By Christine Von Der Haar
One early summer morning, Christine Von Der Haar, a faculty member at Indiana University, was seized and detained by United States Customs and Border Protection officers at Indianapolis International Airport. She was twice interrogated about deeply personal matters by an armed female officer while an armed male officer stood blocking the doorway. She was never advised of her right to leave, nor was she told of her right to refuse to answer questions. She reasonably believed that she could not choose to leave. Later, the officers would admit that she had committed no crime and had not even been suspected of criminal activity. In telling her story to attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana who represented Dr. Von Der Haar in her subsequent lawsuit, she revealed how intensely hurtful and humiliating this experience had been. The officers had clearly violated Dr. Von Der Haar's Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. So why was she detained? And why did the government later have such difficulty explaining its actions? Here, in her own words, is Chris's story:
In June 2012, I was looking forward to a wonderful summer. A friend I had not seen in over 40 years was coming to visit. We had met as teenagers during a study abroad program in Versoix, Switzerland. I was happy to find him on LinkedIn in the spring of 2011, and we renewed our friendship by email. Over the ensuing months, our correspondence was sometimes flirtatious and romantic. We discussed our lives and work in the intervening years. I had become a published author and faculty member at Indiana University. My friend traveled the world as a management consultant, working on many exciting projects.
Eventually, I invited him to come to Indiana for an extended visit so we could catch up. Because he was expecting to receive word about upcoming management consulting projects, he shipped his computer and other belongings that he needed for those jobs. This arrangement would allow him to work from a distance and still enjoy a nice break. On June 8, almost a week after he arrived in Indiana, I accompanied my friend to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) office at the Indianapolis Airport to help him pick up the items he had shipped. As soon as we arrived, CBP officers asked us: "Are you getting married?" and requested my driver's license. After about half an hour, my friend was asked to come through a locked door to answer some questions. I would not see him again for over five hours.
"I have heard people say, 'I don't care if the government reads my email—there's nothing in there.' And, there was nothing in my emails.... [But] CBP officers used my email to humiliate me. Their invasion of my privacy was a complete assault on my freedom as an individual, citizen, author and academic."
—Christine Von Der Haar
After another 30 minutes or so, I was told that I also needed to be questioned. I was led to a small office and directed to sit on the couch. The female officer, in uniform and armed, leaned against the corner of the desk, directly in front of and inches away from me, while the male officer, also in uniform and armed, stood in the doorway, blocking the door at all times. The female officer said, "We have been reading your emails for a year." She asked about the nature of our relationship and commented on the romantic way in which we had started to sign emails to one another as our renewed friendship progressed. This officer asked about social gatherings discussed in the emails. She asked about the nature of our relationship. I was alarmed that my emails had been read, and I was scared and frustrated by the persistent personal questions about a man I was seeing for the first time in over 40 years.
I was escorted back to the waiting room, but after another 30 minutes or so was again called back to the small office and again asked intrusive and deeply personal questions. After I was again released to the waiting room, I continued to wait for my friend. I asked about him at the window and was told to go to lunch, but I did not want to leave until I was certain he was alright. Nearly six hours after we arrived, my friend was released.
At this point, nothing made any sense. I felt myself being caught in a whirlwind of confusion. For a CBP officer to ask such deeply personal and increasingly invasive questions was distressing. But most shocking was the knowledge that these government officials had read our emails!
These officers had no probable cause to detain me or to question me. It is fair to say that this was an "off-the-books interrogation," because the officers made no official record of it. Apparently, they never wanted anyone to know about it.
Something very wrong had just happened to us, and it made me think of Sen. Russ Feingold's warning to the U.S. Senate about setting up a system where the police could read our email and eavesdrop on our phone conversations. Referring to this kind of system as a police state, he had said: "That wouldn't be a country in which we would want to live...that country wouldn't be America."
But what could I do? Not really knowing, I proceeded to contact anyone who might help. On June 23, I contacted the ACLU of Indiana, and they responded immediately. I then contacted Indiana Senators Richard Lugar and Dan Coats, and Rep. Todd Young. Everyone listened and worked diligently to help us. Through the efforts of Sen. Coats and Rep. Young, my friend's passport, seized at the time of the interrogations, was returned. Nearly three months after it had been confiscated, he was finally free to go home. But no one was able to explain what had happened to me or why my email had been read by the U.S. government without my knowledge.
