Artist Takes FBI Surveillance a Step Further

After the Sept. 11 attacks, New Jersey artist Hasan Elahi was detained by the FBI and interviewed about every detail of his life. Elahi's latest project lets the FBI — and anyone else who might be interested — track his every move.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Ever feel like you're being watched? Artist Hasan Elahi actually was. He was stopped by the FBI at the Detroit airport on June 19th, 2002, returning from a trip to an art show in Senegal via the Netherlands. The FBI wanted to know where he had been and what he'd been doing. To prove that he was just a working artist, as he said he was, he decided to tell the FBI everything he was doing. Then he began to document his every move, and he's turned the experience into art.

He calls his work "The Orwell Project". On his Web site TrackingTransience.net, you could see exactly where he is and what he's doing. Some of Hasan Elahi's photographs are currently on display in the Civilian Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. That's where we met him. I started by asking if he knew why he first got stopped in the Detroit airport.

Mr. HASAN ELAHI (Artist): I really didn't know why I was being stopped at first, because it was just a pretty bizarre experience because I'm in and out of the country a lot as a working artist. And I just hand my passport over to the guy at - well, back then INS, slides it through, turns completely white, and I thinking, okay. This isn't right. Something's going on. And eventually, he walks me through a rat maze at the Detroit airport, and I end up in an INS detention facility, which was quite unusual given that I'm an American citizen. And I was there for - I mean, it seemed like an eternity, but probably, you know, was five, 10 minutes. And then this man in a suit just walks right up to me, says I expected you to be older.

And I said, you know, you mind explaining, you know, what's going on here? And I think his words were something like you have some explaining to do yourself. He takes me into an interrogation room. He said, all right where were you? I'm flying back Amsterdam. Where were you before that? I was in Germany. Where were you before that? So he's, you know, going through all - retracing, literally, every day. And then, eventually got - out of - literally, out of nowhere, he asks me, where were you September 12th, 2001?

MARTIN: After the September 11th attacks.

Mr. ELAHI: Yes. And I said, I don't know, but I can look it up on my PDA. And so we pulled out my PDA. Ten o'clock meeting with Judith, 11 o'clock went to pay rent at my storage unit. And he said, well, you had a storage unit near the university. And I said, yeah. So what you do you have in it? Winter clothes that I have no use for in Florida, furniture that I can't fit.

And he eventually went on to tell me that they received a report that an Arab man had fled on September 12th that had explosives. And that person would be me. Never mind I'm not Arab. At that point, he said, okay, I have enough information. I'm going to pass this on to the Tampa office. They're the ones that started this investigation. They'll follow up with you. We'll get this straightened out.

MARTIN: Many people - being taken to a holding cell at the airport completely unexpected after having a very long trans-Atlantic flight from an art exhibition - their response would be, I'm getting a lawyer. Don't ask me any more questions. How dare you. I'm an American citizen.

Mr. ELAHI: Your reaction that you describe was exactly my initial reaction. I saw myself doing these things in my head. But you dare not take action on them, and you really distance - you separate yourself from your self, literally. You revert to survival skills.

MARTIN: Being very, very open seemed like the right way to protect yourself.

Mr. ELAHI: Yeah, yeah. Because one wrong answer, and I don't know what would have happened. And I literally spent the next six months of my life justifying every second of my existence, trying to prove to the FBI, look, I'm not a terrorist.

MARTIN: How did you have to prove to the FBI that you were not a terrorist? Did they keep calling you for interviews?

Mr. ELAHI: Yes. I mean, you hear these horrible stories about the FBI just doing all these nasty things to people. And you know what? In my case, I didn't experience any of that, probably because the way I treated them. I was like, okay, what do you want to know? So I kept going back to their offices on a regular basis.

MARTIN: And telling them what?

Mr. ELAHI: Telling them every detail of everything. I had a lecture to do in Indonesia that December. You also have to keep in mind that the Bali bombings were that October. I said, oh, no, I have to go - I have this lecture to go there in Indonesia next month, and I'm really concerned that, you know, a building crashing down or a plane blowing up - that I'll have difficulty getting back into the United States.

MARTIN: And what did they say?

