File This One Under: Advice for Parents, Children and Teens
Tuesday, April 23 – FoxNews.com posts an article linking the online Al Qaeda recruiting publication “Inspire” to bomb-making plans used in Boston. Soon after, here in L.A., “Charlie” clicks on a link contained in the piece that takes him to the Jihadist magazine itself. He explores it, without questioning why such a hot-potato link was live, instead of just explained.
At 6:25 the next morning, Charlie’s condo door is nearly pounded off its hinges. Whizzing past his 18-month-old daughter’s crib, he marvels at her solid sleep. The peephole view through the door is of several LAPD officers and ATF agents. He turns the handle to find game faces and drawn sidearms. Boots instantly become doorstops. Their respective uniforms are tactical, but reasonably so. Still, they’re big, amped, and all going at once.
“Step back. You’re gonna wanna step back.”
“Are you alone? Step back.”
“We have a report of a man seen in your window waving a firearm.”
“Hold on, what?” Charlie demands, alarmed at their inching inward.
“Where are your weapons?”
“Hey, wait,” Charlie implores. “I have my 18-month-old daughter here!”
“Will you consent to a search of your property?”
“A man in your window was seen from the street with a handgun.”
“I don’t own a handgun! I have no firearms here.”
“Yes you do – a Ruger American, 270.”
“I just bought that. A friend is sighting it for me.”
“At what location?”
“You didn’t get the scope option?”
“Will you allow us further entry to check for ourselves?”
“Go ahead and look! It isn’t here. I have a baby, so I don’t keep guns here.”
They fan out into the living room, dining area, and next to the plasma by the big window in question. Charlie doesn’t merit a strategic takeover of his living room or his life, so he’s clueless but calm. As it hits him that this is really happening, he wonders why it feels like both an honor and an insult.
“Sir. Are. You. Alone.”
“No! My daughter –”
“Who’s here with you?”
“My daughter is right behind you in her crib!”
The lead agent turns peripherally, senses that the crib is already being eyeballed, and turns back. They own the place. They relax, but only by a notch. All guns are holstered now. The female officer is the last to enter. She’s ATF too, and carrying a black suitcase, the side of which reads “Vanguard.” They ask questions they already know the answers to, and no one can seem to do so one-at-a-time.
“Does this condominium belong to you?”
“You’re a personal trainer. Do you do movie stars?”
Charlie fires back, “Tell me how someone could’ve seen my window with our balcony in the way.”
“Where is your wife? Is she here?”
“No, she’s in Virginia ‘til tomorrow. Nobody was up here waving a gun.”
“You were arrested in Virginia, in 1992, for the manufacture of explosives.”
“Wow!” Charlie’s a little afraid now. “Yes. I was 19. We made M-80s and tossed ‘em in the water.”
“And in 1994 you were convicted of driving under influence of alcohol or drugs, also in Virginia.”
Two of the LAPD officers remain in the hallway and hold the door halfway open. Another surveys the street from the condo’s sliding glass door. The fourth stands between Charlie and his access to the rest of the unit. If Charlie moves away from the crib, everyone will know it at once. He has never felt so small.
The female agent sets down the Vanguard case and gestures toward the family computer. “This belong to you?” The energy in the room shifts to her container, which resembles a Humvee.
“My wife uses it for work. So do I.”
The female compliments the PC, remarking that it’s overbuilt for home use. Charlie explains it’s a gaming computer; his wife made him ditch the PlayStation, so he plays on the big, bad desktop. A seemingly casual conversation ensues about the first person shooter games he plays as each game is removed from a shelf and inspected.
Just as Charlie realizes he’s been too permissive, the woman gets to it, flipping open the latches on her case. Inside, Charlie sees a coil of CAT-5 cable, parallel and SATA ribbons, a small keyboard, and two elaborate hard drive devices.
“Hey, I invited you guys in. You can’t touch my computer! Where’s your warrant? ”
The agent doesn’t remove her hands from the latches. All eyes are on her. “What were you doing on a watch-listed website?”
