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Our Creeping Police State: How Going to the Mall of America Can Land You in an FBI Counterterrorism Report

How writing in a notebook, filming, or looking around too much can throw you into the spooky world of homeland security.
 
 
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On May 1, 2008, at 4:59 p.m., Brad Kleinerman entered the spooky world of homeland security.

As he shopped for a children’s watch inside the sprawling Mall of America, two security guards approached and began questioning him. Although he was not accused of wrongdoing, the guards filed a confidential report about Kleinerman that was forwarded to local police.

The reason: Guards thought he might pose a threat because they believed he had been looking at them in a suspicious way.

Najam Qureshi, owner of a kiosk that sold items from his native Pakistan, also had his own experience with authorities after his father left a cell phone on a table in the food court.

The consequence: An FBI agent showed up at the family’s home, asking if they knew anyone who might want to hurt the United States.

Mall of America officials say their security unit stops and questions on average up to 1,200 people each year. The interviews at the mall are part of a counterterrorism initiative that acts as the private eyes and ears of law enforcement authorities but has often ensnared innocent people, according to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and NPR.

In many cases, the written reports were filed without the knowledge of those interviewed by security. 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.

Much of the questioning at the mall has been done in public while shoppers mill around, records show. Two people, a shopper and a mall employee, also described being taken to a basement area for questioning. Officials at the mall would not address individual cases.

“The government is not going to protect us free of charge, so we have to do that ourselves,” said Maureen Bausch, executive vice president of business development at the mall. “We’re lucky enough to be in the city of Bloomington where they actually have a police substation here [in the mall]. … They’re great. But we are responsible for this building.”

Reporters at the Center for Investigative Reporting and NPR obtained 125 suspicious activity reports totaling over 1,000 pages dating back to Christmas Eve, 2005. The documents, provided by law enforcement officials in Minnesota, give a glimpse inside the national campaign by authorities to collect and share intelligence about possible threats.

The initiative exemplifies one of the cultural legacies of the terrorist attacks 10 years ago: Organizations and individuals are now encouraged by U.S. leaders to watch one another and report any signs of threats to homeland security authorities.

There is no way for the public to know exactly how many suspicious activity reports from the Mall of America have ended up with local, state and federal authorities. CIR and NPR asked 29 law enforcement agencies under open government laws for reports on suspicious activities. Only the Bloomington Police Department and Minnesota’s state fusion center have turned over at least a portion of the paperwork.

In 2008, the mall’s security director, Douglas Reynolds, told Congress [PDF] that the mall was the “number-one source of actionable intelligence” provided to the state’s fusion center, an intelligence hub created after 9/11 to pull together reports from an array of law enforcement sources.

Information from the suspicious activity reports generated at the mall has been shared with Bloomington police, the FBI and, in at least four cases, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Missed signals prompt heightened awareness

The push to encourage Americans to report suspicious activity began in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when government officials and citizens found out there had been hints about the attackers that intelligence analysts had missed.

Some of the terrorists had taken flight training in Florida – but didn't focus on how to land. They bought one-way tickets. Officials at the FBI and other agencies failed to act on – or share – tips they had received.

In the decade since, the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security have launched programs urging citizens to report suspicious activity. The private sector, including the utility industry and other businesses concerned with protecting “critical infrastructure,” have their own surveillance and reporting systems. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has made such reporting a priority.

Last year the Department of Homeland Security launched its promotional campaign, “If you see something, say something,” encouraging Americans to report anything perceived as threatening.

Among those formally enlisted were parking attendants, Jewish groups, stadium operators, landlords, security guards, fans of professional golf and auto racing and retailers such as the Mall of America.

Visitors “may be subject to a security interview,” the mall’s website says.

The suspicious activity reports from the mall are rich with detail. They contain personal information, sometimes including Social Security numbers and the names of family members and friends. Some of the reports include shoppers’ travel plans. (About 40 percent of mall visitors are tourists.)

Commander Jim Ryan of the Bloomington Police Department said shoppers are not under arrest when stopped for questioning by private security. He said even he would walk away if the questioning seemed excessive.

“I don’t think that I would subject myself to that, personally,” he said. Ryan, however, defends security procedures at the mall.

In some cases, the questioning appears to have the hallmarks of profiling – something that officials at the mall deny. In nearly two-thirds of the cases reviewed, subjects are described as African American, people of Asian and Arabic descent, and other minorities, according to an analysis of the documents.

Mall spokesman Dan Jasper said the private security guards would not conduct interviews based on racial or ethnic characteristics because “we may miss someone who truly does have harmful intent.”

“It’s important to note that we conduct security interviews based solely on suspicious behavior,” Jasper said in a statement. “Research indicates that profiling based on ethnic or racial characteristics is ineffective and a waste of valuable time and resources.”

