Under Suspicion At The Mall Of America Since Sept. 11, 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. Now NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting have found that, at least in one community, these kinds of programs are entangling ordinary people with the police and FBI.

Under Suspicion At The Mall Of America

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Here's NPR's Daniel Zwerdling.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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.

SIEGEL: 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: 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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