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News :: Human Rights
Boston Gas Tank Photographer - "I'm not a 'terrorist' for taking pictures, don't put me on a list!"
13 Jul 2014
Man Sues Feds After They Target Him for Photographing Rainbow Art - By Kim Zetter
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When 86-year-old photographer James Prigoff paused to photograph a natural gas storage tank in Boston 10 years ago, he was simply doing what countless of tourists have done before. The colorful tank, painted with a rainbow-like design, is a popular photo op. He had no reason to suspect his snapshot would prompt an ominous visit by a federal agent months later and the addition of his name to a government database of suspicious activity.

But his case is hardly unique. Similar circumstances have befallen four other people, who are suing the government over so-called suspicious activity reports, or SARs, filed against them.

The plaintiffs—two photographers, a white male convert to Islam, and two men of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent—were all engaged in seemingly innocuous activity. Two of them were photographing sites of aesthetic interest, one was apparently viewing a website about videogames at home, another attempted to buy multiple computers at Best Buy, and the last one caught attention of authorities for standing outside a train station restroom waiting for his mother.

But due to the standards the government uses for determining suspicious activity that might be related to terrorism, all of the plaintiffs found themselves written up in reports stored in counterterrorism databases and were subjected to unwelcome and unwarranted law enforcement scrutiny and interrogation, according to the lawsuit. The suit was filed Thursday in the District Court for the Northern District of California by the American Civil Liberties of Northern California, the national ACLU, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus.

“This domestic surveillance program wrongly targets First Amendment-protected activities, encourages racial and religious profiling, and violates federal law,” said Linda Lye, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “The Justice Department’s own rules say that there should be reasonable suspicion before creating a record on someone, but the government’s instructions to local police are that they should write up SARs even if there’s no valid reason to suspect a person of doing anything wrong.”

The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative is a joint project of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and state and local law enforcement agencies. It’s goal is simple: Thwart terrorism and other crimes. An artifact of the 9/11 attacks, the Initiative was established to provide a unified means of reporting, processing, tracking and maintaining suspicious activity reports among law enforcement agencies nationwide. The point is to more efficiently share information, particularly with terrorism task forces and the 78 fusion centers around the country that state and local authorities have established to collect and share threat-related information. Information filed with fusion centers can find its way into national databases, where it can remain for up to 30 years.

“A key goal of this process is ensuring that behavior which may be indicative of terrorist activity is shared with fusion centers and Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) in an expedited manner so that broad partnership resources can be leveraged as quickly as possible,” notes a government document about SARs (.pdf).

Trained analysts are supposed to review data to determine “based on information available, knowledge, experience, and personal judgment” whether it “may have a terrorism nexus,” according to the government’s description of the program. Because the reports often include sensitive personal information about U.S. persons, “protection of Americans’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties” is integral to the program, according to another government document (.pdf).

But according to the complaint filed in the lawsuit (.pdf), law officers are violating those civil liberties by targeting people engaged in activities protected by the First Amendment and conducting ethnic and religious profiling by focusing in particular on people with Muslim backgrounds.

A 1978 Justice Department regulation prohibits federal agents in general from collecting and disseminating “criminal intelligence information” without “reasonable suspicion” that someone is engaged in a crime. But the standard for SARs is much lower, the civil libertarians say, and doesn’t require a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing to collect and disseminate such information. An agent’s determination that behavior “may be indicative” of terrorism planning “or other illicit intention,” is sufficient to create a report and place it in a database.

Tens of thousands of SARs have been filed over the years. But according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, not one has led to an arrest or conviction, let alone thwarted a true threat.

The Prigoff case is indicative, the civil liberties groups say, of many SARs. Prigoff, a former executive for Sara Lee and a division of Levi Strauss, is a renowned photographer who specializes in photographing public art. He has published books of his images, lectured at universities, and exhibited at the Smithsonian and other museums and galleries worldwide. None of this mattered, however, the day he took out his camera on a spring day in 2004 to photograph the iconic “Rainbow Swash” near Boston.

The painting, for decades a local landmark, covers a liquefied natural gas storage tank and has been photographed countless times. But Prigoff never got a chance to take his photo of the outdoor art. Security guards told him to stop what he was doing because the tank was on private property. Although Prigoff pointed out that while the tank was on private property, he wasn’t, they still insisted he leave. They also apparently noted the license plate number of his rental car.

Months later, an agent with a Joint Terrorism Task Force in Sacramento, knocked on the door of Prigoff’s California home to question him about his suspicious activity in Boston. Agents also questioned a neighbor.

“All I was doing was taking pictures in a public place, and now I’m apparently in a government terrorism database for decades,” Prigoff said in a statement released by the ACLU. “This is supposed to be a free country, where the government isn’t supposed to be tracking you if you’re not doing anything wrong. I lived through the McCarthy era, and I know how false accusations, surveillance, and keeping files on innocent people can destroy careers and lives. I am deeply troubled that the SAR program may be recreating that same climate of false accusation and fear today.”