Ryan said such reports are crucial to the nation’s safety in the post-9/11 era. He said the suspicious activity reports could be held by his agency for two decades or longer. He acknowledged that the mall’s methods, and reports the security guards file, may “infringe on some freedoms, unfortunately.”

“We’re charged with trying to keep people safe. We’re trying to do it the best way we can,” he said. “You may be questioned at the Mall of America about suspicious activity. It’s something that may happen. It’s part of today’s society.”

Some national security and constitutional law specialists question the propriety and effectiveness of such reports.

Dale Watson, a former top counterterrorism official with the FBI, said the mall's reports suggest that anyone could be targeted for intrusive questioning and surveillance.

“If that had been one of my brothers that was stopped in a mall, I’d be furious about it – if I thought the police department had a file on him, an information file about his activities in the mall without any reasonable suspicion to investigate,” said Watson, who played key roles in the investigations of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and a 1998 attack on U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Shoppers, who for the most part had no idea that a visit to the mall led to their personal information being shared with law enforcement, reacted with anger and dismay when shown their reports.

“For all the 30 years that I have lived in the United States, I’ve never been a suspect,” said Emil Khalil. The California man was confronted at the mall in June 2009 for taking pictures, and he said an FBI agent later questioned him at the airport. “And I’ve never done anything wrong.”

Stories abound of people being stopped elsewhere in the United States for activity considered suspicious.

The New York Civil Liberties Union last year sued over one photographer’s arrest, leading to a formal acknowledgement by the government that there are no rules or laws explicitly barring photos of federal buildings. An ACLUchapter this spring threatened transit officials in Maryland with litigation after police ordered individuals to stop snapping and filming images.

Frequent clashes between photographers and security guards nonetheless continue. New Jersey commuters can “text against terror” if they see behavior believed to be strange, and a smart phone app allows residents of the Bluegrass State to be the “eyes and ears on Kentucky.”

Privately owned mall follows own rules

The Mall of America has become a monument to suburban shopping and entertainment. With 4.2 million square feet under one roof, the two-decade-old mall is one of the largest complexes of its kind in the world.

It features national retail stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Banana Republic, Brookstone and scores of other shops that populate malls across the country. It includes mom-and-pop kiosks selling T-shirts, cell phone covers, jewelry and more. To visit all the shops, more than 500 at last count, would take days.

But its entertainment complex sets the Mall of America apart. It has roller coasters, a Ferris wheel, a giant SpongeBob SquarePants statue, a water ride, remote-controlled trucks and boat games, all of it indoors. Nearly 100,000 people from around the world pass through the mall on a given day, more than 40 million each year.

The mall is controlled by the Canada-based Triple Five Group, a conglomerate that owns an even larger mall in Edmonton.

In 2005, the Mall of America hired Mike Rozin to lead a new special security unit.

Rozin served as a sergeant in the Israel Defense Forces before working in a protective division at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. He trained mall security in the art of interpreting behavioral cues for signs of a threat. Although his unit’s approach has some of the hallmarks of profiling, Rozin dismissed any such notion, saying members of his unit merely watch what people do.

According to documents, they look for unexplained nervousness, people photographing such things as air-conditioning ducts or signs that a shopper might have something to hide. It’s the kind of approach for which Israeli airports are renowned.

“Today, when you fly through Ben Gurion airport, you don’t have to take your shoes off, you don’t have (liquid) restrictions of any sort, we don’t have body scanners,” Rozin said. “Yet we’re known to be the most secure airport in the world.”

Rozin said that earlier this year, his guards detected a suspicious man who tried to run when they approached. Bloomington police joined in pursuit. After he was stopped, according to Rozin’s account, they found a loaded handgun. He said the man had a history of violence. The mall’s spokesman declined to provide documents to corroborate Rozin’s account.

“Potentially that day, my … officer prevented a disaster, a case of indiscriminate shooting in the Mall of America,” Rozin said.

There are larger issues in the Twin Cities. At least 20 young Minnesotans have reportedly gone to Somalia to fight in the civil war. One man, who joined the militant Islamist group al-Shabab, attempted to blow himself up in May at a security checkpoint in Mogadishu.

Rozin acknowledged that the vast majority of people who come into contact with his unit “have done nothing wrong, have no malicious intent.”

“They just act in a suspicious manner that obligated me to investigate further,” Rozin said. “We talked to them for an average of five minutes, and they’re able to continue their shopping.”

Veteran’s encounter leaves him shaken

Francis Van Asten’s experience with mall security lasted much longer.

On Nov. 9, 2008, the Bloomington resident videotaped a short road trip from his home to the Mall of America. Van Asten, now 66, planned to send it to his fiancée’s family in Vietnam so they could see life in the United States.

As he headed down an escalator, camera in hand, mall guards caught sight of him.

“Right away, I noticed he had a video camera and was recording the rotunda area,” a security guard wrote in a suspicious activity report. “When he got to second floor [sic] he turned to the overlook of the park while still videotaping.”

