An 86-year-old photographer and former corporate executive is one of five plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Obama administration over an information-sharing program in place to help the federal government track down suspected terrorists.
James Prigoff of Sacramento, California says that several yearsago he found the card of an FBI agent on his doorstep, so when he returned the call to Agent Ayaz, he was informed that he had exhibited suspicious behavior months earlier while trying to take a picture of the Rainbow Swash in Boston.
“I went to Dorchester, Mass., to photograph it, but before I could take a picture, I was confronted by two security guards who came through their gate and told me I could not because the tank was on private property,” said Prigoff in a statement. “I pointed out that I, being well outside the fenced area, was not on private property – but they insisted I leave.”
Prigoff was still able to take the picture of the well-known piece of art, and months later, when the FBI was investigating him, he found out that the security guards reported him because they thought his behavior was suspicious. The FBI reportedly tracked down Prigoff through his rental car license plate number and began to track him on suspicions of terrorist activity. The FBI’s actions were part of the ongoing Suspicious Activity Reporting program in which law enforcement all around the country are trained to report suspicious behavior to federal authorities.
“I lived through the McCarthy era, so I know how false accusations, surveillance, and keeping files on innocent people can destroy their careers and lives,” said Prigoff in the statement, via the ACLU. “I am deeply troubled that the SAR program may be recreating that same climate of false accusation and fear today.”
Prigoff, along with four other plaintiffs, is suing the federal government with the representation of the American Civil Liberties Union because of the program that they say is an infringement on basic rights.
“Photography is an important part of my life, and I plan to keep photographing public art and public places that contain WPA murals and other architectural sites – as I have been doing for 69 years,” writes Prigoff. “Why have my artistic pursuits landed me in a national database potentially linking me to ‘terrorist’ activities? There is no reason for it. This program must be stopped.”
John Cohen, a former homeland security official who helped start the government program, said that the ACLU’s involvement in the lawsuit could actually go against what they fight for as an organization.
"There's no disagreement that law enforcement actions should be focused only on those individuals exhibiting behaviors associated with criminal activity," Cohen said to the Associated Press. "However, I fear the consequence of a successful ACLU action in this regard will be to eliminate the very tools and protections that are now in place to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans and at the same time aid police in protecting our communities."
Still, the plaintiffs and the ACLU are going through with the lawsuit and hope it will put an end to the program.
Sources: ACLU, Mercury News, The Guardian