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After 9/11, Suspicions Fall on Some Shoppers

September 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security created the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative to help spot potential terrorists, while the Mall of America launched its own security program. NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting report how such efforts aimed at security affect our civil liberties.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, another in our series of reports on the 10 years since 9/11. This one focuses on efforts to prevent another domestic attack and the effect that has had on Americans’ civil liberties.

NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting have been looking into that issue.

The reporter is NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: You’re looking at the front line of America’s war on terror, the Mall of America, near Minneapolis, one of the biggest malls in the country.

The mall has created its own private counterterrorism unit. And they look out for what they call suspicious persons.

And now meet one of those suspicious persons.

BRAD KLEINERMAN, visited Mall of America: My name is Brad Kleinerman. I live in Avon, Conn., and I’m a human resources director for CIGNA health care.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Kleinerman had to visit Minneapolis three years ago, and he dropped by the mall to buy his youngest son a watch.

BRAD KLEINERMAN: A man approached me and introduced himself as being from Mall of America security.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: It turns out they’d been tailing him for 10 minutes. They called in other security guards and began interrogating him.

BRAD KLEINERMAN: What I had been doing, why I was in Minnesota, where I was from.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: The guards told Kleinerman it was just an interview.

BRAD KLEINERMAN: And I said, “No, thank you,” and started to walk away.

And he said: “Excuse me, sir. You can participate in the interview or I will have to call the police.”

I began to feel like a criminal.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Especially when they wrote down his birth date, height, hair color.

BRAD KLEINERMAN: It was just horrible to sit there for the 40 minutes, talking with them, getting no answers as to why I was there, and to this day still don’t really have answers as to why they stopped me.

SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY JANET NAPOLITANO: I’m Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Homeland security begins with hometown security.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Ever since 9/11, the nation’s leaders have created voluntary programs with names like See Something, Say Something, and the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative.

John Cohen helps run the counterterrorism programs at the Department of Homeland Security.

JOHN COHEN, Department of Homeland Security: So what do we know? We know that domestic and foreign terrorist organizations have an interest in carrying out attacks in this country, targeting locations where large numbers of people congregate. That includes hotels, sports stadiums and even shopping malls.

MAN: We all share the responsibility to fight terror and criminal misconduct.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: The Mall of America launched its program to help spot terrorists six years ago. Their program gets widely cited as a model.

Maureen Bausch is vice president of the mall.

MAUREEN BAUSCH, Mall of America: Well, I think our name, first of all, Mall of America, is attractive to people that want to hurt America. Government officials have asked us always, since 9/11, to be on the watch.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: And we wanted to find out exactly who is on the watch across the country. NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting asked 29 law enforcement agencies to send us reports about suspicious activities in their areas.

The only officials who did were in Minnesota. They sent reports from the Mall of America. And they show whom the mall found suspicious, people like Brad Kleinerman. The Mall sent this 15-page report about him to the Bloomington Police Department.

BRAD KLEINERMAN: I was dumbfounded that this report existed.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: The mall’s guards wrote that Kleinerman walked nervously through the mall. They said he looked at two of them closely, which was very odd. He had a defensive body posture. Their conclusion: Kleinerman is a suspicious person.

BRAD KLEINERMAN: I don’t think I’m a suspicious person.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: A mall official told us they question 1,000 suspicious people every year. They have reported more than 100 of them to the police.

BRAD KLEINERMAN: If somebody stopped for shopping at the mall ends up in a police database as a suspicious person, I think that’s wrong.

DALE WATSON, former FBI executive assistant director for counterterrorism: I’m not real sure I would go to the mall. I mean, they might accuse me of being a terrorist.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Dale Watson used to run the counterterrorism program at the FBI during the Bush administration.

DALE WATSON: It seems like we have moved from reasonable suspicion to, let’s look at everything. I mean, if somebody’s in buying ammonium nitrate out in Pennsylvania, in a rural place in a rental truck, and the owner’s never seen him before, putting it in plastic barrels, I would say, yes, that’s a suspicious activity that should be reported.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: But many reports from the Mall of America target seemingly ordinary behavior. For instance, the guards reported one man to police because he was writing things down on a notepad and might be conducting surveillance.

Turns out he was a musician waiting for a friend. They reported another man because he wore a backpack and walked with one hand inside his back pocket. And look what happened to Najam Qureshi and his wife, Huma Yusuf, near Minneapolis.

Qureshi was born in Pakistan, but he’s been a U.S. citizen since he was a teenager. One morning in January 2007, they got a shock.

WOMAN: So, the doorbell rings, and my husband’s taking a shower. And there’s this guy with a badge. And he says, “I work for the FBI.” And, you know, I was like, really?

NAJAM QURESHI, son of Saleem Qureshi: And I could see a big, thick folder in his hand with my name on it. And so I’m like, “What is it all about?”

And he basically says: “Oh, it’s nothing. We’re just following up on a story that the mall personnel told us about, that your dad was in an incident.”

