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Under Suspicion At The Mall Of America

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Under Suspicion At The Mall Of America

Under Suspicion At The Mall Of America

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Since the attacks of September 11th, the nation's leaders have warned that government can't protect the country on its own. Private businesses and civilians have to do their part, too. Federal officials have been promoting programs like See Something, Say Something, urging popular sites from sports stadiums to shopping malls to report suspicious activity. But NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting have found evidence that suggests in at least one community these programs are entangling ordinary people with the police and the FBI. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has our story.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: One afternoon three years ago, Francis Van Asten got out his new video camera, and he drove to the Mall of America, near Minneapolis, and he started recording. He recorded driving to the mall. He filmed a plane landing at the airport. The runway is right next to the mall. Then, Van Asten strolled inside.


ZWERDLING: There's a whole amusement park under glass.

FRANCIS VAN ASTEN: Spectacular. The Mall of America is the largest single shopping space in the United States, perhaps in the world. Four levels high and it's - oh, my God - it's got to be over a mile around on each one of them. It's huge.

ZWERDLING: At the time, Van Asten was 63 years old. He used to be in the Army. Now, he's a retired engineer. And not long before he went to the mall, he got engaged to a woman he met in Vietnam.

ASTEN: And I thought it'd be really nice to make a nice little video of the Mall of America and some of the shops where I buy things for her and email it to her or something, so she could see what it looks like in America.

ZWERDLING: As Van Asten started filming, he didn't know that the Mall of America has private counterterrorism unit, and they had flagged him as a suspicious person. First, a man stopped Van Asten outside a clothing store.

ASTEN: And he asked me what I was doing. And I said, oh, I'm making a video. And I said, are we allowed to make videos in the Mall of America and take pictures and stuff? He says, oh sure, there's nothing wrong with that. So I turned to start walking away, and then he started asking me questions. Why am I making a video, what am I making a video of and what I did for a living, and he asked me, what's my hobbies?

ZWERDLING: Then, the guard called another member of the mall's security unit. They questioned Van Asten for almost an hour. Then, they called in two policemen.

ASTEN: I hadn't done anything wrong. I wasn't doing anything wrong, according to them even. I asked the policeman why I was being detained. He said, listen, mister, we can do this any way you want: the easy way or the hard way.

ZWERDLING: And then, they took Van Asten to the basement of the Mall of America. We'll get back to his story in a few minutes. But first...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: As someone who works in a store, mall shopping center or market, you have an obligation to help.

ZWERDLING: Since 9/11, the federal government has been encouraging businesses to help spot terrorists.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What can you do? You can recognize and report suspicious behavior in your workplace.

MAUREEN BAUSCH: I think our name first of all, Mall of America, is attractive to people that want to hurt America.

ZWERDLING: That's a vice president of the Mall of America, Maureen Bausch. She says almost 100,000 people visit the mall on a typical day.

BAUSCH: We are definitely the number one attraction in Minnesota, one of the biggest attractions in the United States. So the government officials have asked us always, since 9/11, to be on the watch.

ZWERDLING: The mall formed its counterterrorism unit back during the Bush administration. They showcased it on The Learning Channel on a show called "Mall Cops."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: To the average shopper, Mall of America is two miles of retail. But housed underneath is a secret training facility and home to its elite security force.

ZWERDLING: It's the Risk Assessment and Mitigation unit.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Known as RAM, it's charged with protecting the largest mall in America from possible terror attacks.

ZWERDLING: Maureen Bausch would not tell us in detail how does the RAM unit identify potential terrorists. But NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting asked 29 law enforcement agencies across the country to send us reports about suspicious activities in their areas - from places like amusement parks, baseball stadiums, a train station. We asked under state versions of the Freedom of Information Act. The only officials who sent us documents were in Minnesota. They sent more than 100 reports that the Mall of America sent to law enforcement. One of them is on Francis Van Asten.

ASTEN: Whoa. My goodness.

ZWERDLING: Van Asten hadn't seen this report until we gave it to him. It's 18 pages long. One heading reads suspicious person. Could you just read that word for word?

