Saturday, September 11, 2021

Terry Albury, Doing the Right Thing

I have my own memories of my reaction to the attacks on September 11, 2001. Within a few hours that day, though, I remember saying aloud to my coworkers, "There go our civil liberties."

Not long after, Congress passed the Patriot Act (so-called), then we went to war in Afghanistan, and later Iraq. Meanwhile, lesser known actions were being taken within the U.S. to hunt down imagined sleeper cells of terrorists, coordinating "intelligence" among our domestic and international agencies, which had been lacking prior to 9/11.

Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine cover story must be read. I got ahold of a paper copy from a friend, and if you can't get past the paywall, it was also covered in some depth yesterday on The Daily radio show and podcast.

The gist is this. Terry Albury was a Black FBI agent who joined the Bureau right out of college, not long before 9/11, wanting to help catch child sex traffickers. Instead, after 9/11 he was trained in counter-terrorism and put to work surveilling people and the associates of people and their associates... generally for being Muslims. In 2015 he leaked classified evidence of these abuses. It hasn't gotten enough notice because of the Trump dumpster fire, and probably because the average American doesn't care about abuses of Muslims.

Here's a bit more detail.

The Bush administration, which had under-reacted to the security risks that existed before 9/11, went beyond over-reacting afterward.

...the Justice Department initiated a relentless search for what [Attorney General John] Ashcroft...called "the terrorists among us." ...the government's most senior officials, including the FBI director, met each morning to go over the daily threat matrix, a spreadsheet detailing every minor rumor...

A former CIA official cited in the article said that much of the threat matrix was trash (that's a quote), but

By the end of September 2001, [FBI Director Robert] Mueller told President Bush that Al Qaeda had 331 potential "sleeper" operatives inside the United States. By the following October, intelligence officials were estimating that anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 Al Qaeda terrorists might be hiding within various Muslim communities across the United States. Virtually all of these supposed terrorists turned out to be nonentities — "ghost leads," as they are called.

One of the things Ashcroft did during this time was rewrite the Bureau's investigative guidelines. Agents were now able to spy on Americans in public spaces in ways that they hadn't been since the post-Hoover era.

Albury was assigned to take Arabic classes at Berkeley and to report on all of his fellow students. Because he was Black, "he came to understand [that] would be an asset in this new threat environment." He also was assigned to drive around noting the movements of various Muslims in the area, including one of the founders of CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations), named Omar Ahmad. The chain of every person Ahmad talked to, and every person that person later talked to, ended up in a file and under some kind of surveillance. "In 2010, the Justice Department closed its investigation of Ahmad. No charges were ever filed."

Meanwhile, Albury listened to his coworkers (white, male generally) call the people they were dealing with ragheads, or about wiping the Middle East off the map.

By later 2000s, Albury was on the Joint Terrorism Task Force and burning out from his recognition that it was mostly bullshit. He tried to be transferred to some different areas of work that might be different but by the early 2010s decided to get a transfer to Minnesota because his wife had family there, and they had just had a daughter.

The Minneapolis FBI office at that time was, of course, deep in the Somali anti-terrorism campaign. Here's how the Times article starts the section on Albury's time here:

"You know what I think we should do with the Somalis?" a secretary with the Minneapolis Joint Terrorism Task Force said to a group of agents in the office in fall 2012. Albury had been on the job for a few weeks. "I think we should blow up the Somali towers."

She was referring to the Riverside Plaza housing project, the heart of Minneapolis's East African immigrant community. Albury managed a smile, assuming she was joking to shock the new guy. But she was serious. "You don't get the problem," she told Albury. "These people are dirty, smelly, disgusting, worthless pieces of [expletive]."

Though Albury was sent to Minneapolis to be a general criminal investigator, it turned out Minneapolis didn't need more of those, so instead his job was to develop sources in the Muslim community. Somalis were referred to as "skinnies" by some of his coworkers:

In all of his years as an FBI agent, Albury had never heard the sort of unabashed hatred for any group of people as he did for the Somalis, whom agents denigrated for the poverty, or their food, or the habit some Somali immigrant women had of tucking they cellphones inside their hijabs while shopping at Walmart or driving a car.

He was often the only Black person in the office. An example is given of a bureau-wide email being sent by an agent from another area looking for people to sign onto a class action suit against Obama for discriminating against white men, and advocating a White History Day or Month. People in the Minneapolis office discussed the email approvingly.

"Developing sources" in FBI lingo meant interviewing anyone associated with a mosque or other Muslim-identified business or organization, pretending to express concern about harassment of Muslims and asking for their help. "We've been hearing some things about your mosque..."

The article goes into some depth about how a "thick file" on someone equals suspicion, and the effect that has on their lives, even though the thick file may be full of pages that say agents never saw anything suspicious. Albury worked to close cases that weren't going anywhere, but his coworkers proceeded from the idea that Islam was a violent religion and everyone was guilty.

At the very end of the Bush administration, it got even worse. Now agents could open "assessments" without even a credible tip, just their own assertion of a "clearly defined objective." In the next two years, "43,000 counter-terrorism-related assessments" were opened. "...fewer than 2,000 led to further investigation." That's 1 in 21.5, in case you were wondering — and that's just the ones that led to *further investigation*, not ones that led to any charges! Each of the people in those assessment cases has a file on them that will follow them and affect their life.

In 2014, as we all know, there multiple cases of police killing Black men or boys.

Many of [Albury's] colleagues made clear that they saw the victims as guilty, or at least suspicious, leaving the cops no choice but to use force. As Garner died in a police chokehold, some members of the JTTF argued that Garner had caused his own death. "You agree, right?" Albury recalls being asked. "He should've just complied, right?"

The next year, a Black man was killed in Minneapolis, and "some cops on the JTTF openly fantasized about running the protesters over with their cars. 'This was before Charlottesville,' Albury notes..."

By this time, Albury recognized he was part of what he calls the "terrorism industrial complex":

[an] amorphous war on terror...based largely, if not entirely, on fear. Fear had led different groups of Americans to distrust and even hate one another. And it had also given the bureau tremendous power. The government had used the shock of Sept. 11 to invert the rule of law, and now the law kept becoming more and more inverted.

In reality, there was no evidence of rogue Al Qaeda sleeper cells hiding in suburbia, as was acknowledged in a 2005 internal FBI report.

In December 2015, Albury contacted The Intercept website and offered to leak them evidence of FBI methods of what he considered civil liberties infringements.

He was caught in August 2017 and convicted in 2018. He served time in a Colorado federal prison until recently. He believes, as the Times cover makes clear, "I helped destroy people. For 17 years." And he says he leaked the information because "it hit me in a way that it shattered my existence."

I think about all of those thick FBI files that exist, and that there will probably never be an update of the Church Committee, as there was in the 1970s to look into the abuses of J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO. Both sides want to hide these abuses now and there's no single scapegoat like Hoover to take the blame.

Just the madness of crowds following 9/11.


Have you known anyone who was constantly pulled out of the TSA line when they tried to fly? I have. One of my former coworkers in the 2000s and early 2010s, whose elderly mother (alive then, but now deceased) was Lebanese and Christian, I believe, got that treatment every time during the 2000s, and she may still. I also hear about it from people on Twitter, of course, who I don't know personally. 


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