Over the next year, the ACLU of Indiana continued to help me investigate what had happened. And then in June 2013, Edward Snowden told the world about the massive spying activities of our federal government. It had been a year since I was interrogated by the CBP officers about my email. I had tried everything and had pursued every appropriate avenue, but had gotten nowhere. Finally, the truth was beginning to come out. Now there was hope. And, the ACLU of Indiana was helping. At this point, I again contacted Sen. Coats and Rep. Young. I wrote to a number of other U.S. Senators, including Senators Ron Wyden, Rand Paul and Mark Udall, who recognized the seriousness of the problem and were fighting to protect Americans' rights under the U.S. Constitution.
In February 2014, with the help of the ACLU, I filed a lawsuit against the two officers who had twice detained and questioned me. The suit was then amended to include the United States as a defendant. The officers had clearly violated my constitutional rights. But what would the discovery phase of this litigation reveal? Would I ever get answers to my questions?
In her sworn statement, the female officer testified that several days in advance of the events of June 8, 2012, she and a colleague examined my friend's shipment, opening cartons and taking pictures of the contents. In the boxes, she claimed, they found copies of our email correspondence. However, when this colleague was asked about the emails under oath, he testified that my friend handed him the personal emails at the window of the CBP office.
Of course, both statements are absurd. My friend did not ship or carry with him personal emails. The detailed inventory of the boxes provided by the shipping company makes no mention of such documents. And not surprisingly, the CBP cannot locate those pictures they say they took of the contents of the boxes.
Also during her deposition, the female officer reviewed a transcript of the interview of my friend that was only six pages long, even though he had been detained for almost six hours. They asked him questions about things that had not been mentioned in the emails they later claimed they had: "Did you get those paintings as a gift as stated in your email to Christine?" they asked, referring to paintings in my friend's shipment. And, "Why did you have a going-away party ...?"
No transcript or notes exist regarding the questioning to which I was subjected. The officer admitted that she asked me personal questions about the nature of my relationship with my friend. She also admitted she never told me that I did not have to answer questions or that I was free to leave. She admitted that at no time was I suspected of having committed any crime that would justify my detention and interrogation.
Of the 11 emails that the United States provided in discovery, two of them had been "duplicated." A close examination of the "duplicate" emails showed that the fonts and spacing in these emails were different. The United States gave no explanation as to why there were "duplicate" emails or why the "duplicated" emails were not exactly the same. The differences in the emails suggest to me that others had gained access to the messages and had tampered with them.
The stories of the CBP officers in Indianapolis just didn't add up. The United States simply could not explain its deep knowledge of our correspondence and our friendship based upon the evidence it presented.
It is outrageous that complete strangers, let alone the federal government, read my private email and interfered in a relationship with a person I loved. I had kept his correspondence and a gift he had given me for more than 40 years. I had always hoped to see him again one day. That dream came true, but it turned into an absolute nightmare. The intrusion by the United States government into my personal life caused irreparable damage. It was the last chance I had to see my friend. And instead of reminiscing about our lives, we lost precious time desperately trying to find out what had happened to us. People I did not even know senselessly robbed me of the happiness this relationship had given to me.
The U.S. government does not have the right to spy on American citizens. But, it has set up a massive surveillance system that can and has been abused by people who lie and then cover up the crime. What happened in my case illustrates an ominous system of secrets, lies, and cover ups. We will never know the full truth about what happened in my case or what went on behind the scenes.
I have heard people say, "I don't care if the government reads my email—there's nothing in there." And, there was nothing in my emails. I never had any concerns about what I wrote. Still, the government read them for a year, without my knowledge. And then in that summer of 2012, CBP officers used my email to humiliate me. Their invasion of my privacy was a complete assault upon my freedom as an individual, as a citizen, as an author and as an academic. Had they also read email that I sent to my publisher—entire chapters of a book I was writing? Did they steal students' records from my hard drive? I'll never know. There is nothing okay about what happened to me.
We cannot accept this kind of abuse by the federal government. We must all find the courage to question this mass surveillance system, which is steadily eroding our constitutional right to privacy. Americans fight for freedom—we don't cower from that fight. Democracies don't spy on their own citizens. If we don't defend and protect the U.S. Constitution, we will have no rights. Fear does not justify spying on American citizens. The only thing we need to fear is having the government take away our freedoms.
Christine M. Von Der Haar is a sociology professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, where she teaches classes in sociology and media. She received her Ph.D. from IU in 1985, and she also holds masters degrees in journalism and secondary education. Von Der Haar received the IU Trustees Teaching Award in 2004, and her book, "Social Psychology: A Sociological Perspective," was published by Prentice Hall in 2005. Previously she worked as Manager of Surveys for the CBS/New York Times poll covering campaigns and elections.