An NPR correspondent recently went incognito for a sting operation aimed at exposing U.S. border agents who target Muslims for "interrogation" at the Canadian border.
Employing the same tactics used by James O'Keefe to bring down top NPR executives, counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston draped herself in a headscarf, drove to the northern border, and recorded her encounter with a U.S. border agent. [Click here for audio.]
"An agent from Customs and Border Protection was sitting in what looked like a little toll booth," recalled Temple-Raston on the March 10 Morning Edition, who gave the agent no indication that he was being recorded. "He asked me to remove my sunglasses and peered into the car. I was wearing a headscarf and so was Kathy Jamil. He asked why we'd been to Canada."
According to Temple-Raston, Kathy Jamil, the Muslim principal of an Islamic school in Buffalo, New York, travels frequently between the U.S. and Canada and is routinely peppered with questions that she finds offensive. But Temple-Raston failed to contrast questions asked by U.S. officials with questions asked by Canadian officials, who have a border of their own to protect.
As useful as such a contrast would have been in determining the extent to which Canadian border enforcement measures depart from U.S. practices, the veteran foreign affairs journalist chose to dig up "cases" of potential abuse to construct a narrative that U.S. agents habitually profile Muslims for "interrogation" because of their religion.
Take Samer Shehata, who was pulled aside for additional questioning by customs agents in Florida.
"Shehata and his family were taken into a secondary screening room," intoned Temple-Raston. "Forty minutes ticked by. Shehata started to worry about missing his connecting flight. The agents asked Shehata about his parents, what he studied in college, where he went to college."
A professor of Middle Eastern studies at Georgetown University, Shehata was allegedly asked a certainly peculiar but hardly bigoted question by border agents: "who will win" the war on terrorism?
The question seems innocent enough given Shehata's expertise in Middle Eastern politics, but an indignant Temple-Raston treated it like a serious offense: "Who's going to win? The Muslims or the Americans? The Israelis or the Palestinians?"
Plowing ahead with her refrain, Temple-Raston questioned Thomas Winkowski, the assistant commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, about allegations of religious profiling at the Canadian border.
"The line we don't cross is that we are improperly taking into consideration individuals' race and religion and the like," explained Winkowski. "To me that's the boundary, that's the line."
Winkowski's answer clearly did not satisfy Temple-Raston, who turned to an ACLU spokeswoman to refute the border agent.
"The question is when does discretion lead to abuse?" asked Temple-Raston.
"The difference here is between routine and non-routine questions," responded Hina Shemsi, the executive director of the ACLU's National Security Project.
Temple-Raston added, "What the government can't do, [Shemsi] says, is ask about religion absent some suspicion of wrongdoing."
When pressed by Temple-Raston, Shemsi drew the same line that Winkowski drew. Not only that, but Temple-Raston failed to present any evidence that U.S. agents were in fact inquiring about religion without having any suspicion of wrongdoing. And even if they had, Winkowski maintained that the U.S. government does not tolerate such behavior.
Click here for the print version of the March 10 story. A transcript of the relevant portions of the radio program can be found below:
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Kathy Jamil is the principal of an Islamic school in Buffalo, New York. Jamil's Muslim and she wears a headscarf. Because of where she lives, she crosses into Canada and back frequently and lately that's meant U.S. immigration officials peppering her with questions. She offered to show me what happens. So we went to Niagara Falls, spent a few hours in Canada, and then came back. We approached the U.S. border at Rainbow bridge. An agent from Customs and Border Protection was sitting in what looked like a little toll booth. He asked me to remove my sunglasses and peered into the car. I was wearing a headscarf and so was Kathy Jamil. He asked why we'd been to Canada. I said I was working on a story on a notorious murder involving two local Muslims. It had been the talk of Buffalo. He asked Jamil if she was related to the murderer.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Samer Shehata, a professor of Middle East studies at Georgetown University. He ran into trouble at customs in Florida this past January. He was returning to the U.S. with his wife and son from a vacation in Cancun.
SAMER SHEHATA: After she looked at our passports and do her computer work she asked us to follow her, which was something I hadn't experience before.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Shehata and his family were taken into a secondary screening room. Forty minutes ticked by. Shehata started to worry about missing his connecting flight.
SHEHATA: And a few minutes afterwards I was summoned to speak to the supervisor of Homeland Security at the Fort Lauderdale airport.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And so what did he ask you?
SHEHATA: Well it wasn't so much asking, it was more an interrogation.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The agents asked Shehata about his parents, what he studied in college, where he went to college. Shehata suggested the supervisor look up his resume on the Georgetown University website. Then he says, the interview took a bizarre turn.
SHEHATA: After he asked me what I teach at Georgetown University and my response was Middle East politics, he asked "Who is going to win."
TEMPLE-RASTON: Who is going to win? The Muslims or the Americans? The Israelis or the Palestinians? Shehata said he wasn't sure what the question meant. Finally, after nearlytwo hours, Shehata got his U.S. passport back.
--Alex Fitzsimmons is a News Analysis intern at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.