In May 2012, two police officers in Chico, California allegedly banged on the front door of a college custodian named Wiley Gill and with guns drawn asked him to step outside.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever had tunnel vision,” Gill, now 28, said in a recent phone interview. “I could have told you the colour of the gun. I could have told you what the make and model is … All I saw was the gun.”
The police, who said they were looking into a domestic violence report and thought the suspect went into Gill’s house, searched his residence even though he was reluctant to let them do so. Police say they found a “flight simulator type of game” on his computer. Gill thinks he just had a website open about video games he liked.
In any event, Gill ended up in a government database of “suspicious activity” along with others who got there for taking a picture, buying a computer, and even standing in a train station, according to the ACLU. Now the ACLU is fighting that database in federal court and using Gill’s story to help make its case. Gill is one of five plaintiffs in the ACLU’s complaint challenging the legality of the National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative.
The National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative
In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. government began building a database to allow various government entities to share “information about suspicious activity with a potential nexus to terrorism.” Both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security oversee the National Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative, which the government refers to as NSI.
To aid these efforts, the federal government set up a national network of 78 offices called fusion centres to empower local police, emergency responders, firefighters, and even public health officials to gather “threat-related information.”
The website for the NSI program specifies that local authorities aren’t supposed to break the law when collecting this information. That website also assures the public that their “privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties” will be protected.
Indeed, a Justice Department website on fusion center priorities begins with this quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
The right-leaning Heritage Foundation has argued that a robust SAR program that utilizes the eyes and ears of local cops plays an important role in catching “homegrown” terrorists.
“Police officers have long been the first line of defence against criminal activity across America,” according to January 2012 paper by the Heritage Foundation. “Throughout their daily patrols, officers are repeatedly confronted with suspicious behaviour, their training and experience providing the necessary filter for distinguishing the abnormal and dubious from the mundane and perfunctory.”
But some civil liberties advocates say local fusion centres have been overzealous. In May 2014, The New York Times reported fusion centres had closely scrutinized Occupy Wall Street protests throughout the country. At one point, officials reported on a group of Occupy protesters who planned on singing Holiday carols at an undisclosed location, according to The Times.
“People must have the ability to speak out freely to express a dissenting view without the fear that the government will treat them as enemies of the state,” Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund told The Times.
For its part, the ACLU alleges in its lawsuit the Suspicious Activity Program made enemies out of Americans simply because of their race or religion, or in one case, because of a man’s decision to take a photo of a piece of public art painted on a natural gas storage tank.
Wiley Gill, the 28-year-old custodian who likes video games, believes he was targeted because he’s a “white Muslim male.”
‘Suspicious Male Subject In Possession of Flight Simulator Game’
Gill, who converted to Islam at the age of 23, believes police had him on their radar before they searched his home in May 2012.
Two Chico, California, police officers also knocked on his door in 2010 to ask him about supposedly “anti-American statements” he made, according to his account outlined in the ACLU’s complaint. The police wouldn’t elaborate on the nature of those statements, according to Gill.
“Why would you come to my door and accuse me of something I haven’t done without having any proof?” he said.
Gill also remembers police officers visiting his mosque in 2011. Those officers said they were paying a “courtesy visit to build good relations with the Muslim community,” according to the ACLU complaint. The police gave a presentation to people who attended the mosque.
More from the ACLU complaint: “Mr. Gill listened to the presentation. When it was over, CPD officers asked Mr. Gill his name, whether he went to school, and if he was employed. Mr. Gill answered all of their questions. His understanding is that the officers did not question anyone else in this manner. “
The ACLU believes that when the police finally came to his home in May 2012 they were using the domestic violence call as an excuse to search his home. Regardless of the police department’s motives, that May incident made Gill a subject of a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR).
That report acknowledged police were wrong about a domestic violence suspect fleeing into Gill’s house, but it notes that when they did happen to search his house, Gill “attempted to hastily close down” his computer screen. Here’s what police found, according to the SAR attached to the ACLU’s complaint: a webpage with a title “similar to ‘Games that fly under the radar.'” The website appeared to be a “flight simulator type of game,” according to the SAR.
Gill’s “full conversion to Islam as a young WMA [white Muslim male],” his “pious demeanor,” and “potential access to flight simulators over the internet” were all “worthy of note,” according to that SAR attached to the ACLU complaint. (The Justice Department declined to comment on that complaint, and the Chico Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
The ACLU ultimately obtained that SAR through a public records request and then notified Gill he was on the feds’ radar. He decided to join the case because he doesn’t want the local police and FBI targeting him because of his religion.
“You don’t think it would ever happen to you. I’m just a normal 28-year-old,” Gill said. ” … The reason I helped the ACLU with their case is, regardless of what your religion is, you shouldn’t be badgered by the police … and having the FBI come open a case on you, just because of your religion.”
A Nation Under Surveillance
The ACLU alleges the SARS program extends beyond surveillance of Muslims, and that Americans have been put into that database simply for taking photographs.
One of those photographers — a graphic design student named Aaron Conklin — captured the attention of local authorities when he took a photo of the Shell Refinery in Martinez, California in November 2013. Conklin took that photo from a public strip mall, and he says he cooperated with security guards who told him to stop taking photos. Contra Costa sheriff’s deputies searched his car despite that cooperation, according to the ACLU complaint.
The ACLU believes he became the subject of a SAR because the government views taking pictures of infrastructure “in a manner that would arouse suspicion in a reasonable person” to be a “potential terrorism nexus activity.”
James Prigoff, an 86-year-old photographer and retired executive, also believes he became the subject of either a SAR or a SAR “precursor report” after trying to take a picture of a piece of infrastructure — the iconic “Rainbow Swash” painted on a natural gas tank near Boston. An agent of the Joint Terrorism Task Force managed to track him down at his home on the other side of the country in Sacramento, California to question him about the photo, he says. An agent also spoke to an elderly neighbour of Prigoff’s, he told me.
When I asked him if the incident made him feel paranoid about being spied on, Prigoff told me he’s not a “paranoid person nor a worrier.”
“I see things as they are and understand the implications of what is taking place as the nation comes under more and more surveillance,” he said, “and the government expands its definition of ‘so called’ terrorists and terrorism to the extreme that I witnessed in this particular incident.”
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