The Department of Homeland Security in Action by Michael Yon
04 January 2009
A Thai friend with whom I have traveled in Europe and Asia took time off from her job to meet me in Florida over the holidays. This was a good time for me, as it was between reporting stints in the war. My friend, Aew, had volunteered to work with me in Afghanistan or Iraq, but I declined because many people around me get shot or blown up. So we were looking forward to spending some vacation time together. She comes from a good family; and one that is wealthier than most American families. She didn’t come here for a job. Well-educated, she has a master’s degree and works as a bank officer in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Aew was excited about the prospect of visiting America for the first time, though she had traveled to many other countries and had the passport stamps to prove it. She had no problem getting a U.S. visa, and she was paying her own way to fly.
Problems began when she entered the airport in Bangkok. Aew had a one-way ticket to America, because we would travel back in the direction of the war before she would go home, but we did not know our exact itinerary, so she hadn’t bought a round-trip ticket back to Thailand. Before boarding the flight from Thailand to America, Northwest Airlines required Aew to buy a return ticket for 53,905 Thai bhat, or about $1,200 for a return ticket, else they would not let her board the flight. Aew paid by her credit card and pushed on. Understandably, it raises suspicions when a foreign national doesn’t have a round-trip ticket in an age of massive illegal immigration — even if that person is an educated professional with a home and career, and even though Aew has a ten-year visa to the United States. Nevertheless, Aew paid approximately $1,200 for the return ticket, and so now had a return ticket.
That is how it began. She boarded the jet, eventually landed in Japan and then Minneapolis, before the final leg to Orlando. While thousands of people have canceled trips to Orlando due to the failing economy, Aew was coming with cash to spend in Florida. We would go to Disney, Kennedy Space Center and many other places; she’d be seeing the sights while I was meeting with military and other people in preparation for my upcoming return to Afghanistan for the long year ahead.
I first met Aew in Indonesia during a break from the Iraq war. I had gone to visit the site of the murder of my friend Beata Pawlak, who, along with about two hundred other people, was killed in a terrorist attack on the island of Bali.
After meeting in Indonesia, Aew and I stayed in touch. We traveled at different times to Singapore, Great Britain, Thailand and Nepal. Yet when Aew landed in Minneapolis, she was hustled away by an immigration officer. After approximately 24 hours of exhausting travel, Aew was detained for about 90 minutes without cause, and as a result, she missed her connecting flight to Orlando. She was brought into a small room where she saw a camera peering down. The officer conducting the shakedown wore a name tag: "Knapp." Five times she had traveled to China with zero problems, but Knapp grilled Aew with a long series of questions, rifling through her wallet, handling her credit cards and reading them carefully, questioning her piece by piece. Her passport, thick with extra pages, showed stamps from countries around the world. It contained the valid U.S. visa, and stamps and visas from countries she had traveled to, such as Great Britain, Japan, China, Nepal, Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Brunei, New Zealand and Cambodia. She had traveled to some of these countries on multiple occasions, always paying her own way. She never had problems. Not even in China. We had toured Parliament together in London, on a private expedition led by Member of Parliament Adam Holloway. Aew was very interested to see the Royal Family, and was beside herself when I met Lady Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who at that time read this website. The British, including military officers, had treated her very well and she left with positive memories of Great Britian.
But that was Great Britain. The American shakedown was just starting. Her sister, Puk, was sending me SMS messages from Thailand, worried that Aew seemed to have disappeared. I had bought Puk’s daughters, North and Nurse, who are 8 and 9, a "talking globe" so they could track the travels of their Aunt Aew. The last time I saw North and Nurse, we had taken them to the Chiang Mai zoo, and also to an elephant camp where the elephants paint. Puk’s husband, Bey, is a high-ranking Thai police officer who, as part of his duties, helps organize security for the Thai Royal Family.
While the U.S. Immigration officer named Knapp rifled through all her belongings, Aew sat quietly. She was afraid of this man, who eventually pushed a keyboard to Aew and coerced her into giving up the password to her e-mail address. Officer Knapp read through Aew’s e-mails that were addressed to me, and mine to her. Aew would tell me later that she sat quietly, but “Inside I was crying.” She had been so excited to finally visit America. America, the only country ever to coerce her at the border. This is against everything I know about winning and losing the subtle wars. This is against everything I love about the United States. We are not supposed to behave like this. Aew would tell me later that she thought she would be arrested if she did not give the password.
