Robert Fisk: The real story behind those rumours that the Americans banned me from the US

I had simply travelled on an old passport that was no longer valid for the US
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It started when I set off for Santa Fe to read from my new book on the Middle East. There was to be an interview with that iconic leftist radio host, Amy Goodman, and an awful lot of people booked to listen to Bob of Arabia. US immigration cheerfully ran my little red passport through their computer scanner. It's full of visas from pariah countries, but this didn't seem to trouble the lady from Homeland Security. What worried her was something different. "It doesn't scan," she said. No, I said nonchalantly.I was sent into a large room full of angry would-be visitors to the United States. A tall man scanned my irises and took my fingerprints. So that's that, I thought. Not so. Forty-five minutes later, another lady from Homeland Security - I still don't like that word "homeland", with its dodgy echo of the German "Heimat". I only needed 36 hours in the States, I said. To give a lecture without a fee. Hundreds of people would be present.

"I'll see my supervisor to see if we can get you in," she cheerfully announced. Long live America, I breathed. Until she came back and told me her supervisor would not let me travel. The lads and lassies who are supposed to stop Osama bin Laden attacking America were now making sure I couldn't read from a book in Santa Fe.

Much deft technical work allowed me to give the talk and the reading by satellite, right into the Santa Fe lecture theatre. Then came the blow. One of the organisers had told the New Mexican - a newspaper I would now like to buy and close down - that the US authorities had refused me entry because my "papers were not in order." Which was true enough, up to a point. But within hours, the internet - a vile institution which I do not use - was awash with stories that the United States had banned my entry to America because of my critical articles about the Bush administration or because I had long ago interviewed bin Laden or because I was so horrible that no democracy would ever let me stain its front doormat.

This rubbish followed me round the world. In Australia to launch my book, I was asked - on 10 radio and television shows and in four lectures - how it felt to be banned from the United States. I must have spent a total of two hours collectively explaining that this was untrue. I had simply travelled on an old passport that was no longer valid for entry to the US. It was useless. In Scotland, a university academic introducing me to his audience by announcing that my articles "must at last have got up the nose of the Bush administration" because I had been banned. The internet bullshit followed me to Dublin and then to Cork and then to Belfast. Nothing, it seemed, could switch off the message.

Robin Harvie, the publicist for Fourth Estate, my publishers, called the passport office in London and secured an interview with an "examiner" - a word that seems to reek of Heimat - to secure me the new computer-coded passport which the Americans now demand. I have, after all, to be in New York for the American launching of my book on 8 November.

To the passport office I travelled. They were polite, humorous, cheerful and understood the problem. Ah, but I had two passports, didn't I? That would require a letter from The Independent explaining that I worked in the Middle East and that Israeli visa stamps were "incompatible" - I liked that bit - with entry to Arab countries, and that two passports were necessary. A call to the foreign desk of the paper and a fax arrived at the passport office in three minutes. All well and good, my examiner said. But the set of passport pictures I had brought didn't fit. Would I like to take a new set in the photo machine at the end of the corridor? I did. "See you again soon," the machine jauntily told me as I left.

No good, my examiner told me. My spectacles had reflected light on to the lower half of my eyes. Why not take the pictures without your glasses on, he suggested. I knew what this would mean. In future, every Arab visa officer would now demand that I take my glasses off when I approached their desks. And I no longer had the right £3.50 in change for the machine. So I ran round to Victoria Station, barged into Marks and Spencer and asked them to break a £10 note for me. No luck. I would have to buy something to get the change. I went round the shelves like an animal to find the smallest and cheapest item, seizing a chocolate mousse and heading back to the cash desk.

I pounded back to the photo machine at the passport office, chucked the chocolate mousse at Harvie (he doesn't eat chocolate), shoved another £3.50 into the slot, tore off my glasses and stared sightlessly at the screen. "See you again soon," the voice announced again, just a little bit nastier in tone. Back to the examiner - a woman this time - who promised me a new passport one hour before I had to set off for Oxford and then to Heathrow for the European part of my book launch. It was around midday that The Independent phoned me. "The passport office need new pictures again."

Now for a word I don't usually use on the comment page. Aaaaaagh! Back to the passport office. The earlier pictures were too blurry, something my examiner had failed to spot when she accepted them earlier. Of course they were too blurry. Because without my spectacles I couldn't see the bloody screen. And with my spectacles, of course, the glass would reflect on my eyes again. I grabbed Harvie. "Put your head in the bloody doorway and tell me what my image looks like on the screen before I throw the money in," I pleaded. Four more flashes. "See you again soon," the machine snarled at me. I kicked it.

Back to the examiner. Yes, all's well. But the passport would not now be ready for another four hours. And I had to be in Oxford for a lecture in three hours. I told Harvie he could DHL the new passport to me in Ireland. "You're not allowed by law to do that," another examiner snapped. Harvie was muttering under his breath, the way an anarchist does when plotting crimes. "Tell you what," he said. "I'll pick it up first thing in the morning and try to reach you before you leave for Heathrow.

And at 8am, there he was in his bicycle clips, holding out a brand new passport. I raced for the airport. I snapped open the cover of the passport and looked at those glorious imperial words on page one. "Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance ..." I could just see the Homeland Security boys cringing at this admonition from my favourite ex-Trot of a Foreign Secretary. That will sail me into the United States on 8 November. Or will it? If not, as they say, watch this space.