A number of internet and legal giants across the country are participating in an awareness event called “The Day We Fight Back” today. The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Mozilla, Reddit, and many others are among the groups taking part in the event calling for an end to mass digital surveillance by the government.
Sticking with the surveillance theme, Aljazeera America ran a great story today on Brandon Mayfield, an ex-Army platoon leader the FBI mistook for a terrorist and pursued aggressively using a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant. Mayfield’s story serves as a cautionary tale to all those who say they are not afraid of government surveillance because they have nothing to hide.
Terrorists bombed the Madrid train system on March 11, 2004. The bombing killed 193 people and injured an additional 1,800. In their search for suspects, the Spanish National Police (SNP) found two fingerprints they believed could belong to people responsible for the act. The SNP shared the prints with the FBI. One of the prints closely – but not perfectly – matched those of Brandon Mayfield.
The SNP cautioned the FBI that the print was not a perfect match. Nevertheless, the FBI opened a full-blown investigation of Mayfield’s life. They discovered that Mayfield, an attorney, converted to Islam after meeting and marrying his Egyptian wife. In a child custody case, he represented a man who tried to travel to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces at the dawn of the War in Afghanistan. He worshipped at the same mosque as his client. He once took flying lessons. An extensive look at his internet history revealed searches for plane tickets to Spain.
The FBI was certain they had their man.
Using a FISA warrant, agents began following and monitoring Mayfield and his family. They broke into his home and tapped his phones. They followed him to work and tracked his daily movements.
One day, an agent broke into Mayfield’s home when he suspected the house was empty. His son saw the agent and reported what he saw to his father. Mayfield knew he was being watched. After realizing he was being monitored, Mayfield became understandably paranoid. The FBI interpreted his fear as further evidence of his guilt. Agents detained Mayfield and deemed him a material witness to the Madrid bombing. He spent two weeks in jail.
Despite insistence from Spanish police that the fingerprint was not a perfect match, FBI officials argued Mayfield helped carry out the bombing. The FBI’s stubbornness proved so unrelenting that the SNP was forced to essentially act as Mayfield's defense attorney. They proved that the fingerprints on a bag of detonators did not match Mayfield’s prints. American authorities were only persuaded of Mayfield’s innocence when SNP found a definitive print match to Algerian national Ouhane Daoud. Daoud was eventually convicted for his involvement in the bombing.
All suspicions of Mayfield’s guilt were in vain. He was a completely innocent man – he had been all along. The FBI ended their investigation, and he reached a $2 million settlement with the U.S. government. In the Office of the Inspector General’s review of Mayfield’s case, they admitted that agents used a “regrettable lack of attention to detail” in their investigation of Mayfield.
Mayfield’s story now serves as a warning to those who say they have no fear of government surveillance because they have nothing to hide. Mayfield never did anything wrong. He married a Muslim, had an interest in flying, and researched trips to Spain. None of these activities are illegal. But once someone suspects you of a crime, everyday activities can be used to confirm those suspicions. When harmless interests are framed within in a criminal narrative, anyone can become a suspect. All it takes is one wrong Google search or a misdialed phone call.
Brandon Mayfield had nothing to hide. Yet once he was viewed through the lens of suspicion, agents were able to twist every harmless thing he’d done and use it as evidence of criminal activity. That should terrify even the most upright of citizens among us.