In terror war, citizen feels like suspect

By MARK BENJAMIN, UPI Investigations Editor

ARLINGTON, Va., Nov. 15 (UPI) -- Five government anti-terrorism agents arrived at the door of Nancy Swift's modest home in this northern Virginia suburb last August, where Swift lives and rents out some rooms. They threatened her with a subpoena. They dispatched agents to her office to ask about her. They took away her garbage in the trunks of their cars, and they questioned one of her housemates.

It all happened, apparently, because a neighbor called authorities about one of Swift's tenants in the house, a young Middle Eastern man who had other Middle Eastern friends visit one holiday weekend. The neighbor also turns Swift in to the county government when her grass gets too long.


"It just feels so invasive," Swift, an information analyst for the Arlington County Government, said over a burger at a local diner. "Every time this comes up again all of the physical symptoms of fear come up, even though I've done nothing wrong."


"When it all happened, I was very concerned about what was this 'suspicious activity'?" she said. "I mean, this is my home. I wanted to know -- only to find out later that the suspicious activity was one of my tenants had friends visit on a holiday weekend?"

FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman would say only that Swift was part of an investigation by a Joint Terrorism Task Force team, a combination of federal and local agents focused on rooting out terrorists.

"The only thing I can tell you about this is our JTTF responded to a report, the details of which I am not at liberty to discuss because the matter has not been settled," Weierman said. Swift's house in Arlington is just miles from the Pentagon.

Swift and another former housemate from that time, Judy Horan, said Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent Robert Poole threatened Swift with a subpoena, which he never produced.

"He said, 'I am so glad you are being agreeable ... because you know, I have a grand jury subpoena for you,'" Horan recounted. He said, "'I have it right here. But I don't think I'm going to have to use it because you are both being very agreeable.'"


Swift said Poole told her that if she did not cooperate, she "would have to spend the day with the grand jury."

Poole referred a phone call for comment to the FBI's spokeswoman.

Housemate Horan also said Poole and the other agents hauled off their trash.

"Without asking for permission, they took all of the garbage from outside," Horan said. "It just felt very strange to me because I had been going through personal papers and things. I don't shred anything. I had never felt anything like that as an American citizen."

"It felt awful," Horan said. "I felt very intimidated and that I had no right to privacy at all. And I felt guilty because of the way they treated us. I felt like I was being interrogated. It was just the attitude."

Horan said the agents were engaging in racial profiling. "They were clearly there because a tenant was Middle Eastern. When I told them that, they got very defensive," Horan said.

The same day, three JTTF agents showed up at Swift's office while she was on her way home for lunch. Swift's former supervisor said she was shocked by the three federal agents asking about Nancy, whom she considers an excellent employee.


"They came to the office asking about Nancy," the supervisor said. She did not meet with the agents, but another employee took them around the office, the supervisor said. "Three of them showed up at reception," she said. "What shocked me was all three of them decided to stroll by here. They were strolling from department to department."

The supervisor said the experience with agents frightened her and she did not want her name used. "I am afraid. I do not wish to endanger myself."

Complaints and allegations of heavy-handed actions by terror investigators are on the rise, according to data compiled by the inspector general at the Department of Justice. The office has received nearly 5,200 such complaints with increasing frequency since Sept. 11, 2001, ranging from allegations of excessive force and illegal detention to "illegal searches of personal residences and property by FBI agents," according to reports from the office to Congress.

Retiring Attorney General John Ashcroft has been a lightning rod of criticism over civil liberties, though no domestic terror attacks occurred on his watch.

Swift said she has no idea if her house has been searched or her phones have been tapped. The USA Patriot Act makes it easier for agents to do both without notifying citizens. Swift said that Poole, the ATF agent, did ask her to use a regular telephone line as opposed to a cell phone when she called his office.