ASTEN: OK. I was dispatched to level two east regarding a suspicious male filming in the Mall of America. Suspect Van Asten was filming an airplane landing at the Minneapolis International Airport. The filming continued as it entered into the Mall of America.

ZWERDLING: The mall's RAM unit wrote that Van Asten was very suspicious because he kept filming as he walked. They thought he might be mapping an attack. Van Asten says no. He wanted to convey the experience of going to the mall. He keeps reading the RAM unit's report.

ASTEN: Strangely, Van Asten placed his video camera into the right pocket of his leather coat.

ZWERDLING: Van Asten looks up from the page.

ASTEN: A security guy comes up to me. I turn off the webcam. He starts talking to me. I'm thinking I'm not going to be using the camera, I put it in my pocket. What else would I do with it? Put it on top of my hat?

ZWERDLING: The report tells how the officers took Van Asten to a mini police station in the mall's basement. They patted him down. They seized his camera. The police called the government's Joint Terrorism Task Force. And an FBI agent told them: confiscate the memory card in Van Asten's camera.

ASTEN: Why would they do that? That's my property. They can't just erase my property.

ZWERDLING: After two hours, they let Van Asten go. Van Asten will tell you he loves this country. Back when he was in the Army, he worked at a nuclear missile site. But Van Asten says that afternoon at the Mall of America shook him.

ASTEN: When I was finally released, I couldn't find my way to my own car for over a half hour. I sat down in my car, and I cried, and I was shaking like a leaf.

ZWERDLING: The documents from the Mall of America suggest that sometimes the RAM unit gets suspicious about things you'd probably notice, too - like unattended suitcases. But they often report people for seemingly ordinary behavior. For instance, the security unit confronted one man because they thought he was looking at them oddly and walking nervously. It turns out he was looking for a SpongeBob SquarePants watch for his son.


DALE WATSON: I'm not real sure I'd go to the mall. I mean, they might accuse me of being a terrorist.

ZWERDLING: Dale Watson used to run the counterterrorism program at the FBI. We showed him a batch of the mall's suspicious activity reports.

WATSON: Mm-hmm.


ZWERDLING: He read them, then pushed them away.

WATSON: I mean, if somebody is in buying ammonia nitrate out in Pennsylvania, in a rural place, in a rental truck, you know, and the owner's never seen them before, putting it in plastic barrels, I'd say, yeah, that's a suspicious activity that should be reported.

ZWERDLING: But walking nervously through the mall?

WATSON: I would say the value of what I've seen here is absolutely not worth the effort.

ZWERDLING: Yet look what happened when the Mall of America reported Najam Qureshi's father. Qureshi's wife, Huma Yusuf, says she'll never forget that morning in January 2007.

HUMA YUSUF: The doorbell rings. I go answer the door. And there's this guy. This is my badge. I work for the FBI. And, you know, and I was like, really? So I just closed the door and went to my husband, screaming in the shower, trying to get him out. Telling him, you know, there's FBI on the door. And he's like, what?

ZWERDLING: Najam Qureshi was born in Pakistan, but he's been a U.S. citizen since he was a teenager. Today, he manages computer systems at a major company near Minneapolis. He and his family live on a pretty suburban street - big garages, playground sets. Back on that cold morning, Qureshi races to the FBI agents, his hair is still wet.

NAJAM QURESHI: He had a thick file with my name on it. It was about this thick and I asked him what this was about.

ZWERDLING: It turned out that a couple weeks before, Qureshi's father left his cell phone on a table in the Mall of America's food court. He's retired. His family says he's forgetful. When the mall's counterterrorism unit saw the unattended phone, plus somebody else's cooler and stroller nearby, they cordoned off the area.

Qureshi's father wandered back, looking for his phone and the RAM unit interrogated him. What were you doing in the food court? Whom did you meet? The mall's RAM unit reported Qureshi's father to local police and the police alerted the FBI.

That's common. The documents we obtained show that the mall's reports went to state and federal law enforcements in roughly half the cases. And now, an FBI agent was interrogating Qureshi in his home.

QURESHI: He asked me if I knew anybody in Afghanistan and I was kind of like, what? And then he asked me if I had any friends in Pakistan.

ZWERDLING: And did the FBI agent ever say to you, do you know anybody involved in terrorism?