Mr. ELAHI: And they don't really say anything, but they really - they just looked at me and you can see some sincerity that they were really actually concerned. And at that moment, they asked me if I carried a cell phone when I travel. And I said, yeah, but, you know, it doesn't work outside the U.S. But -and their response was well, it works the minute you enter the United States, and I said, yeah. Well, here's some phone numbers. If you get into trouble, give us a call. We'll take care of it.

So ever since then, before I would go anywhere, I'd call my FBI agent and say, hey, I have to go. So where are you going this week? I've got to go to Paris. Okay, what's your flight numbers? Northwest 51 coming into Detroit March 19th. Okay, no problem. Got this taken care of. Not that I had to do this. It's just that I started doing this because I really...

MARTIN: It made you feel you better.

Mr. ELAHI: ...it made me - yes. It made me feel a lot better and a lot safer knowing that the government knows that this is what I'm about to do, so it's not an unexpected move of any kind.

MARTIN: So where did the art project come from?

Mr. ELAHI: After all these happened, psychologically, I didn't even know how to relate to this or even react to it. So I - I started thinking to myself, well, I'm telling the FBI what I'm doing and where I'm doing and everything else. Why should they be the only ones that get to know? Why don't I just start telling other people? And that's exactly what I started doing.

So when I would send that email, there'd be other people copied on that email. It would be like a mass mail of, okay, this is where I am. This is the beach. Almost three years later, there's a ton of data on my Web site of just about every aspect of my life. I mean, you know, you can even see the meal that I just had on the way over here. You can see, you know, the two chili dogs that I ordered.

MARTIN: I see more than I want to see about which bathrooms you use. We see on this wall, pictures of delicious sushi. Looks delicious...

Mr. ELAHI: That's from 7-Eleven.

MARTIN: It's from 7-Eleven?

Mr. ELAHI: Yes. 7-11 Hong Kong.

MARTIN: Okay. I'm bummed. what is this up here? This looks pretty grim right here. Is that a toilet or a bath? What is it?

Mr. ELAHI: Yeah. That's the toilet. That's an old Soviet squatty.

MARTIN: Okay. It's got a place for your feet.

Mr. ELAHI: Yeah. That's at the hotel Laksai(ph) in Bishkek, which is in Kyrgyzstan. Well, actually that's the old name. Now, they renamed the country the Kyrgyz Republic.

MARTIN: I've seen more men's rooms than I care to see. Thank you for that.

Mr. ELAHI: Well, you know... This is the way I look at it. This is my way of trying to recreate my entire FBI file. And, you know, obviously, the government is watching me. But you know what? I can do so much of a better job watching myself than they can ever do.

MARTIN: Do you think that they might be over you now?

Mr. ELAHI: I don't think I'm over them, though. You know, it's like every waking moment, and now they just decide they're going to pack up and go away? They just can't disappear.

MARTIN: Hasan, forgive me for asking this, but there are some people who would say that you are a narcissist at the very least, and that you just like the attention.

Mr. ELAHI: I do have to say this: This attention is what's keeping me out of Guantanamo right now. So it's a pretty good tradeoff. But on the other hand, I do have to make it very clear that this project, when you look at the work online, nowhere do you ever see my face, nowhere do you ever see my name, nowhere do you ever see anything that identifies me. You know, you're looking at my bank statements. You're looking at my phone records. You're looking at my toilets, but yet, you know everything, and yet you know absolutely nothing about me, because I could be anyone.

MARTIN: You really think this is the best way, is to put all your business out in the street?

Mr. ELAHI: For now. I mean, it's not for everybody. At the end of the day, I would like the viewer to look at the work and say this isn't right. Why am I looking at this guy's phone records? Why am I looking at every little thing he's done? Well, because there's certain people that would want that type of information from all of us, and maybe if we start asking these questions at a certain point, we as a collective society will say we've gone too far.

MARTIN: Hasan Elahi, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. ELAHI: Thank you. My pleasure.

MARTIN: For a link to see Hasan Elahi's photographs, you can go to our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore. You can also visit the Civilian Art gallery in Washington, D.C. through June 9th. And oh, the gallery, it's around the corner from FBI headquarters.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead: A former U.S. surgeon general gives a lowdown on why Americans need more frank talk about sex, of all kinds.

Dr. JOYCELYN ELDERS (Former U.S. Surgeon General): Masturbation has never gotten anybody pregnant, never caused anybody to have sexually transmitted disease, and I always say, you know you're having sex with somebody you love.

MARTIN: That's next.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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