In the post-9/11 world, you can be questioned by federal agents simply for taking photos of what they believe are security-sensitive buildings. Not only that, but that questioning is often preceded by a “suspicious activity report” (SAR) that stays in your federal file.
The ACLU of California is suing the U.S. Department of Justice over the practice, noting that it appears to contradict its own prohibition against collecting data on innocent people.
One example of a SAR noted in the lawsuit involved a photographer who said he was taking pictures inside a Metro Purple Line train so producers could set up their cameras for a scene of Fox's 24 that was to be filmed there:
The guy was just doing his job. Now he has a SAR on file with the federal government.
The ACLU says FBI agents are required to follow-up on all such reports, so people like the unnamed photographer also have the pleasure of being questioned about their allegiance.
Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney with the L.A.-based ACLU of Southern California, says:
This domestic surveillance program wrongly targets First Amendment-protected activities, encourages racial and religious profiling, and violates federal law. 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 suit also mentions the case of an L.A. freelance photographer known for his work capturing industrial sites. He was contacted twice by the FBI over his shots, including pictures of the Port of Long Beach, the ACLU says in the filing:
The FBI agent told the photographer that he knew the photographer did not pose a threat but that because a report had been opened, he was required to follow-up on it.
The suit claims that the SAR program has never led to the capture of a terrorist or to useful information for the war on terror.
The filing quotes Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who once said that the reports had only “flooded fusion centers, law enforcement, and other security entities with white noise.”
The Justice Department's own rules forbid the collection of “criminal intelligence information” unless there is reasonable suspicion.
But the ACLU says the bar for SARs is much lower than that and, as such, the reports ensnare people undertaking perfectly legal and normal activity.
The suit's poster boy is 86-year-old James Prigoff of California, a renowned photographer whose work has been shown in the Smithsonian.
After shooting well-known public art painted on a natural gas tank in Boston, he got a telltale visit from the FBI, the ACLU says. Agents even talked to a neighbor about him, the group says.
Prigoff says the government's dragnet of suspicion is unjust:
All I was doing was taking pictures in a public place, and now I’m apparently in a government terrorism database for decades.
The suit seeks to have the Department of Justice's SARs “set aside” so that they can no longer be used to cast suspicion on ordinary Americans.