Animal Advocate Detained, Searched, Questioned at Canadian Border about Activism

by Will Potter on July 15, 2008

in Surveillance

Photo courtesy of Jeremy BeckhamAs the New York Times reported last week, the Department of Homeland Security routinely stops Americans who are re-entering the country so government officials can snoop through laptops and even copy files.

For many animal and environmental advocates, though, this is old news. And it’s only part of the story. The government labels the animal rights and environmental movements the “number one domestic terrorism threat” because some activists do things like break windows, release animals from fur farms, or, at worst, burn SUVs. That label has given the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and TSA the pretext to go after legal, above-ground activists: Feds have not only snooped through laptops, but detained and questioned activists about their political beliefs and political associations. The government has been treating the border as a Constitutional no-man’s land, a legal dead zone for carrying out political witch hunts.

For instance, I recently talked with Jeremy Beckham, who is working with the Primate Freedom Project to create the National Primate Research Exhibition Hall. He’s a part-time student at the University of Utah, and he also teaches in an after-school program.

On June 20th, he went to Vancouver with his brother and a friend. They crossed into Canada without a problem. It wasn’t until the return trip, when they gave the U.S. border agent their licenses and birth certificates, that they realized something was up.

Beckham says:

As he [the border agent] entered my name into his computer, he grew very alarmed and immediately made a hand gesture to other agents. Approximately half a dozen CBP agents surrounded our car. When I looked into my rear view mirror, one of the agents shouted very authoritatively “don’t look in your mirrors at us! keep your eyes forward”. We were instructed to pull our car off to the side and walk inside the CBP station. We were told to leave all of our cell phones and keys in the vehicle.

Agents refused to let Beckham observe as they searched his car. They took him into another room where he was questioned by Agent Galager about his job, salary, and which student groups he supports at the university. When Beckham asked to speak with a lawyer, Galager became very upset, handcuffing Beckham and saying he was being detained. Another agent entered the room.

The new agent told me “we aren’t your local law enforcement going after gang bangers in the street. We’re federal officials fighting terrorism. So you will sit there and answer our questions whether you like it or not.”

I responded “So I do not have the right to remain silent?” He responded “No you do not. This isn’t an episode of Law and Order. You are not taking this as seriously as should.”

About this time, Beckham says, two agents were talking about the search of his car. The car was “clear,” they said, except for a notebook with addresses, which they copied.

[Agent] Page explained what was happening — the first time so far. He said that the government considered me a “person of interest” but that he could say no more. He said that he has Googled my name while I was being detained and knows that I am an animal rights “extremist” and that the government has a good reason for monitoring people who believe in animal rights because so many of them, although not all, have resorted to terrorism.

He stated “we have no problem with your right to be an animal rights person, but they just want to make sure that you aren’t more extreme.”…

Then he said “do you support or know anyone in ALF [Animal Liberation Front]? Do you support law breaking for your cause?” I said again, firmly, that I didn’t want to answer any questions of that nature. For the first time in my whole ordeal, he expressly told me “OK well you certainly have that right – no one here has stopped you from that.” I told him – with Galager in the room – that Galager told me that I had to answer questions. Galager then quickly stated that he never told me that.

When Beckham was allowed to return to his brother and friend, he found out that they, too, had been questioned. Beckham says, “When Amy asked why she was being asked that, they shouted that she was being uncooperative. Frightened, she provided them with the requested information: that she was an after school teacher for Salt Lake City School District.”

The entire ordeal lasted about three hours, Beckham says. When they returned to the car, the glovebox had been searched and left open, their bags had been searched and left open. As if the agents clearly felt they had nothing to hide.

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