QURESHI: Yes. He said, do you know anybody who would try to hurt the United States government? That's what his words were.

ZWERDLING: And what'd you say?

QURESHI: No. My reaction in my mind was, how dare this guy in my house come and say this?

BAUSCH: You're talking about a handful of people that are complaining out of the 750 million-plus that have been through these doors since 1992.

ZWERDLING: Again, Maureen Bausch, vice president of the Mall of America.

BAUSCH: And we apologize if it caused them any inconvenience. I mean, we really do. Unfortunately, the world has changed. We assume you'd want your family and friends to be safe if they were in the building and we were simply - noticed something that we didn't think was right.

ZWERDLING: The FBI agent showed up at Qureshi's door four years ago and when he left, Qureshi's family assumed the case was closed, but then we showed them the document we got from the Bloomington Police Department. It's an 11 page report about the incident with Qureshi's father still in police files.

QURESHI: I don't know what to say.

ZWERDLING: The mall's report confirms the story that Qureshi told us about his father. He and his wife read an excerpt.

QURESHI: Throughout the interview, Qureshi had a nervous - what is that - demeanor. He seemed to get - what is that?

YUSUF: Agitated.

QURESHI: Agitated at a point when I would ask more detailed question. This is the height of stupidity. It's like - I mean, come on. An elderly man who left his cell phone there. Big deal.

ZWERDLING: Officials at the FBI and Justice Department didn't give us an interview, but a commander with the Bloomington Police told us their force is going to keep these reports from the Mall of America for decades. Each report begins with the words: incident report, suspicious person.

When we told Qureshi, his eyes teared up.

QURESHI: It shattered an image of the U.S. that I had, fundamentally. I don't know. Especially when I saw some of these reports, it's definitely bothersome how small things can just, you know, trickle out that quickly and, all of a sudden, you're labeled. And once you're labeled, you're basically messed up. Right?

SIEGEL: We'll return to our story about the Mall of America in just a moment.




SIEGEL: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And we return now to our story about the Mall of America near Minneapolis.

Its security staff are reporting suspicious persons to the police to help fight terrorism, but NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting have found evidence that suggests they're also informing on innocent people.

Here's NPR's Daniel Zwerdling.

ZWERDLING: Najam Qureshi learned that the FBI might show up at your door if your father forgets his cell phone at the Mall of America.

Robert Walters says he's learned that you can be fired if you say or write the wrong things of the Mall of America. We had just showed Walters the report about him that the mall sent to local police.

What's your reaction to this report?

ROBERT WALTERS: I'm in shock. Oh, my God. You have got to be kidding me. And I think to myself, over this I've lost my job?

ZWERDLING: Walters is 54. He used to greet customers at the mall.

WALTERS: I love people. I love the people that I greeted. I loved the people that I worked with. It was pleasurable.

ZWERDLING: The mall doesn't just report suspicious visitors to the police. They report its own employees, too, like Walters.

He can't prove that the mall fired him because its counterterrorism unit said he was suspicious, but listen to what happened three years ago. As he and his wife Erin tell the story, we're sitting at their dining table.

ERIN WALTERS: The security for the Mall of America pulled him downstairs and he was telling me that there's like a jail down there and...

WALTERS: And they called me into this room. It was kind of intimidating because I had no idea who these people were and they were going to discuss something with me.

ZWERDLING: The report shows that the mall's counterterrorism unit had warned police that Walters belonged to an anarchist group. The group had allegedly conspired to riot during the Republican National Convention. Why did the mall believe Walters was involved? Because one of the mall security officers said that Walters told him while they were chatting at the mall one day.

Walters says, I remember that guy. He loved Rush Limbaugh and I told him I'm proud to be a liberal Democrat. But Walters and his wife say the report is ridiculous.

Is your husband the sort of person who might have smashed windows in protests or...

WALTERS: Absolutely not.

WALTERS: Did they think that I was some kind of a terrorist?

ZWERDLING: The mall security unit cited a second piece of evidence that Walters might be dangerous. Two months earlier, he had left a note at a workstation that called for the, quote, "nuclear obliteration of the tall trash can of Satan," unquote. One of the mall's managers confronted him.