The Government of the United States was reading the private e-mails of a U.S. citizen (me). The Department of “Homeland Security” was at work, intimidating visitors with legitimate visas. They had at least 24 hours to check her out before she landed in the United States. What kind of security is this? The Department of Homeland Security was at this moment more like the Department of Intimidation.
Officer Knapp called my phone as I was driving to the Orlando airport. I was going to be there two hours early to make sure I would be on time, so that she had a warm welcome to my country. But instead, Knapp was busy detaining Aew in Minneapolis and was on my cell phone asking all types of personal questions that he had no business asking. Sensing that Aew was in trouble, I answered his questions. Mr. Knapp was a rude smart aleck. The call is likely recorded and that recording would bear out my claims. This officer of the United States government, a grown man, had coerced personal information from a Thai woman who weighs 90 pounds. I asked Aew later why she gave him the e-mail password, and she answered simply, "I was afraid," and “I thought I would be arrested.”
What could I say to alleviate any of this? Could I say, "This is the U.S., nothing to be afraid of."? The world already sees us as senseless bullies. Aew might have been detained indefinitely; even I was concerned that the Department of Homeland Security might detain Aew for no reason. Essentially, she had no rights. They had already coerced her e-mail password out of her head through intimidation.
This does not make me feel safe: Our Homeland Security was focusing on a 40-year-old Thai bank officer while there are real bad guys out there. Thailand and the United States have had good relations for 175 years, and Thailand is one of the few countries in the world that is proud to say they are friends of the United States. There are no threats to Americans from Thai people — who, among other relevant things, are mostly not Muslims. The King of Thailand was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard. I have never seen the King with a gun; only a camera. His 2009 New Year’s speech was also a call for peace. The King and his family helped bring widespread education to Thailand, which created a special problem. Today there are large numbers of highly educated, successful women looking for highly educated men. I remember General (ret.) McCaffrey, our former drug Czar, telling me a couple of years ago that the King of Thailand was incredibly important in wiping out opium poppies in Thailand. The King of Thailand is highly respected by the government of the United States. He is a very good man.
During World War II, when the Japanese encouraged the Thai people to fight us, the Thai government actually declared war on the United States and Great Britain. But the Thai Ambassador in Washington refused to deliver the declaration of war. The upshot was that the United States refused to declare war on Thailand, and the Thai people formed a resistance against the Japanese.
Thai people refused to fight Americans. Instead, they attacked the Japanese. Has our government had problems recently with 90-pound, 40-year-old Thai women? Do they blow things up? Aew doesn’t even know how to light a match. She doesn’t smoke or drink, and is more upright than your average southern Baptist. She can’t even curse and gets upset if she hears me say a bad word about someone. “Michael!” she says, “Don’t say that!”
When I discovered that she had missed her flight, after about 24 hours of travel thus far, I called immigration at Minneapolis and asked to speak with Officer Knapp. Knapp got on the phone, but this time it was me questioning him. Knapp told me it was legal to read e-mails. I asked for his first name, but he was afraid to give his first name, which was rather strange for someone working within the confines of an airport where everyone has been searched for weapons. Where I work, in a war zone, soldiers give their first and last names and face Taliban and al Qaeda heads up, man to man. I write about al Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorist groups who kill thousands of people. My name is Michael Yon. My first name is Michael. Mr. Knapp hides behind a badge bullying a woman whose only activities are Yoga, reading, travel, and telling me what is healthy and unhealthy to eat. Knapp is a face of Homeland Security. How many other officers at Homeland Security bully 90-pound women, but are afraid to give their own names?
Knowing that Homeland Security officers are creating animosity and anxiety at our borders does not make me feel safer. How many truly bad guys slip by while U.S. officers stand in small rooms and pick on little women?
I have just returned from Afghanistan and Iraq on a trip with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and I can assure you that we can do better. We do not have to violate human rights and insult our closest allies to maintain our security.
Meanwhile, Aew had missed two flights; standby seats were full on the second flight, and I was considering flying from Florida to Minneapolis to get her myself. I did not want Aew to have to sleep in the airport overnight.
I had intended to show Aew a bit of my country. But it’s taking a little while for her to get over her discomfort at being in America. She was treated better in China. So was I.