Detroit News- November 7, 2008
Gregg Krupa / The Detroit News
DEARBORN HEIGHTS -- Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi, a frequent traveler who wears a robe and the traditional amamah headwear of a Shi'a leader, is accustomed to scrutiny at international airports.
But he was not prepared for what happened to him on Oct. 22 as he returned to Detroit Metropolitan Airport from an extended trip to his native Iran. After searching his luggage, customs personnel wanted to see more.
"They said, 'Well, we need to check your computer,' " Elahi recalled. "They said they had to go to an office and check it. They came back and said, 'Well, do the password.' ... He took it back, and it took another 20 minutes. And then he came back and said, 'Well, you know, unfortunately, the computer died as I was looking at it.' "
Elahi was confronted with what many local Muslims and residents of Arab descent say are increased searches and seizures of laptops at airports and border crossings without warrant or warning. Civil rights groups are challenging the tactic, as the Bush administration and citizens continue to grapple with the conflict between civil liberties and national security seven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
They say the laptops of Muslims, in particular, are targeted, seized and retained without any notification of the cause. Meanwhile, Elahi has been forced to spend thousands of dollars to retrieve scholarly research, contact lists, e-mails from devoted followers about intimate marital problems and photos of his family.
Border security officials say they have not ramped up the practice, but they are well within their rights to seize laptops, cell phones and other electronic devices before travelers -- even citizens -- enter the country.
"Our electronics search policy at the border has existed as long as electronics have existed," said Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection. Federal officials said the practice is so limited that 40 laptops were searched during the first two weeks of August, when 17 million travelers entered the country.
The practice has been affirmed by courts, federal officials say, but civil rights leaders say procedures should be established so travelers have a reasonable notice of what to expect and of what happens to their computers when they are seized.
"Obviously, it is something that is troubling because you don't know that is happening," said Kareem Shora, the national director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "If it is a matter of a blanket policy and the downloading of information on a large scale, we need to know where the information is being stored and what kinds of protections are being afforded."
Some people say they have begun to travel on business without laptops, or with a second laptop that contains duplicate information, out of concern for the scrutiny. Based in part on similar stories, U.S. Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., introduced bills last month that would allow searches and seizures with a warrant.
Spokesmen for U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, Democrats from Michigan, said the senators are aware of the issue and are monitoring the legislation.
Officials of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection personnel, say they are well within the limits of the law. They denied that the seizures are increased enforcement or targeting of religious or ethnic groups.
But civil rights advocates say the activity has become far more common in recent months.
"The Bush Administration has sought to undo 20 years of legal protections by searching personal electronics without probable cause," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
A lawyer for Elahi said he will discuss the seizure of his computer with federal officials before considering litigation.
"The way his laptop was taken and the data removed and the computer altered, and not to have any notice of it or warning raises privacy issues," said Shereff Akeel. "This man is a citizen here who has tried to bridge communities and to build interfaith dialogue."
When his computer was seized, Elahi said he was questioned about an article on suicide that he had downloaded for a lecture. But the questions, he said, implied something far more sinister.
"They asked, 'What is this item about suicide?' And I told them it was for a lecture I was to give about how religion and a relationship with God should overcome social problems, issues related to the bad economy and such things," Elahi said. "They said, 'Why did you download it on your laptop?' "
A computer technician hired by Elahi said that the hard drive on his laptop was damaged, perhaps by dropping it, or by someone trying to access it. It was impossible to determ
ine, the technician said, whether the data stored in the laptop was retrieved and copied.
That process can take as little time as several minutes, and Elahi said his computer was seized for at least 20 minutes.
"I asked them why they could not inspect it in front of me; why did they have to take it to another room," he said. "They told me it was what they needed to do."
You can reach Gregg Krupa at firstname.lastname@example.org.