“Yesterday morning, around ten. Inspire magazine. You visited a flagged website and spent approximately 39 minutes on it. What exactly were you looking for?”
The thought doesn’t stop Charlie from becoming appropriately defensive. “That was ya’ll’s website! The link was live on FoxNews.com, in an article about Boston. The Inspire thing’s where they learned how to make their bombs.”
“And you needed that information…why?”
“I didn’t need that information. I was just looking. It was on Fox for cryin’ out loud!” Charlie addresses each and every person that will match his eye contact. He’s pleading now, which sickens him. But this is bullshit. He isn’t lying; he isn’t a terrorist; and while he may have nothing to hide on his machine other than hotasianpussy dot com, they lied to get into his apartment. His confidence increases. “Sorry. You guys need a warrant. You told me there was someone with a gun up here, and that’s not true. There aren’t any guns here, or bombs.”
Charlie reiterates that many times during the ensuing two hour ordeal. At last, the group packs up and cinches their ballistic nylon brassieres. They grumble and growl on their way out, ticking off the risks of Internet surfing. They’ll be watching him, they warn.
• • • • • • •
This account was related to me by Charlie himself a couple hours after it ended. I interrogated him too, insisting on particulars and retellings. At every turn, I had to peel my palms from my face. I couldn’t wrap my head around Charlie’s failure to consider that the link might be bait, or at the very least monitored, flagged, and circled in red ink. How could anyone assume good judgment follows you like a dog?
Yet I experienced the same disconnect Charlie must have. Was a direct link to Al Qaeda posted intentionally? Would whoever posted it be so obvious? How many Fox News fans assumed their favorite website would know better, on their behalf? How many other Charlies were out there with ATF teams sitting on their chests? And how much does that cost? How many “bad guys” does America truly reel in with such broad and obvious strokes?
Charlie didn’t have these answers. But since I’ve never personally seen a flagged website bring the surveillance state to someone’s front door, I pestered him about the agents’ facial expressions and statements, the computer forensics kit, and their refusal to address the man in the window ploy after it went limp. I also asked him whether he was planning to tell his wife what happened upon her return (I got a resounding ‘No way!’ on that one).
Charlie runs boot camp classes for stroller pushers, flabby husbands, actors, cubicle dwellers, cat ladies, and the discipline deficient (like me). The gym where his classes are held is often empty when we work out together. We were doing just that when he told me this story; he’d just come from dropping off his daughter at her babysitter’s. It failed to dawn on either of us that the events he was relating were, in fact, still going on.
Halfway through our workout, we noticed a middle-aged man we’d never seen before waiting near the front desk at the far end of our building. We didn’t know how long he’d been standing there, but just as we were about to explain that the gym wasn’t open yet, he walked out. Charlie stepped into the parking lot from a door near us to see what was up. The man saw him, pointed to a business card he was holding that was impossible to read from such a distance, and then jumped into his car and drove away. Charlie shrugged. I barely even registered the guy.
Then, while sitting at a red light on my way home, I got a call on my cell. The caller ID showed a semi-local number, but no name.
A Hispanic-sounding woman, possibly middle-aged, said, “You ordered an estimate for concrete delivery.”
“Concrete delivery? No, I didn’t. I don’t need any concrete.”
“Okay, thank you.” She hung up. It sounded dumb and weird.
Ten minutes later, at home, my landline rang. An older woman, sounding white as Wonder Bread, promptly apologized for having the wrong number despite not actually asking for anyone. She sounded annoyed, like someone at the Department of Motor Vehicles who issues sentences rather than saying them. She didn’t hang up immediately, either, letting the line hang for a few seconds before disconnecting. This time the number was blocked, which is when it hit me that the police – or someone – had just com-checked both my phone numbers. I felt honored and insulted at the same time.
Unfortunately, because I’m a Felon-American, I have less of a right to feel either. What I’m not however, is a conspiracy theorist (or terrorist). Yes, in the aftermath of an initial engagement with a potential suspect, law enforcement has every reason to look at those with whom their target makes first contact. But I needed a little more to go on to believe Charlie’s story had now become my story.