DANIEL ZWERDLING: A few weeks before, Qureshi’s father accidentally left his cell phone in the Mall of America’s food court. When he wandered back to find it, the mall’s guards peppered him with questions.

NAJAM QURESHI: He had forgotten his cell phone. Like, that’s not a big deal. A 70-year-old man, I barely call that an incident.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: But the mall’s guards worried about the phone because it was an unattended item. And they said Qureshi’s father had a nervous demeanor. So they sent an 11-page report about the incident to the local police. And documents show that, in turn, the police sent half the mall’s reports to state and federal law enforcement.

So now an FBI agent was investigating Qureshi himself.

NAJAM QURESHI: He asked me if I knew anybody in Afghanistan…

(LAUGHTER)

NAJAM QURESHI: … which I thought was hilarious.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Do you?

NAJAM QURESHI: No, I don’t.

NAJAM QURESHI: He said, do you know anybody who was involved in terrorism activities? My reaction in my mind was, how dare this guy in my house come and say this?    

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Officials at the FBI and Justice Department wouldn’t comment. The mall’s executives wouldn’t talk about Qureshi or any specific case.

MAUREEN BAUSCH: You’re talking to a handful of people, and it’s very unfortunate that they didn’t have a good experience here. And, we’re upset anyone doesn’t have a good experience. Unfortunately, the world has changed. And we’re doing the best we can to keep this building safe.

DALE WATSON: I didn’t talk to the — well, obviously, I didn’t talk to this lady. But I think, if you look at it from certainly a law enforcement perspective that I bring, I would say the value of what I have seen here is absolutely not worth the effort. And it’s certainly not worth the effort to have these individuals have some type of police record.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Back at Homeland Security, John Cohen says the nationwide push to report suspicious activities is working.

JOHN COHEN: Yes, it’s definitely working. And it’s working on several fronts.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Cohen says suspicious activity reports from places like the mall have already foiled attacks. He cites the attempted bombing in Times Square.

JOHN COHEN: Where a suspicious activity report that went to the New York State fusion center by a AAA representative helped lead to the identification of the individual who tried to commit the Times Square bombing.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: But other specialists say, that report had nothing to do with preventing the bombing. It was lucky the bomb didn’t go off.

So I asked Cohen, when have programs like the Mall of America’s help avoid terrorist attacks?

JOHN COHEN: I’m not going to get into specific cases because some of that information is obviously classified and there’s ongoing investigations. But there are a large number of reports that have come in. Those reports are vetted, they’re assessed, and there have been a number of investigations, literally hundreds of terrorism investigations, that have been opened and concluded as a result of those activities.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Has the Mall of America or any other suspicious activity reporting system caught a potential terrorist and stopped a…

JULIETTE KAYYEM, former Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary: Not that I know of, not that I know of.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Until last year, Juliette Kayyem was an assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. She says she hasn’t heard Cohen’s success stories.

And as a trained intelligence person…

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Right.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: … you don’t find this information valuable?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Not from what I can see.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Kayyem says, in theory, it’s a great idea for businesses to report suspicious activities, but, in the real world, the guards who do the reporting on the front lines are often not well-trained.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: You have just a tremendous amount of information going into the intelligence-sharing apparatus, in the hopes that it will either come up with terrorism or suspicious activity or criminal activity.

To ensure that you’re going to connect the dots better, right, one clear way is to make sure the dots are better. There’s too many dots right now.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Since the World Trade towers came tumbling down, there’s been a question mark over the war on terror. Can the government track down and stop terrorists and preserve the heart of America’s democracy? The administration says yes.

JOHN COHEN: We don’t want law enforcement officers focusing on people simply because of their ethnicity, their religious background, or if they’re exhibiting behaviors that are constitutionally protected. What we all agree upon we do want are officers to be trained in the behaviors and indicators associated with a threat, behaviors and indicators associated with criminal activity, and focus their time and attention on those individuals.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: But people like Dale Watson worry that programs like the Mall of America’s might violate those principles.

DALE WATSON: I see a pattern here where American citizens are being suspected of something without any legal standards.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Over the decades, court decisions have spelled out, when can a policeman search you, detain you? Watson says programs like the Mall of America’s could push the country in the wrong direction.

DALE WATSON: To heck with the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Let’s just stop all this stuff, OK? So, if I’m driving down the street, and I’m a police officer, if I want to stop you, I will just stop you. Or if I see you wearing a red coat, maybe I think you’re a communist in the old communist days, and so I will take you to jail and hold you for 24 hours. That is not what we are.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Najam Qureshi says what happened to him has changed him.

NAJAM QURESHI: It shattered an image of the U.S. that I had, fundamentally. Growing up, you know, it was also my dad saying, oh, you know, you’re protected in this country and this would never happen in this country. It’s something that shouldn’t be, not in this country.

GWEN IFILL: Daniel Zwerdling’s reporting on this subject continues tomorrow on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” And tomorrow night, Tom Bearden reports on how life has changed for air travelers in the last decade.