WALTERS: He said, did you write that? And I said, yeah. I wrote it, but are you serious? Who, in their right minds, could take this seriously? It was a trash can that hadn't been emptied for a long time. He said, do you realize this is the Mall of - I said, yes. But come on.

ZWERDLING: Walters and his wife say he lost his job soon after that meeting, but the mall didn't tell him why.

Executives at the mall wouldn't talk with us about Walters or any other suspicious people, but a spokeswoman wrote us that the mall has never fired an employee as a result of their political activities or their encounter with the security unit.

Is this whole system of reporting and analyzing suspicious activities like the ones for the Mall of America - is it working?

JOHN COHEN: Yes. It's definitely working and these reports have made a difference.

ZWERDLING: John Cohen helps run the counterterrorism programs at the Department of Homeland Security.

COHEN: One recent example is the case of Faisal Shahzad, the Time Square bomber, where a suspicious activity report helped lead to the identification of the individual who tried to commit the Times Square bombing.

ZWERDLING: But that was somebody walking along the street. What about these suspicious activity reports from places like the mall? Have those helped track down terrorists?

COHEN: I'm not getting into specific cases because, you know, some of that information is obviously classified. There have been literally hundreds of terrorism investigations that have been opened and concluded as a result of those activities.

ZWERDLING: But ask other specialists in fighting terrorism.

Has the Mall of America or any other suspicious activity reporting system caught a potential terrorist?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Not that I know of. Not that I know of.

ZWERDLING: Juliette Kayyem says maybe she didn't hear about Cohen's success stories. Kayyem was an assistant secretary of Homeland Security until last year. She says, in theory, it's a great idea to get businesses to report suspicious activities, but she says, in the real world, the guards who do the reporting often need more training.

KAYYEM: From these reports, these are security officials who appear to be simply approaching people for very innocuous seeming behavior.

WATSON: What I think people have done in a rush to try to get involved in the war on terrorism is that - well, we need to collect everything and we need to report everything.

ZWERDLING: That's Dale Watson again, the former chief of counterterrorism at the FBI.

WATSON: What the biggest fear is is you clog up the system. I mean, it's just overwhelming.

COHEN: It's still a work in progress. It still needs to mature.

ZWERDLING: Back at the Department of Homeland Security, John Cohen says they realize they have to do more training with everyone from private security to federal agents.

COHEN: So that they are given the education and guidance so that they know how to deal with that information appropriately.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Welcome, Madam Secretary.

ZWERDLING: When the Secretary of Homeland Security talks about programs to report suspicious activities, she often makes this point. Here is Janet Napolitano.

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO: And I think it's important to say it again: the importance of protecting privacy, civil rights and civil liberties.

ZWERDLING: Dale Watson and Juliette Kayyem say, what about those suspicious activity reports from the Mall of America, like the one about Francis Van Asten and how the mall's counterterrorism unit called the police, the police called the FBI, the FBI ordered them to erase the videos Van Asten took for his fiance?

KAYYEM: The deleting of the guy's film and video camera that he just wanted to send back to his family in Vietnam is, I think, truly egregious.

ZWERDLING: Over the decades, court decisions have spelled out detailed rules. When can a policeman search you, detain you? Watson says programs like the Mall of America's might push the country in the wrong direction.

WATSON: The heck with the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Okay? So if I'm driving down the street and I'm a police officer, if I want to stop you, I'll just stop you. Or if I see you wearing a red coat, maybe I think you're a Communist in the old Communist days and so I'll take you to jail and hold you for 24 hours. That is not what we are.

ZWERDLING: Tell that to Robert Walters. He wrote the note about Satan's trash can and now there's an 11 page report about him in law enforcement files. The report shows that his case has gone from the Mall of America to the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center, which links local and state police to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Subject of the report, quote: "possible criminal activities by Walters," unquote.

WALTERS: Me? Me, a suspect? If they can respond this way to me, they can respond to literally every single American in the same way.

ZWERDLING: Walters and his wife say he's still looking for a job.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Our story was co-reported by NPR's Margot Williams and by G.W. Schultz and Andrew Becker of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The series continues this evening on PBS's "NewsHour."


SIEGEL: This is NPR News.

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