I called a White Hat friend of mine who knows just what to do with every tool in that Vanguard suitcase. I explained everything that had been related to me, as well as all that followed. I provided him with the mystery phone number, and asked him to look into it – his way.
He emailed his findings:
“First I called the number myself. A woman answered with a simple, ‘Hello?’ so I played along and said, ‘This is Ricky.’ She responded, ‘This is Milwaukee.’ When I asked, ‘Did you say Milwaukee?’ she said, ‘Oh. You must be calling for SSW Construction.’”
“She sounded a little strange, so I ran a cursory search on the number. Eventually, it leads here. It’s odd that two of the four links on the site are password protected: only the “Home” and “Contact Us” tabs are active. There’s a Northern California office in Roseville, just outside of Sacramento – nowhere near Wisconsin. Could be nothing….could be everything.”
Okay, a construction company. I felt like I had my feet on the ground enough to call the number atop my cell phone’s incoming calls list, so I dialed it myself. A third woman answered but didn’t say hello; she said, “Milwaukee” and cleared her throat. I blinked, and hung up.
A little while later, a second email from my friend read:
“These are all the people and corporations registered at the same location as SSW Construction’s Southern California address. Just count them! My favorite is that two of them, On-Time Installers and On-Time Satellites, is owned by the same person. Creepy much?”
Law enforcement fronts, maybe; a morning of curious events, definitely. That same day I found the FoxNews.com article that Charlie described. Sure enough, in the second paragraph, there was the word “Inspire” he’d clicked on. I did not follow his lead, but I’ve revisited that article several times, noting many changes to the URL. At one point, all of the links in the article had been deactivated.
What are my takeaways?
In the past when I’ve gotten pulled over for, say, sliding through a stop sign while making a right turn, police have returned to my car with my driver’s license to ask about my criminal history. Once, a Beverly Hills cop pulled me over for going too fast on Sunset Boulevard. When he ran my license, he didn’t return until two additional BHPD cars arrived. I wound up having to prove to them I’d really been to Folsom Prison. It was at their fingertips, but they wanted a story. They cited and released me after 90-minutes. Truth be told; I didn’t hate it or them, but my conversations with police are rarely brief. I don’t do anything that might put me back in a courtroom. For me, that’s where life and time stops. If ever there was a place where questions are asked and answers are already printed out, it’s in a courtroom.
I believe that in this case, law enforcement types hidden behind a carefully constructed public apparatus did, in fact, check me out. It’s no big deal, but here’s why you should take it seriously:
#1 Who cares what SSW is? Welcome to the United States of Suspects. Your neighbors are ready and willing to tell local cops and Federal agents anything and everything they know about you. All the better if they appear on CNN after you’ve been taken away. We’ve been trained to show a little too much pride in the takedown of our neighbors, so you might not want a laugh this one off.
If you don’t want your kids bringing Neo-Centurion Assault Teams to your front door and staying for hours while they size up your station in life, urge them to use common sense on the Internet. Say the following so often they get mad at you:
Don’t look up bomb-making diagrams.
They’ll huff and assure you they aren’t that stupid. So what? Tell ‘em anyway. ‘Cause when curious people think no one’s looking, they usually are that stupid.
Don’t post pictures of your naked ass for the world to see.
If your kids are attention-needy, it’s your fault. Change that right now.
Don’t pick on someone smaller than you with a mouse.
There’s nothing more chicken-shit than substituting mouse clicks for punches. Nothing.
None of us is as dumb as all of us.
Don’t throw tantrums at fast food employees; don’t smash things that doesn’t belong to you; and when something does belong to you, think about it first.
Repeat after me: cameras are everywhere.
YouTube governs Americans with shame more effectively than politicians do with laws. Don’t feed YouTube.
Don’t post anything to YouTube you didn’t first create or script on paper. It’s hard for people to do that without seeking feedback, and what’s feedback, if not counsel?
We live in a world where innocence isn’t enough.
Just in case your kid says, “I was there, but I didn’t do anything.”
Friends don’t let friends get on the news without helping someone or winning something.
Enough said, eh?