Canadian Activist Interrogated at the US Border
My name is John Clarke and I am an Organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). In the early afternoon of February 19th, 2002, I crossed the international bridge between Sarnia, Ontario and Port Huron, Michigan. I was on my way to a speaking engagement that had been set up by students at Michigan State University.
When I pulled up my car at the customs booth, the officer asked where I was bound and I told him. He wanted to know on what basis I was asked to speak and whether I would be paid. I replied that I was with OCAP and that I had been told by the organizers of the meeting that an honourarium would be provided as was normal. The officer was concerned that this meant I was coming into the US to work. Of course, people on both sides of the border accept speaking invitations all the time on this basis and the issue of a work permit is never raised. At this point, the matter was nothing that could not have been rapidly cleared up if I had been on my way to address a business seminar or deliver a lecture on self awareness.
As instructed by the officer, I parked my car and made my way into the offices shared by customs and US Immigration. As soon as my ID was run through the computer, there was a marked change in the situation. An officer asked me more questions about my intentions in the US, what anti globalization protests I had attended and whether I opposed the ‘ideology of the United States’. My car was searched and I was taken into a room and thoroughly (though not roughly) frisked. I was then told that I would be denied entry to the US and that the FBI and State Department wanted to speak to me. Agents were on their way from Detroit I was told.
After about an hour and a half, a man entered the ‘controlled reception’ area that I was being kept in and passed by me into the inner offices. He was carrying a big folder and a pile of files. It struck me that he carried them the way a highly skilled worker might carry his or her precision tools. He spent some time in discussion with the local officers and then I was brought into an interrogation room to deal with him. He introduced himself and gave me his card. His name was Edward J. Seitz of the State Department of the United States Diplomatic Security Service and his rank was Special Agent. I found him to be an impressive and fascinating character.
Seitz, with the backing of another local officer, interrogated me for some considerable time. It was not a situation like an arrest by Canadian police where silence is the best option. Had I refused to talk to him, I did not doubt that he would order me detained and that it would be some time before the Canadian consular authorities came into the picture. If I was to avoid at least several days in detention, I determined that I had no option but to answer his questions. It was immediately obvious to me that I was dealing with a specialist in interrogation methods. He told the admiring locals at one point that he had been stationed in Yemen and I avoided speculating on how he had employed his talents there.
Seitz’s basic strategy, apart from general intelligence gathering, was to try and set me up to tell him something false that would place me in the situation of violating US law. He began with some very basic questions on my personal background, extremely affable in his manner and striking a pose of mild confusion that was designed to make me underestimate him. He then asked about OCAP. He told me it sounded like we were good people but he had heard something about an organization that a year or so before had been involved in a confrontation with the police at the Ontario Legislature. That wasn’t us was it? The trap was clear and I told him that we were indeed that organization. His affable manner then vanished and his difficulties in focusing his thoughts ended. He gradually moved his chair over so we were right up against each other and fired questions at me. He wanted to know about the June 15, 2000 March on the Ontario Legislature where the Toronto police attacked a march against homelessness that we had organized. He wanted to know about charges that the police have laid against me. He wanted to know how OCAP is structured and who are the members of its elected executive committee (which I refused to tell him).
Seitz then took up the question of OCAP’s friends and allies in the US. Are we involved in anti globalization work. Isn’t this a cover for anarchism? Was I personally an anarchist or a socialist? (In the interests of anti capitalist unity, I won’t say which one of these I acknowledged I was). Seitz had a huge file on OCAP with him that included leaflets from public speaking events I had been at in the US. He knew the name of the man I stayed with the last time I was in Chicago. He wanted to know who I spoke to in the Chicago Direct Action Network. He claimed that I was an advocate of violence and that my association with DAN showed this but (in a rare stumble) could find nothing in their literature that proved that they call for violence.
This phase of the questioning went on for a long time. He covered a great deal of ground and had at his disposal voluminous information on us. He, obviously, had been in contact with the Canadian police but was most interested on our US allies. The exception was an enormous interest in Canadian anti capitalist activist, Jaggi Singh. He knew that he and I had spoken at the same meetings and was most anxious to find out if he was also in the US. He showed me a picture of Jaggi and wanted to know where he was at that moment.
Suddenly, the mask of affability went back on. I was a ‘gentleman’ and he didn’t want to lock me up. I was ok but he couldn’t understand how I worked with a ‘violent man like Mr. Singh’. Then he told me he would have to ban me from the US but I could go to the US Consulate in Toronto and apply for a waiver. I could just take a seat in the waiting room while they prepared some paper work but I would soon be on my way. I had not been sitting out there long, however, before the Special Agent came out to try a new tack that I had heard of in the past. Essentially, his plan was to make me think he was utterly mad and, thereby, rattle me to the point where I lost my judgement. I assume the method works better if it is used after serious sleep deprivation. He came over and sat next to me right there in the waiting area with other people around. He had a few OCAP cheques that he asserted showed I was bringing with me the means to live illegally in the US. I was going to jail, he asserted. I explained that the cheques were in my bag because I always kept a few with me to cover the cost of office supplies and suchlike and that I had seen no reason to take them out just because I was going to spend a few hours in Michigan.
Then came the most astounding part of the whole interrogation. Out of the blue, Seitz demanded to know where Osama Bin Laden was hiding. I knew were he was, he insisted. If I grew a beard I would look like Bin Laden. I was holding back on telling him why I was going to the university and who I was going to meet there. If I didn’t want to go to jail, it was time to tell him the real story. I replied that I had been quite open with him about my intentions and that sending me to jail was now up to him. He laughed, told me there were no problems. I could go home after all. Did I drink tea of coffee? Would I have a coffee with him if he came up to Toronto. I told him I would, which was the only lie I told that day, and he gathered up his files and left.
Shortly after this, the local officials gave me the free ticket for the bridge which is the only perk that comes along with being denied entry to the US and, a little over five hours after coming over, I headed back to the Canadian side.