Van Asten, a onetime missile system repairman for the Army, was questioned for approximately two hours, according to his suspicious activity report. He was asked about traveling to Vietnam and how he came to know people there. Van Asten was even asked through which mall door he entered.

The report later filed about him said he was “open and very willing to share information.”

Guards asked to see the contents of his camera. “The footage of all the vehicles and structures of the east ramp really worried me,” the security guard wrote.

Authorities were concerned about footage of an airplane landing at Minnesota’s international airport. They also worried Van Asten was conducting surveillance of mall property.

Van Asten said it was not clear to him at the time why he was stopped. After all, he was told nothing prohibited him from taking photographs or footage of the mall. But the mall’s guards still called Bloomington police, and they alerted the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. Van Asten was given a pat-down search, and the FBI demanded that his memory card be confiscated “for further analysis.”

Exhausted and rattled, Van Asten had trouble finding his car after the ordeal was over.

“I sat down in my car and I cried, and I was shaking like a leaf,” Van Asten said in an interview at his home. “That kind of sensation doesn’t leave you real quickly when you’ve had an experience like that.”

Man questioned for writing in notebook

Bobbie Allen, now 47, headed to the Mall of America on June 25, 2007, for lunch with a woman. As he waited for her, Allen sat alone writing in a notebook, which caught the attention of security. Counterterrorism experts sometimes instruct police and security personnel to look for suspicious note-taking, as it may indicate attack planning.

A security guard wrote in Allen’s suspicious activity report: “Before the male would write in his notebook, it appeared as though he would look at his watch. Periodically, the male would briefly look up from his notebook, look around, and then continue writing.”

Guards asked for his name and for whom he was waiting. Allen, a musician who lives in downtown Minneapolis, became frustrated, saying the questioning was intrusive. Allen, who is black, felt singled out for his race, according to the report. The guard responded that he was “randomly selected” for an interview and the questions continued. They asked what kind of coffee he liked best and where he planned to go for lunch.

The guards called Bloomington police after deciding Allen was uncooperative and his note-taking “suspicious.” Allen was eventually cleared, but a suspicious activity report was compiled complete with surveillance photo, age, height, address and more. Much of that information ended up in a Bloomington police report.

Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, said such actions trample on traditional civil liberties protections and shift unaccountable power into private hands.

Rosen said the risk of abuses is high, particularly if there turns out to be a lack of proven results.

“If all they’re getting for amassing suspicious activity reports on innocent people in government databases is the arrest of a few low-level turnstile jumpers and shoplifters, that doesn’t seem very sensible,” Rosen said.

In Allen’s case, he responded in a way few others have – he complained to theMinnesota Department of Human Rights and filed a lawsuit. Department investigators concluded that there was probable cause to support Allen’s claim of racial discrimination.

Allen declined an interview, citing a settlement agreement reached with the mall. He would not provide details of that agreement.

The human rights department reviewed documents showing that in another case, a “suspicious” white patron was stopped while typing on a laptop computer. He, too, was “uncooperative,” but mall security “chose not to escalate the situation by calling the police,” according to a summary of the department’s investigation.

It reads: “The investigation found that the (mall’s) special security unit generates reports and field notes on suspicious persons, regardless whether the individual cooperated during the security interview or if police intervention occurred.”

Not everyone had a negative reaction to being written up. After a report naming him was forwarded to the FBI, Sameer Khalil of Orange County, Calif., said he believed that police and private security have an important job they must do.

“I think [the mall’s program] makes America safer,” he said.

Forgotten cell phone leads to FBI visit

The FBI arrived on the doorstep of businessman Najam Qureshi shortly after a run-in with mall security. His family moved from Pakistan to the United States when Qureshi was 8. Police once pulled over their car for a minor traffic violation, and Qureshi remembers his father saying, “You don’t have to fear the police here. They are here to help.”

Qureshi opened a small kiosk at the mall so his aging father, a former aeronautical engineer named Saleem, could keep busy. One day in early 2007, Saleem Qureshi left his cell phone in a mall food court. When he returned for it, security personnel had established a “perimeter” around the phone, along with other unattended items nearby that did not belong to Saleem – a stroller and two coolers.

The “suspicious” objects eventually were cleared by security, documents show. But mall guards pursued Saleem Qureshi with questions, continuing even after he returned to his kiosk.

“Qureshi moved around a lot when answering questions,” security guard Ashly Foster wrote in a suspicious activity report. “At one point, he moved to his kiosk and proceeded to take items off of two shelves just to switch them around. … He seemed to get agitated at points when I would ask more detailed questions.”

Four years after his father ended up in a suspicious activity report, his son was shown the report for the first time.

“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."
 

G.W. Schulz, a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting, has been covering homeland security issues since 2008. Andrew Becker is a reporter with the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, Calif. He has written and reported for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio. Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent in NPR's Investigations Unit
 
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