A U.S. Customs and Border Protection official reportedly refused to allow a reporter through customs on Thursday unless he answered the repeated question “You write propaganda, right?” in the affirmative, at least the third such incident involving harassment of a journalist by a passport official this year.
Ben Watson, a news editor at Defense One, was returning to the United States from a reporting assignment in Denmark when a USCBP official, after asking whether Watson was carrying any undeclared foods, inquired into his profession. When Watson responded that he worked in journalism, the official began repeatedly badgering him into “admitting” that he writes propaganda, Watson wrote of his experience.
“So you write propaganda, right?” Watson recalled the official asking, a question posed at least four times before the passport officer returned Watson’s passport and allowed him to enter the country.
Watson, who covers national security and homeland security, eventually told the official that the closest he came to writing propaganda was during his time as a public affairs officer for the U.S. Army. The official was, apparently, unamused. Watson finally told the officer that he wrote propaganda, “for the purposes of expediting this conversation,” before being asked the question one more time.
“I’ve honestly never had a human attempt to provoke me like this before in my life,” Watson told his colleagues after the incident. “This behavior is totally normal now, I guess?”
In response to questions from The Daily Beast about the incident, a CBP spokesperson said that the agency is aware of Watson’s allegations and is investigating the incident.
“We hold our employees accountable to our core values of vigilance, integrity and service to country, and do not tolerate inappropriate comments or behavior by our employees,” the spokesperson said, adding that travelers have the right to ask to speak with a supervisor to address concerns they have.
Harassment of non-citizen reporters on visas by USCBP officials calling them “fake news” has been a persistent issue within the agency. In February, BuzzFeed News reporter David Mack, an Australian citizen, received a personal apology from then-USCBP Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs Andrew Meehan, after Mack was interrogated at John F. Kennedy International Airport for ten minutes about the outlet’s coverage of Michael Cohen and the special counsel investigation into President Donald Trump.
“The immigration agent at JFK just saw that I work for BuzzFeed and just grilled me for 10 minutes about the Cohen story, which was fun given he gets to decide whether to let me back into the country,” Mack tweeted at the time. (Disclosure: Mack is a personal friend of this reporter.)
British journalist James Dyer, who writes about pop culture, tweeted in August that he was harassed as “fake news” by a USCBP official upon arriving at Los Angeles International Airport.
“He wanted to know if I’d ever worked for CNN or MSNBC or other outlets that are ‘spreading lies to the American people,’” Dyer said at the time, adding that he was only let go “after I said that I was just here to write about Star Wars, and would keep the fake news about that to a bare minimum.”
After Watson shared his story on Friday, TIME Washington Correspondent Vera Bergengruen shared a similar story.
“This has happened to me coming back into the country too, last year,” Bergengruen said. “A pretty aggressive questioning about who I worked for and ‘fake news.’”
After Dyer’s experience, a USCBP spokesperson told The Daily Beast that “unappropriated comments or behavior are not tolerated, and do not reflect our values of vigilance, integrity and professionalism.”
After the incident with Mack in February, USCBP said that the officer’s comments “do not reflect CBP’s commitment to integrity and professionalism of its workforce,” and vowed to immediately review the event.
“I hope—I can only hope that you treat this incident as incidental,” said Meehan. “It does not reflect the agency, and certainly not the professionalism that its officers strive to maintain.”