Dec 11, 2013
The Classic Military Runaround
Posted on Jul 9, 2013
By Nick Turse, TomDispatch
That’s the nature of the runaround. Months later, you find yourself back in the same informational cul-de-sac. And when it comes to the U.S. military, it happens again and again and again. I had a similar experience trying to embed with U.S. units in Afghanistan. I was rebuffed repeatedly for reasons that seemed spurious to me. As a result, however, a never-used Afghan visa for that trip sits unstamped in my passport—which brings me back to my recent trip to Qatar.
The American Taliban?
In the airport upon returning to the United States, I was singled out by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent. He directed me to a “girl” at a far counter. When I got there, I was admonished by her for being in the wrong place. Finally, I was sent to see a third CBP officer at a different workstation. Think of it as the runaround before the runaround.
This agent proceeded to question me about the contents of my bag, pulled out my papers and began reading them. She also wanted to know about my profession. I said I was a writer. What did I write about? National security issues, I told her. She asked what I thought about national security and the role of the U.S. military in the world. In my estimation, I said, it tended to result in unforeseen consequences. “Like what?” she asked. So I described my most recent article on blowback from U.S. military efforts in Africa.
“I do,” I replied.
“What are the titles?”
“The latest one is called Kill Anything That Moves.”
“Kill Anything That Moves.”
She turned to her computer, promptly Googled the book, went to the Amazon page, and began scrolling through the customer reviews. She asked if my book was, as the page said, a New York Times bestseller. I assured her it was. After a short while, she told me to stay put and disappeared into a back room with my personal papers—writings, notes, reading materials. When she returned, she told me that she couldn’t conduct the rest of my “examination” in public. She would have to bring me “back.” I asked if there was a problem. No. Could I have my papers back? The answer was again no.
I was soon deposited in “Area 23” of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and I was definitely the odd one out. Not that there weren’t plenty of other people there. The Muslim man in the taqiyah. Three women in head scarves. Another wearing a niqab. Everyone’s skin color was at least several shades darker than mine.
I waited for a while, taking notes, before my name was called by an Officer Mott. The badge on his shirt made that clear, but he spelled it out for me anyway. “It seems like you’re taking notes on everything, so I might as well get that out of the way,” Mott said visibly perturbed, especially when I asked for his full name. “I’m not giving you my first name,” he said with palpable disgust.
Like the previous CBP agent, he also asked about my writing interests. I told him it mostly centered on U.S. foreign policy.
“Are you for or against it?”
“Am I for foreign policy?” I asked.
“Well, I’m reading that your last book is Kill Anything That Moves. That was about what?”
“The Vietnam War.”
“What about the Vietnam War?”
“Sensitive topic,” he said.
“Especially for the Vietnamese,” I replied.
“Well, in this day and age with the whole war going on, that’s a sensitive issue you’re writing about… Do you get any heat or problems writing about war and civilian casualties?”
“It comes with the territory,” I told him.
As he typed away at his computer, I asked why I was singled out. “I think because some of the material you have is of interest… What you’re writing, traveling with.” I asked how they would know what was in my bag before I was detained. “Why the officer stopped you is beyond me, but what the officer discovered is something of interest, especially for national security… It’s not every day you see someone traveling with information like this.”
It was probably true. The contents of my bag were splayed out before us. The most prominent and substantive document was “Qatar: Background and U.S. Relations,” a report prepared last year by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
Agent Mott rifled through my papers, tapped at his keyboard some more, breathed in deeply and then launched into a series of questions designed to make sure, he told me, that nothing “jeopardizes our national security.”
“How long have you been writing about wars and things like that?”
“About 10 years.”
He did a double take, looked at my passport, and typed feverishly. “I thought you were younger,” he told me. I took it as a compliment. He wanted to know if I’d traveled anywhere in the last five years as he flipped through my passport, filled as it is with visas and entry and exit stamps from around the world. The answer was obviously yes. “Pakistan? Afghanistan?” he asked.
Immediately, I thought of the unused Afghan visa in my passport and started to explain. After instructing me to get a visa, the U.S. military had strung me along for months before deciding I couldn’t embed with certain units I requested, I told him.
“Doing journalistic stuff, not fighting with them or anything like that?”
Fighting? Was I really being accused of heading to Afghanistan to join the Taliban? Or maybe plotting to launch an insider attack? Was I really being questioned about this on the basis of having an Afghan visa and writing about national security issues? “Nope. I’m a writer,” I told him. “I cover the U.S. military, so I was going to cover the U.S. military.”
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