A Journalist Says He Was Hounded by a U.S. Customs Agent

For five years, Ben Watson served in the United States Army, spending part of that time in public affairs in Kandahar, Afghanistan, writing news releases, working as a combat cameraman and accompanying a reporter who was embedded with the troops. Now he is on the other side of the divide, working as the news editor at Defense One, a digital publication owned by Atlantic Media that covers military issues and global security.

Mr. Watson said his time in the military had left him with sympathy for government officials stationed on the line between freedom and security — people like the Customs and Border Protection agent who inspected his passport on Thursday at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.

“They need broad leeway to ask questions,” Mr. Watson, 37, said in an interview. “I understand that. Their job is to keep us safe.”

But what happened in the airport that day crossed the line, he added.

According to an account that Mr. Watson co-wrote for Defense One, the agent asked him what he did for living, and he replied, “Journalism.”

“So you write propaganda, right?” the official asked.

Mr. Watson said no.

The official repeated himself, according to the account: “You write propaganda, right?”

Mr. Watson, who was returning from a work trip in Denmark, denied that he wrote propaganda once more, adding: “I am in journalism. Covering national security. And homeland security. And with many of the same skills I used in the U.S. Army as a public affairs officer. Some would argue that’s propaganda.”

The customs officer repeated his question twice more. Mr. Watson wrote in his account that he had given in, saying, “For the purposes of expediting this conversation, yes.” Finally, the official returned the passport and allowed him to pass.

“I felt intimidated and bullied,” Mr. Watson said in an interview.

The incident described by Mr. Watson comes at a time when the Customs and Border Protection agency has been at the center of a political maelstrom over President Trump’s immigration and border policies. Additionally, Mr. Trump and some of his supporters have often portrayed journalists as “enemies of the people” who publish “fake news” and “corrupt news.”

As Mr. Watson noted in his Defense One article, several other journalists have said they were subjected to similar treatment while passing through customs in the United States recently. A British journalist said he had been labeled “fake news” at Los Angeles International Airport. An American journalist chronicled the difficulties he said he had gone through at Austin International Airport in Texas as he returned from a trip to Mexico in the spring, an ordeal that included agents detaining him and searching his computer and smartphone.

Mr. Watson said he had filed a civil-rights complaint with the Department of Homeland Security concerning the incident at Dulles. “It was abnormal, unnecessary and seemingly part of a pattern in terms of bullying behavior toward other reporters,” he said.

He added, “We don’t want this to become normal.”

In a statement, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman said the agency was investigating Mr. Watson’s report.

“We hold our employees accountable to our core values of vigilance, integrity and service to country, and do not tolerate inappropriate comments or behavior,” the spokesman said.

At a press briefing on Thursday, Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, called the harassment of journalists by agency officials “absolutely unacceptable, unequivocally.” He advised any journalist who had suffered ill treatment from an agent to file a formal complaint, saying that “there’s a little thing in the country called freedom of speech.”

Mr. Watson said that, in his younger days, he might not have offered a false confession to put the matter behind him.

“If I didn’t have kids, if I didn’t have my wife coming for me and my car in the parking lot, I probably would have done something different,” he said.