WASHINGTON – An investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting into the counter-terrorism program at the Mall of America near Minneapolis, found that it often ensnares seemingly innocent people with the FBI and other law enforcement organizations.
Ever since 9/11, the nation’s leaders have warned that government agencies can’t protect the country on their own; private businesses and ordinary citizens have to look out for terrorists, too. Under such programs as See Something, Say Something and the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, popular sites from shopping malls to sports stadiums have been encouraged to identify and then report “suspicious activity” to law enforcement agencies.
The investigation found that “suspicious person” reports sent by the Mall’s private counter-terrorism and security units to local police were filed without the knowledge of visitors and shoppers interviewed by security, and may remain in law enforcement files for decades.
CIR obtained and analyzed more than 1,000 pages of these documents. The documents released to CIR also indicate that the Mall has been mostly reporting to the police those who are racial and ethnic minorities.
CIR asked more than two-dozen law enforcement agencies across the country for suspicious activity reports from popular sites in their areas, from Epcot Center to Dodgers Stadium. Only officials in Minnesota provided them – 125 reports that had been sent from the Mall of America to the nearby Bloomington Police Department since Christmas Eve 2005. A Mall official told NPR and CIR that their security guards question more than 1,000 people each year.
CIR reports that the documents and interviews with dozens of sources show that the Mall’s counter-terrorism unit has often reported seemingly ordinary people for engaging in seemingly ordinary behaviors. Mall guards reported one man to police who they said walked “nervously” 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, based on documents, were not white. In contrast, the U.S. population is more than 70 percent white, and Minnesota’s population is almost 85 percent white. Mall officials would not provide the ethnic and racial breakdown of its visitors.
Several people named in the reports only learned from CIR that their birth dates, race, names of employers and other personal information were compiled along with surveillance images. Much of the questioning at the mall has been done in public while shoppers mill around, records show. In interviews, two people, a shopper and a mall employee, described being taken to a basement area.
One 18-page Mall report labels an Army veteran and retired engineer “very suspicious” for filming Mall attractions to show his fiancée. As a result of the Mall’s suspicions, an FBI agent told local police to seize his camera’s memory card “for further analysis” and delete footage. He was also given a pat-down search.
Other reports concern a Pakistan-born U.S. citizen, questioned at his home by the FBI after his father accidentally left his cell phone on a table at the Mall’s food court. More than three years later, there was still an 11-page report about the incident on file with local police.