"With knowledge of the Patriot Act and knowing that everything can be surveilled now, I feel like I'm living in a fishbowl, even thought I may not be," Swift said. "I'd like to know whether I still have privacy in my life. It is a very eerie feeling."

Timothy Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the libertarian CATO Institute, said agents are in a tough spot. They want to act aggressively to thwart terrorists, but still be careful of civil liberties. Lynch said tactics like the ones used in Swift's case, while legal, can border on intimidation.

"Part of what is happening is that police are pursuing tactics that are short of arrest," Lynch said. "This is what federal agents do sometimes. They do take garbage. They do go to peoples' homes with or without a subpoena. They can show up at people's workplaces. It is lawful, but what is going on there? Is it really a bona fide investigative technique or is it an intimidation technique?"

The FBI's Weierman said agents are supposed to tell citizens to report civil liberties complaints to local FBI offices.

"Folks are given information that if they feel their civil rights are violated in some way or form, they can report the incident to the local FBI," said Weierman. "Agents are instructed to hand out the phone number to the (FBI) Washington Field office if people feel their civil liberties have been violated. That is what we do. That is part of the procedure."


Swift said she was never informed of any way to express her concern to the FBI or anybody else. "I did not know there was a process," Swift said.

Swift's first encounter with the JTTF came on July 29, when ATF agent Poole left his card in her door. Swift called the number. Poole asked her to call back on a regular phone line and then said that "neighbors had reported suspicious activity" at her house. Poole asked Swift about her basement tenant, who was from Iran.

Swift said the conversation scared her, and she asked her tenant to move out -- a reaction she now says makes her feel guilty. Swift is afraid she may have kicked out an innocent man.

She also asked her neighbor if he had made the report to the authorities. The retired colonel, who has reported her to county authorities when her grass is too long, told Swift he reported her tenant to authorities because other young Middle Eastern men had visited him in the basement apartment one holiday weekend, according to Swift.

"I asked him, 'Was there anything else?'" Swift said. "And he said, 'No. Isn't that enough?'"

In a telephone call with United Press International, that neighbor said he did not want to discuss the issue.


When five agents arrived unannounced Aug. 4, Swift's housemate Horan was at home. "They arrived in the middle of the afternoon. There were five of them," she said. "I heard a very loud knocking on the front door," Horan said. She answered it. "They were looking beyond me at the house. There was that paranoid suspicious thing in the air right away. It just gave me the creeps."

Soon, Swift arrived home for lunch. She had just missed the three agents who had arrived at her work, according to Swift's boss. That was when Poole said he had a subpoena and the two housemates had better cooperate.

"They said I could not take any notes," Horan said. "They said they wanted to interview us separately. They said, 'You are not a lawyer, are you?' And I said, 'No, I am a school teacher.'"

The agents asked a lot of questions about her basement tenant: How much do you know about him? Did he have visitors? Did you ever smell chemicals coming from the basement apartment? Though Swift had asked him to move out, the tenant had left a cell number, which she gave the agents.

Swift and Horan said they never heard back from the JTTF.


"I was appalled that that is how my tax dollars were being spent. They had no evidence that I knew of that led to this kind of an investigation," said Horan. "It seems very extreme. I had no reference about how to deal with that. There was no follow up. I think they should have followed through with a thank you or an update."

Swift's former boss said Swift is no terrorist. But the supervisor worries that the high-profile office visit from federal investigators has caused people to talk behind Swift's back. "I do have concerns that this might affect her and affect others through associating with her -- that it will affect her future, whether or not she is aware of it. Her actions may always be judged in that light," the supervisor said.

The supervisor grew up in the Balkans, under Communism, and the events felt eerily familiar. "This whole experience frightfully reminded me of that," she said. "It reminded me how easily, in a certain climate, people use their imagination and then start digging through people's lives."

Swift said the experience left her jarred. And afraid. She said she has nightmares about it. ""I don't feel like the Constitution protects people any more," Swift said. "And I don't have anything to hide."


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