By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: Have you heard the story about the FBI agent and the blogger?
An FBI agent calls a blogger at home about an article the blogger posted on a website. The agent asks if he can meet the blogger in person to talk about the article he wrote about the “Black Lives Matter” protests. It seems the FBI thinks the blogger can be of help and wants him and members of his community to think of the federal investigative agency as a valuable resource.
Sounds like a tall tale? It’s not. It’s a true story. It happened to Jama Abdirahman, a 22-year-old college student and recent graduate of the Seattle Globalist’s youth reporter apprenticeship program.
Last month, Abdirahman wrote a story for the Globalist about women in the Black Lives Matter movement. The article apparently caught the interest of the agents at the FBI’s Seattle office. On August 27, Abdirahman returned to his Seattle home and was told by his 16-year-old brother that two FBI agents came to the house looking for him. Abdirahman recalled he initially thought his brother was joking. Then he got a phone call.
In an article he wrote Sept. 8 for the Globalist about the incident, Abdirahman said the man on the phone said he was from the FBI.
“We visited your house, and you weren’t there,” the man told him, adding that he got Abdirahman’s cell phone number from his younger brother. He then said he wanted to question him about the article.
By now, Abdirahman said his mind was racing. Was he being persecuted because he was a Muslim? His family came to Seattle as refugees from Somalia in the 1990s. Abdirahman was born in America but he knew firsthand of stories about FBI agents showing up unexpectedly at mosques questioning members of the Muslim community.
“I’ve heard of these things happening,” Abdirahman told Sarah Stuteville, a reporter for the Globalist, who wrote about the incident. “There would be FBI agents at mosques just trying to find out, ‘What these Muslims are up to.’”
Did some of the more provocative stories he wrote lead the FBI to suspect he was some sort of terrorist or terrorist sympathizer, he wondered.
In addition to his apprenticeship at the Globalist, Abdirahman, an aspiring filmmaker, photographer and student at Seattle Central College, also writes a blog called “People of Seattle Central” and wants to write stories that would expose corrupt government officials and to use his voice to tell the stories of marginalized groups.
In the back of his mind, he said, he always thought the FBI would come knocking on his door some day.
“A lot of young journalists of color already feel terrified to write about issues that matter to them as is,” he said. “They fear being deported, being put on a no-fly list or even jailed. They shouldn’t feel intimidated for wanting to speak their minds. I want aspiring journalists to feel empowered and know that they have rights, and that no FBI official should be able to censor them or intimidate them from using their voices.”
He believed it was only a matter of time before “they would try to censor me.”
But the FBI says its intentions have been misconstrued by Abdirahman, the Muslim community and the press.
Frank Harrill, an agent who works out of the FBI Spokane office told the Globalist there was nothing sinister about the agency’s visit to Abdirahman’s house that day. He said the FBI wanted to be a resource to help members of vulnerable communities and offer protection against hate crime, adding that unannounced home visits are part of FBI protocol.
Gaining the trust of minority communities is “an essential component of how we do our job and how we serve our community,” Harrill said, explaining that outreach helps build relationships and isn’t a power play meant to intimidate or coerce people.
“Our intent is not to cause fear, and to the extent that that is done, we’ll look at different ways to do the work that we do,” Harrill said, acknowledging that there is room for ‘process improvement.’
Here’s one idea: Don’t show up, unannounced, at ordinary citizens’ front doors to chat about community affairs. And the FBI shouldn’t be speaking to children or teenagers, like Abdirahman’s brother, without an adult’s permission.
Abdirahman did the right thing. Before speaking with the FBI he contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and got a pro-bono lawyer to go with him to the meeting.
Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of CAIR Washington, said these sorts of visits to members of the Muslim community aren’t uncommon. Agents have made surprise visits to Muslims at their home and jobs, or contacted them by phone. It may be protocol and legally admissible but Bukhari sees it as a pattern of profiling.
Abdirahman believes race, ethnicity and religion were underlying factors in his case. He said FBI agents made it clear they wanted to talk about his article, not about problems in the community. He wonders if the FBI was looking at him as a possible informant, or thought they could get him to answer questions about the people he featured in his Black Lives Matter article.
It wouldn’t be the first time the FBI questioned a journalist about a story or tried to get the media to cooperate in the name of national security.
In the 1970s, Earl Caldwell, a New York Times reporter and former colleague of mine who documented the Black Panthers from the inside, was approached by the FBI and asked to become an informant.
When he refused, Caldwell was ordered to appear before a federal grand jury to disclose confidential information about his sources in the Black Panther Party.
The Times took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled for Caldwell in 1972 on First Amendment grounds. He would not have to testfy.
Why should young journalists like Abdirahman believe some 43 years later that they can take the FBI at its word?
Abdirahman had every right to question federal authority. If the FBI wants the American people’s trust, it must be more open and transparent, must allow journalists to do their jobs without interference and instruct field agents to work every day to build community relationships rather than show up and make demands when they need something.
Then, and only then, will journalists like Abdirahman feel more at ease when the FBI comes knocking at the door.