This story got a lot of buzz on the Internets today, as it seemed to suggest that the dragnetting of America’s phone metadata and browsing habits via Prism by NSA might be resulting in young couples with simultaneous interests in new pressure cookers and backpacking were being raided by armed law enforcement.
The blogger in question is Michele Catalano, who some of you may remember from her blog, “A Small Victory,” on which she wrote during the mid-2000s. As the story evolved throughout the day, police released a statement clarifying that it wasn’t NSA’s dragnetting that got her family ensnared but the “see something say something” impulse of an employer on whose computer the above Googling occurred.
Here is Catalano’s account of her experience, which she theorized had something to do with her family’s Googling habits, based on the questioning her husband got. Read the whole thing because she’s a good writer:
What happened was this: At about 9:00 am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. He looked out the window and saw three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving.
Six gentleman in casual clothes emerged from the vehicles and spread out as they walked toward the house, two toward the backyard on one side, two on the other side, two toward the front door.
A million things went through my husband’s head. None of which were right. He walked outside and the men greeted him by flashing badges. He could see they all had guns holstered in their waistbands.
“Are you [name redacted]?” one asked while glancing at a clipboard. He affirmed that was indeed him, and was asked if they could come in. Sure, he said.
They asked if they could search the house, though it turned out to be just a cursory search. They walked around the living room, studied the books on the shelf (nope, no bomb making books, no Anarchist Cookbook), looked at all our pictures, glanced into our bedroom, pet our dogs. They asked if they could go in my son’s bedroom but when my husband said my son was sleeping in there, they let it be.
Meanwhile, they were peppering my husband with questions. Where is he from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked.
They searched the backyard. They walked around the garage, as much as one could walk around a garage strewn with yardworking equipment and various junk. They went back in the house and asked more questions.
Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb? My husband, ever the oppositional kind, asked them if they themselves weren’t curious as to how a pressure cooker bomb works, if they ever looked it up. Two of them admitted they did.
The Suffolk County Police Department, who made the visit to Catalano, later released this statement explaining how her family came to be targeted:
Suffolk County Criminal Intelligence Detectives received a tip from a Bay Shore based computer company regarding suspicious computer searches conducted by a recently released employee. The former employee’s computer searches took place on this employee’s workplace computer. On that computer, the employee searched the terms “pressure cooker bombs” and “backpacks.”
After interviewing the company representatives, Suffolk County Police Detectives visited the subject’s home to ask about the suspicious internet searches. The incident was investigated by Suffolk County Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Detectives and was determined to be non-criminal in nature.
Catalano said the cops cleared out in 45 minutes after a pretty casual, cursory search, but that it left her slightly shaken. I’m glad to hear that there was a step between the Googling and the reporting of the Googling— that Googling directly intercepted by the feds or local terrorism task force was not the impetus for this search. But I’m not sure how to feel about this, also from Catalano’s account.
They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week. And that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing. I don’t know what happens on the other 1% of visits and I’m not sure I want to know what my neighbors are up to.
I’m really glad they’re investigating terrorism leads to keep people safe, and am thankful every time one of these investigations turns up a would-be Tsarnaev. But I also know that armed police inquiries at your door can get pretty out of hand pretty fast. Misunderstandings and bad judgment calls far too often leads to accidental shootings and puppycide. I don’t blame Catalano for feeling taken aback. Six cops in several cars at the porch of your home, looking for you, never exactly feels like a “no harm, no foul” moment. This is what the trade-offs look like, and we have to decide if we’re comfortable with them.