He is not alone. Wiley Gill became a “suspicious male subject” in the eyes of a Chicago police officer in 2011 when the officer visited an unidentified location where he spotted Gill in “full beard and traditional garb” and identified him as a “full convert to Islam at the young age of 26,” in a report he later filed.

Later, in 2012, the officer encountered Gill again when he claims he visited Gill’s home while searching for a domestic violence suspect he says he mistakenly believed might have fled there. Officers banged on the door, and when Gill opened it, they flew out from around the corner with their guns pointing at him. They then asked to search his home.

Inside, they spotted a computer whose screen was open to a page that appeared to have a title about “Games that fly under the radar,” the officer noted. It appeared to be about a “flight simulator type of game,” he concluded in a SAR report. The report identified Gill as a suspicious male subject “In Possession of Flight Simulator Game.” It also identified him as “worthy of note” because he converted to Islam and has a “pious demeanor.” The report was submitted to a local fusion center and to the FBI, which opened a file on Gill.

The Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus asserts that the report, and those filed by the FBI in response to it, were based on religious profiling.

“The only reason that someone deemed Mr. Gill ‘suspicious’ is because he is a devout Muslim, not because he has done anything wrong,” Nasrina Bargzie, an attorney with the Caucus said in a statement. “Racial and religious profiling of Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities needs to stop.”

Tariq Razak was deemed suspicious after a female security officer in California noticed that he was “surveying entry/exit points” at the Santa Ana train depot. But that wasn’t what interested her about him so much as the fact that he was a male of Middle Eastern decent with a close-cropped beard who was observing his surroundings.

“[Officer Karina De La Rosa's] suspicion became aroused because the male appeared to be observant of his surroundings and was constantly surveying all areas of the facility,” reads the report about Razak. “Upon exiting the elevator, Karina observed the male meticulously study the entry/exit points, different lobby areas of the train station where large groups of passengers gather. The male then went to the north end of station where male and female restrooms are located and stood by outside the restrooms. Minutes later, a female wearing a white burka head dress, black pants and a blue shirt exited the restroom.”

The woman exiting the bathroom was Razak’s mother. She and her son left the train station and drove away in a white Honda Accord, and De La Rosa filed her report.

De La Rosa had seen “suspicious activity as related to terrorism training” by a local police agency,” the report noted, and she determined that the behavior depicted by the male was “similar to examples shown in her training.” The agent who wrote up the report recommended that it be forwarded to the Santa Ana Police Department’s Homeland Security Division and to the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center “for review and possible follow-up.”
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A day after IndyMedia Report - Boston Globe Chimes in.....
15 Jul 2014
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2004 Photos of the Rainbow Tank Lead to 2014 ACLU Lawsuit
If you’ve been here long enough, you call it the Boston Gas Tank (Eagle-eyed commuters got a peek at the old company logo on the tank during recent restoration work). Maybe you’ve heard it called the Ho Chi Minh Tank or the Rainbow Tank. But the artwork displayed on the LNG tank visible from the Southeast Expressway is technically called the Rainbow Swash.

You can call it what you like. But be very careful if you plan to photograph the landmark.

We’re not sure what professional photographer James Prigoff called the tank in 2004, when he decided to photograph it from public property. In a post on the ACLU’s website, Prigoff recalled the security guards who demanded he stop taking the photos, saying the tank was on private property. After that encounter, he went home to California and found a Joint Terrorism Task Force agent’s business card on his front door.

From Prigoff’s account:

When I called Agent Ayaz, he asked if I had been in Boston recently. At that moment I realized that the security guards at the Rainbow Swash site must have taken down the rental car license plate number and reported me to a law enforcement agency. I never gave the guards any information about myself, so I must have been traced across country via my rental car record.

So, consider this: A professional photographer taking a photo of a well-known Boston landmark is now considered to be engaged in suspicious terrorist activity?

According to the ACLU, Prigoff was swept up in the government’s “Suspicious Activity Reporting” program. The civil rights group has sued the government, alleging the program does little more than target regular citizens exercising first amendment rights.

From the ACLU:

Troublingly, the standards defining “suspicious activity” do not require any reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and information about innocent activities by ordinary people ends up in counterterrorism databases to which local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies have access. Because these loose standards define practically anything and everything as “suspicious,” the SAR program opens the door to racial, ethnic, and religious profiling, as we’ve repeatedly seen from actual SARs that have been revealed publicly. SARs can haunt people for decades, as they remain in federal databases for up to 30 years. An individual who is the subject of a SAR is automatically subjected to law enforcement scrutiny.

It’s not hard to find photos of the tank all over the internet , so why Prigoff’s photo shoot was considered so dangerous is a mystery. According to the ACLU, it doesn’t take much for someone to file one of these reports.