You are sitting on a bench in a mall, waiting for a friend to join you. As you wait, you write in a notebook, look around at other people, check your watch to see how much longer you have to wait. And then the security officers arrive to question you, because writing in your notebook is suspicious behavior. After prolonged questioning, you are released, but a report is sent to local police, who will keep your record on file for 20 years in a file headed “suspicious person.” The national security police may also have been notified that you have been stopped as a “possible terrorist.”
That shouldn’t happen anywhere, but NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting documented case after case of similarly aggressive “anti-terrorism” policing right here in Minnesota at the Mall of America.
Several people named in the reports learned from journalists that their birth dates, race, names of employers and other personal information were compiled along with surveillance images.
One Iranian man, now 62, began passing out during questioning. An Army veteran sobbed in his car after he was questioned for nearly two hours about video he had taken inside the mall.
NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting have done a stellar job of documenting the strange, new world of private, anti-terrorism security after 9/11. In this Kafka-esque world, private security firms send reports to be entered in local police, FBI, and Immigration Control and Enforcement databases.
Read the whole series:
Mall of America visitors unknowingly end up in counterterrorism reports
Mall counterterror reports ID mostly minorities
Database: Suspicious activity reports at Mall of America
America’s War Within
The private security firms sound like they have a hair-trigger for suspicion. One man and his father were stopped for “suspicious behavior in a bathroom and on the phone.” Another man “wasn’t holding his video camera ‘like a typical tourist would do.'” Other people “looked nervous,” or seemed to be “wandering aimlessly” or looked at them “in a suspicious way.”
Unsurprisingly, most of the people who are stopped by MOA security for “suspicious” behavior are people who “look Middle Eastern,” or African or African American. MPR found that nearly two-thirds of the people stopped are people of color, in a state that is 85 percent white.
MOA is part of a program called “If you see something, say something,” launched by the FBI last year, with groups listed on the DHS website as: “Amtrak; the general aviation community; the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department; The Colorado Rockies, the Indianapolis 500, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA); Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA); the U.S. Tennis Association; a variety of states including six states participating in the Southern Shield that joined the NSI – Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida; the New York Mets; Meadowlands Stadium; the American Hotel and Lodging Association; New Jersey Transit; the Mall of America; Walmart; the National Football League (NFL); the National Basketball Association (NBA); AEG Facilities; Jewish organizations; U.S. Golf at the U.S. Open; National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA); and all federal buildings across the country protected by the Federal Protective Service,” with more being added.
The MOA security arm keeps extensive records on people. After MOA security stops, some people have been visited and questioned at their homes by FBI agents.
The NPR series quotes MOA officials praising their program and a law school professor and others criticizing it. Perhaps the most cogent criticism comes from Najari Qureshi, who operates a book stall at MOA and whose father was targeted:
“The fact that this is in their database, and they wasted time looking into these kinds of things is just silly,” said Najam Qureshi.
“Everybody that lives in this country,” he added, “is a person of interest as far as these reports are concerned.”