The recent tragedy in San Bernardino pissed me off on so many levels, I don’t know where to begin…..starting with the media, in the hours immediately following the slaughter (including a former FBI Deputy Director who is a regular on CNN) opining that the attack sounded like the work of a (right wing) militia; the POUSA intimating it must have been work place violence; one crime scene – the terrorists’ home – compromised by reporters, because it was not properly secured by law enforcement; military vehicles keeping heroic cops safe while they killed the terrorists – the kind now being denied local police by the POUSA, who never wants to offend “the community”…
We all knew this was an act of terrorism. But the inevitable hand wringing began anew about more gun control laws, laws which will OBVIOUSLY be ignored by terrorists, gang bangers and the mentally ill. We’re also going to employ more effective “vetting” of immigrants, such as the female terrorist who gave a fictitious address on the visa application that permitted her to enter the United States. We’ll do the same with thousands of Syrian refugees. Blah, blah, blah.
And pundits, experts, politicians et. al. are extolling us: “If you see something, say something.”
THE 2006 BRITAIN – U.S. TERROR PLOT
You may or may not remember the August, 2006 massive terror plot that involved flights from England that were to be blown up over the Atlantic on there way to the U.S., using liquid explosives. It was dubbed what would have been “the Second 9-11” had it not been foiled, and was being directed from Pakistan.
Up to 10 flights were targeted, and specific destination airports were identified, including JFK in New York. 24 suspects were arrested in and around London on the night of August 9, 2006. And the story topped the news for weeks.
There are countless media accounts, including lengthy documentaries by National Geographic and the BBC available via Google and Youtube if you need to refresh your memory.
MY EXPERIENCE DURING THE CRISIS
I was on a flight from JFK to California on August 14, at the height of the frenzy. In fact, I was watching updates on CNN on the plane as we waited to take off.
As it happens, I was in an aisle seat, with nobody in the middle and a man who appeared to be Middle Eastern in the window seat.
His eyes were fixed, peering out the window. He had a camera in his lap. From the cockpit came the announcement to “turn off all electronic devices”.
As we began to take off, he raised the camera to the window and started taking pictures. During my police career, I was trained by one of the most decorated cops in our Department to be nosey, ask questions, don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself. So I did.
This guy got really hincky. It was clear that I was making him very nervous. He tried to ignore me and continued snapping pictures. I made comments like “there really isn’t much to see” and he persisted, kind of glancing over his shoulder at me several times, but never responding to me.
Bear in mind, as a cop I probably participated in over 100 arrests, and questioned hundreds of people. I was also blessed with a pretty good BS meter, and again, was trained by the best.
Parenthetically, at this time, flyers proclaiming “if you SEE something Say something” were affixed to the walls throughout my office, the United States Attorneys Office in San Jose, California. I saved one (below).
I’m from New York, and 9-11 still pisses me off beyond articulation. Given the state of world affairs at the moment, this guy’s demeanor, the fact that there really wasn’t much to photograph…I decided to SAY SOMETHING. So I slipped the flight attendant a business card with a short note describing the guy, my suspicions, and a request to notify my office in San Jose.
When we landed, the pilot asked all passengers to remain in their seats. Through the back door of the plane came a number of law enforcement members who escorted the shutterbug off the plane to question him.
I asked them to leave my name out of any reports (just incase he was a terrorist) and went on my way.
THE RESPONSE TO MY “SAYING SOMETHING”
The subsequent call I received from one of the agents, and a later review of his reports regarding the incident, left me flabbergasted.
Another important thing to bear in mind: thorough, accurate report writing is an absolutely critical responsibility of any agent. It is intended to document events while they are fresh, and to be available to refresh memories months, or years, down the road, corroborating testimony.
The flip side of the coin is that incomplete or inaccurate reports are a good defense lawyer’s bread and butter. If an agent’s report can be exposed as crap, anything he testifies to will be rendered unworthy of belief. I’ve seen guys crucified by sharp lawyers over even a few minor inconsistencies.
The reports generated over this incident were incredible.
First, there was NO MENTION of the international crisis which was ongoing as these events unfolded. Reading them today, you’d have no idea that there was any heightened sense of global vigilance at the time this individual was being questioned.
Next, the agent never attempted to VERIFY anything the subject told him. His investigation was about as efficient as the vetting of the female terrorist in San Bernardino. Example: the report stated that the subject was not Muslim. How was this ascertained? The subject said so.
The agent took pains to obtain statements from four passengers and two flight attendants (none of whom were sitting NEXT to the subject during takeoff) who stated that they did not observe the him taking any photos. The report then states that his camera was inspected – and he HAD in fact taken pictures during takeoff. What???
The agent then reports that the subject told him he was taking pictures for his son, who loves planes and airports. But none of the photos depicted either. I wondered, couldn’t his son find photos of JFK Airport on the internet?
It turns out the subject had sufficient identification to confirm he was from India. Now, at the risk of being un-PC…I can’t tell, by appearance, the difference between someone from India and someone from Pakistan (the country from which the plot was being directed). Nor can I tell, by appearance, the difference between someone from Ireland and someone from Scotland. Sorry.
Now, I’m happy to concede that this guy was not a terrorist. I don’t know what he was up to, why he disregarded the pilot’s order to shut down all electronics, or why he was so obviously nervous. But the short shrift given to my observations made me wonder how much credence this agent would have given to a citizen with no law enforcement experience. Moreover, the complete lack of context, that is, the “Second 9/11 Plot”, was a material omission and either an attempt to close this out with no further follow-up effort (i.e. work) or merely a demonstration of gross incompetence. Finally, the determined effort to prove through other passengers that no photos had even been taken, followed by the revelation that photos WERE in fact taken – and that all of the witnesses noted in the reports simply hadn’t seen the subject taking them – was downright laughable.
Oh, by the way, my name was included in one of the reports.
Still, you will notice I’ve avoided mentioning the agent’s name, or his agency. That’s because I do not wish to paint with a broad brush and bash any of the agencies whose members are out there doing their best to protect us 24/7. The majority are dedicated, competent, and deserve our deep appreciation.
A good friend of mine, a career prosecutor at both the local and federal levels, often uses the expression “Justice is a random thing”.
I don’t know if he coined it, but it makes a lot of sense.
What he means is, in the context of the criminal justice system, the outcome of any case hinges on a massive amount of luck. Sometimes, literally, dumb luck.
A brief overview: first the criminal was unlucky enough to get caught (he had probably gotten away with several crimes, if not many, for each one which actually resulted in a prosecution); how competent was the arresting officer, and the crime scene analysts who responded (i.e. was evidence overlooked, “despoiled”, or otherwise rendered inadmissible); how good was the prosecutor assigned to the case; what judge was assigned; who were the members of the jury who managed to avoid challenges during voir dire; even the time of the year of the trial (you do not want to prosecute a criminal case the week before Christmas).
Anyway, the above rendition of the negative experience I had – I hope – falls under this theory. I hope I just happened to draw an agent who, notwithstanding his own vaunted self-image, clearly couldn’t find his ass with both hands.
I will still SAY something if I SEE something. I just hope that if I do, somebody DOES something meaningful.