Five men are suing the U.S. government for violation of First Amendment rights and racial and religious profiling. An 86-year-old man was photographing a popular tourist attraction: A natural gas tank in Boston painted with a whimsical rainbow design. Thousands of people have photographed it before, but when this man stepped up to take a picture, security asked him to leave. His name was also added to the government database on suspicious activity, and was given a visit by federal agents a few months later.
James Prigoff, a former executive of a division of Levi Strauss and Sara Lee, and who is also a renowned photographer, was only doing what numerous tourists were doing before him. Apparently, anything can and will be misconstrued as terrorism these days. In addition to racial profiling, discrimination based on religion and perceived threats are still very much a factor when it comes to law enforcement taking an interest in supposed "terrorists."
Prigoff is not alone. Four other men were also wrongfully targeted with a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) and added to the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative. The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative is a part of the Department of Homeland Security and other branches of government responsible for anti-terrorism in America.
The problem is that not of these men did anything wrong. Two of these men were photographing popular tourist attractions of aesthetic interest, one was looking at videogames online in his own home, one man attempted to buy multiple computers at a Best Buy, and the fifth man was waiting outside the restrooms for his mother in a train station.
The common denominator for these men? They seem to be of similar ethnic and religious backgrounds. Namely, they appear to be Muslim.
“This domestic surveillance program wrongly targets First Amendment-protected activities, encourages racial and religious profiling, and violates federal law,” said Linda Lye, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “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.”
These SARs can stay in the government terrorist database for up to 30 years. But these reports have to be good for something, right? Not so much.
"Tens of thousands of SARs have been filed over the years. But according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, not one has led to an arrest or conviction, let alone thwarted a true threat."
Update: This article previously called the natural gas storage tank a water tower.