CIR, NPR release ‘Under Suspicion,’ a look into private counterterrorism efforts

September 7, 2011 -- Berkeley, CA – An investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and NPR News reveals that federal programs such as See Something, Say Something and the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative have placed seemingly innocent Americans in “suspicious activity” reports – often without their knowledge.

The joint investigation into the program at one location, the Mall of America near Minneapolis, found that the private security detail at the mall has questioned thousands of people, and information about them has often ended up in the hands of police and even the FBI. Most mall visitors and shoppers interviewed by CIR and NPR say they were unaware that “suspicious persons” reports describing their encounters with mall security were shared with local police and could remain in law enforcement files for indefinite periods of time. CIR and NPR, which analyzed more than 1,000 pages of these documents, determined that nearly two-thirds of the people described in those records appeared to belong to racial and ethnic minorities.

About the investigation:

  • CIR and NPR found that the mall’s security personnel have often reported seemingly ordinary people for engaging in seemingly ordinary behaviors. For example, mall guards reported one man to police whom they reported walked “quickly” through the mall, looked at them in a “very odd” way and displayed “defensive body posture.” It turned out he was a health care manager shopping for a watch for his son.
  • Almost two-thirds of the “suspicious” people whom the mall reported to police were minorities, Middle Eastern, Asian or black.
  • Several people named in the reports first learned from CIR and NPR that race, date of birth, employer’s name and other personnel information were compiled, along with surveillance images.
  • One 18-page report labels an Army veteran and retired engineer “very suspicious” for videotaping mall attractions to show his fiancée. An FBI agent told local police to seize the video camera’s memory card “for further analysis” and delete any other footage. The man was also given a pat-down search.

A naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan was questioned at his home by the FBI after the mall’s report that his father accidentally left his cell phone in the food court. More than three years later, an 11-page report about the incident remained on file with local police.

CIR also conducted an investigation into the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis. Written by reporters Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz, the story reveals an office beset with technology woes and widely criticized for creating “intelligence spam” -- reports that are irrelevant, redundant or not timely -- despite spending millions of dollars to detect and analyze potential domestic terrorism.

NPR will broadcast the Mall of America story today on All Things Considered and on Morning Edition tomorrow, Thursday, September 8 (for local stations and broadcast times, visit http://www.npr.org/stations). The story will also be broadcast today on PBS NewsHour.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis story was posted on The Daily Beast on September 5, and will appear in the September 12 edition of Newsweek.

Both stories are available online at www.americaswarwithin.org, along with additional materials including a four minute animated piece explaining what a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) is, video interviews with five individuals who were stopped at the Mall of America, a Homeland Security Document Library and a look at how CIR and NPR obtained the data.

The Center for Investigative Reporting is the nation's oldest nonprofit investigative news organization. CIR reports have reached the public through television, print, radio and the web, appearing in outlets such as 60 Minutes, PBS Frontline, NPR, NewsHour, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Politico and U.S. News & World Report. CIR stories have received numerous journalism awards including the Alfred I. du Pont-Columbia University Silver Baton, George Polk Award, Emmy Award, Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, and a National Magazine Award for Reporting Excellence. More importantly, its reports have sparked congressional hearings and legislation, United Nations resolutions, public interest lawsuits and change in corporate policies. For more information, visit www.cironline.org.

The NPR News Investigative Unit crosses all news desks and programs to build upon, and strengthen the commitment to, NPR's established investigative work. The team’s extensive reporting includes Post Mortem, exploring why many suspicious deaths are improperly investigated; Brain Wars, an ongoing examination of traumatic brain injury and the military; and a continuing look at mine safety in America, following the explosion at Upper Big Branch in West Virginia. NPR reaches a growing audience of more than 27 million listeners weekly; to find local stations and broadcast times for NPR programs, visit www.npr.org.

Media contacts:

Center for Investigative Reporting:
Marlene Saritzky
(415) 713-1241
marlene@mssassociates.com

NPR:
Anna Christopher
(202) 513-2304
achristopher@npr.org

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