Feds Abused Anti-Terrorism Database To Track Chelsea Manning Supporter, Seize His Computer

from the subject-detained-in-notorious-border-town-of-Chicago,-IL dept

We've written a number of times about the so-called Constitution-free zone that extends 100 miles inward from the borders of the United States, a place where the Border Patrol, along with the DHS and ICE, exercise the "right" to search electronic devices without a warrant. (The government has also baffingly argued that not searching your laptop doesn't provide enough of a civil liberties benefit to outweigh the potential security "gain.")

As is the case with most unconstitutional acts performed by government agencies, the justification is "terrorism." Keeping our borders secure apparently means allowing federal agents to delve as deeply as they want into electronics that cross the border, even if it's someone who just went to Mexico on vacation. Presumably, David House wasn't a threat to national security when he left for Mexico, but by the time he landed at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, he was.

House worked with the Bradley Manning Support Network and this was all the "evidence" ICE needed to alert DHS agents that House would be returning from Mexico through Chicago -- and the wide-open policy on electronic searches was all the agents needed to seize and search House's phone and laptop.

House was stopped at Chicago’s O'Hare International Airport coming back from vacation in November 2010. At the time, he was working with the Bradley Manning Support Network, which was raising funds for the legal defense of the soldier who has since plead guilty to providing classified documents to WikiLeaks. DHS agents detained House, interrogated him about his political activities and beliefs, and then seized his laptop computer, mobile phone, camera, and USB drive. The agents returned House’s phone after inspecting it, but the government kept the rest of his devices for seven weeks while agents searched his files for evidence. Even after the government returned House’s physical devices, it continued to actively investigate copies of his files for nearly six more months.
The ACLU filed suit on House's behalf, claiming he was targeted for political reasons, leading to his First and Fourth Amendment rights being violated. The government tried to dismiss the suit in 2012, claiming its agents don't need reasonable suspicion or a warrant to search electronic devices at the border. The judge smacked that down, granting that the DHS has certain powers which preclude reasonable suspicion or warrants, but that those powers are still limited and that its politically-motivated actions violated House's First Amendment rights. A settlement was reached with the government, which agreed to destroy the data it gathered from its search of House's electronics and release documents related to the search.

Here's what the ACLU has discovered from the released documents:
The settlement documents reveal that an agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)—an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) subdivision that is now the second largest law enforcement agency in the United States—entered a “lookout” into a government database called TECS (see the document here), effectively notifying government agents throughout the country that House was wanted for questioning in connection with the Department of Justice’s investigation into Manning and WikiLeaks. As a result of the lookout, which was linked to the Advance Passenger Information System, HSI later received an automated notification that House would be traveling outside the country and that he would return through O’Hare on November 3, 2010.

The records also show that HSI was acting in cooperation with—and perhaps at the request of—the Department of Justice, the Department of State, and the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division, not to protect our borders but to further a domestic investigation of the WikiLeaks disclosures. House’s connection to Manning through the Bradley Manning Support Network made him a target of that investigation. The government then used its access to airline passenger information to learn when and where David House, and others, would be traveling across our border (see the document here), and laid in wait to seize his computer and other electronic devices.
Much like the GCHQ's abuse of terrorism laws to intimidate David Miranda, the US abused its terrorism laws to pursue a vindictive domestic investigation. In addition to misusing its powers to intimidate House, the government also violated its own electronic search policies, which state that device searches should generally be completed within 30 days. House's devices were held for seven weeks and his data was investigated for the next seven months.

House may have received a settlement from the government and the presiding judge may have suggested that politically-motivated searches are unconstitutional, but this won't do much to change our current border policies on electronic devices. As the ACLU points out, federal agents are performing nearly 5,000 of these searches a year, and with the vague definition of "border" including a 100-mile band around the country and any other inland entry point where someone might return from a foreign country, the power remains almost limitless and completely unrelated to keeping our borders secure.

House's experience shows just how many tools the US government has at its disposal to intimidate whistleblowers and their associates (no matter how poorly defined). Fortunately, the ACLU scored a rare win against government-ordained abuse, but our federal agencies have frequently shown that the legality of their actions is usually only a minor concern -- something they'd rather deal with after the fact than consider ahead of time, especially when attempting to shut someone up.

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Filed Under: anti-terrorism, border searches, bradley manning, chelsea manning, computers, david house, dhs, ice, seized, tecs

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  • icon
    arkiel (profile), 10 Sep 2013 @ 2:56pm

    Look, we need to keep our names and pronouns consistent here, right? So we should be calling Chelsea a "her," right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2013 @ 3:29pm

    I guess the moral of the story is, don't fly with electronics equipment, or anything else you're not willing to have stolen.

    If you take pictures in Mexico, encrypt them using free and open source software, then upload them to a drop box server and download the encrypted pictures once you're back in the United States.

    Of course that means you'll need to buy a computer, cell phone and camera in the country you're traveling too. Then attempt to sell that equipment on the street in order to recoup some of your money before departing on your return trip home.

    Very expensive, but unfortunately this is the spy world we now live in.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2013 @ 4:16pm


      Before Traveling Pull Harddrive
      Use Bootable Linux ISO
      Files -> dropbox end of trip
      Let feds examine Laptop & Linux ISO.
      go home & recover Dropbox Files

      Camera -> No Memory Card or Format Card Before Leaving & Before Returning

      Phone -> No Memory Card, Cloud Backup Before Leaving & Before Returning

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael Hamill, 10 Sep 2013 @ 4:22pm

    Airspace limits

    What makes me chuckle about the 100 mile limit that your country puts inside its borders is that the edge of sovereign airspace of a country is considered less than 100 miles high from sea level (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airspace). This places every point in the country under the exclusion zone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    wto605 (profile), 10 Sep 2013 @ 4:34pm


    The giant "I TOLD YOU SO" mowed into a field in Russia is going to make Snowden very easy to find.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2013 @ 3:45am

    who is surprised about this information? the government will bend, break and ignore whatever it wants, whenever it wants, for the most ridiculous and flimsy excuse it can possibly think of, if it actually has to give an excuse! anyone else has to follow the rules, even if there are none to follow!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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