond · 12 years ago
    Dear Mr Yon,

    I greatly appreciate your article but on this one you are wrong. It is know that al Qaeda has been working hard to recruit people who will not be suspect (ie they are working hard with Hispanic converts in South America it is reported). Remember on the days before 9/11 one custom official was rude to a Saudi and would not let him in the country. He was the 20 hijacker. REMEMBER!

    Jack E. Hammond

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    Andrew Smith · 12 years ago
    Mike your do great work, thankyou

    My experience at an American airport in Florida was also very poor and this was before 9/11. I am British , saw on TV advert come to Florida have a great holiday etc. I came and I never felt so unwelcome at the Airport in Miami. Nothing happened to me like the poor lady Aew, it was just the way they questioned me why i had come to America, frankly I was pretty close to tellling them to get stuffed and go home.
    Once past the Airport I had a great holiday and every American I met was very nice

    I am Pro-American always have been but that experience at the Airport has put me off going on holiday to America ever since, it sounds to me things are even worse now
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Alex Su · 12 years ago
    Tim Grubbs: "I pray we all can overlook the Knapps..."

    ARE YOU KIDDING? My job as a Fulbright Fellow is to build goodwill between foreigners and Americans. This idiot Knapp doesn't make my life easier; and there's plenty of anti-American sentiment already.

    Someone can this moron and teach him a lesson. Bullies seem to be the same, no matter what age or what playground.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chris M · 12 years ago
    Michael, why the surprise? Don't you know that foreign visitors to the USA get treated like this and worse on a daily basis?

    Take some friends of mine, an Australian couple in their early 80's who have visited the USA many times over their lives for both missionary service and personal reasons and never broke any laws of overstayed. They visited their daughter in Mississippi and, less than months after returning to Australia their son-in-law was tragically killed. So they returned for his funeral via LAX.

    Pastor Christopher got through immigration fine but they decided to detain his wife for questioning. So homeland security separated them and for TWO HOURS questioned and re-questioned his wife. "Why have you come back so soon?" "How can you prove you intend to be at a funeral" and "show us an obituary or other proof" etc.

    We are talking a sweet old Australian-born lady who is almost deaf and has never had so much as a speeding fine in her life. Truly amazing. Finally they let them go.

    Hey, I love your country but your immigration / homeland security is really the pits. Rude and daft.
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    Jim Wood · 12 years ago
    To those suggesting that Mr Yon and Ms. Aew buck up and deal with the post 9/11 era:

    Let us not conflate the terms "rude" and "effective". Think of the job Israel is tasked with. They are professional and sharp. I would even imagine they are trained to be rude if such an approach is called for.

    This Knapp character is just a bully. How does this help? I can't be certain but I would also guess he is ineffective in a job where such should not be tolerated.

    How embarrassing.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    MeToo · 12 years ago
    If ya don't like getting questioned by Customs, don't travel!!!! The reason the Customs officer did what he did is because he was looking for child porn on the laptop/camera. Additional questioning can occur when one travels to "certain countries" that are rampant with child porn. Once again, Customs getting a bad rap trying to protect citizens of America!!!!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    johnF · 12 years ago
    There are several things that bother me regarding this incident.
    1. Northwest Airlines has no business demanding that anyone should buy a return ticket. This strikes me as a really bad idea some vice-president had to increase revenues by forcing her to buy a ticket from them instead of another carrier, while blaming it on "security issues"
    2. Immigration should not have the power to detain anyone long enough to miss a connecting flight without probable cause, or at least a very good reason why the passenger is suspected of breaking or intending to break the law. On the other hand, if there is a valid reason to suspect someone, eg. they fit the profile of previous terrorists or criminals, or recent intelligence, or suspicious behaviour (a tricky condition, cops are suspicious of everyone), then they should be checked out in a reasonable manner.
    . Mr. Knapp was a rude smart aleck who asked Michael personal questions he had no business asking. This is unacceptable, and he should be fired for his attitude alone, if nothing else.
    4. Mr. Knapp asked for/coerced the email password. This should be unacceptable, however, if the passenger was a 25 year old male from a middle eastern country, I'm not so sure I would object to this. The distinction in my mind is the risk factor. I'm torn on this issue, I don't want the government to have the power to search my personal info. (Not that the NSA isn't already capable of doing that!)
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    Frank Hughes · 12 years ago
    I have supported your mission and am an avid reader. My son is currently serving and his wife, my daughter in law is a State dept employee with a diplomatic passport. She was traveling from Guatemala with her mother to the US with all of the appropriate documentation when her mother was pulled aside and harrased by immigration. The agent was rude and bullying. This is common practice in Miami Florida. When I was CO of my squadron I was responsible for the conduct of my men. This man's supervisor should be contacted and reported to his superiors. I hope you do write the appropriate letters. Keep up the good work.
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    Damon · 12 years ago
    You know, as bad as the situation was for her (Aew) and the discomfort she had to experience, I do feel for her and for your distraught with the process, Michael, however, I think the bad guys are to blame. Just like most every other law we have - their intentions are to prevent something. Granted because of the likes of the ACLU and unions we have to be fair and indiscriminate, good people will be pulled aside and searched. If it were logistically possible the safest flights would be the ones where everybody is searched. I don't blame Customs for this. A few stupid people are always messing it up for the rest of us. I blame the bad guys. Because of them, because of their actions, this is what we have. We can be better though. I am thankful for the good Agents out there with the good contacts and searches they make that go unheard of, and where they do treat travelers with respect and common courtesy. There are many interdictions that have been made, apprehensions, and arrests where bad guys and bad things like drugs and much more have been kept from our streets. Customs agents can hold someone at the airport and search them and their belongings without any reason. It is law. If you don't like it then you need to write your Congressional representatives. Searches of laptops have kept many sex offenders, molesters, those with intent to distribute child porn, and more out of our country and put them in prison. So there is good work that has been done and it is not all for not. You can read many stories on agency websites. There are good agents. Now one thing I came across that may help your friend, Aew, on her journey back and maybe any future return trips to the USA is an Electronic System for Travel Authorization that Customs is running. It can be found here:


    Good luck! On another note, the mention in comments regarding the hassle our troops are said to have been receiving when traveling is astounding. Unbelievable. I would think that there could be an agreement with each military Service and US Customs... but then there I go putting common sense into government. However I have had help from an agent at a small rural airport who relocated my leatherman to my checked luggage for me when I mistakenly tried to bring it through a carry-on, so... Stay Safe.
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    OwenG · 12 years ago
    Too bad all you pro-war types were silent while the bill of rights was stripped. Funny how now I see lots of complaints from loser old farts complaining about how much money they had to spend, how haaaard it was to bring in their mail order brides from Thailand, Singapore, Mexico, China or whatever. Perhaps the King of Thailand is a good man, but Bangkok is still a cesspool where underage prostitutes are imprisoned for the pleasure of "sex tourists." I hate what your friend had to go through, and I'm not saying Thais are any threat but don't whitewash Thailand. They have plenty of problems.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dan Jacobs · 12 years ago
    Was this the United States or Nazi Germany?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill Smith · 12 years ago

    It's amazing how many conclusions you jump to, and tangents you run off on in such a small comment. Perhaps we should make it a new Olympic sport. Maybe we'll call it -- and you -- the Jumping Tango.

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