Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Apparently Bogus: Homeland Security Visited Student Who Ordered Mao’s “Little Red Book”

From the New Bedford Standard-Times:

. . . an account of a student who had his college library order the official version of Mao’s “Little Red Book” and supposedly got visited by agents from the Department of Homeland Security.
NEW BEDFORD — A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung’s tome on Communism called “The Little Red Book.”

Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library’s interlibrary loan program.

The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand’s class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents’ home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a “watch list,” and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further.

[...]

The student told Professor Pontbriand and Dr. Williams that the Homeland Security agents told him the book was on a “watch list.” They brought the book with them, but did not leave it with the student, the professors said.
If this is true, we are less chilled by it than appalled at the stupidity.

But there are substantial doubts that it is true.

In the first place, the reporter who wrote the story did not talk to the student in question. He claims to know the student’s name, but admits of the student “He has not spoken to The Standard-Times.”

In the second place, it turns out that the library at the University of Massachusetts — Dartmouth doesn’t ask for social security numbers on its Interlibrary Loan Forms. Further, the library insists that it would not routinely allow federal agents to gather this sort of information. It’s true that Federal agents can force libraries to reveal such information, but libraries (and least not the ones in the University of Massachusetts system) don’t volunteer lists of book requests to be checked against some “watch list.”

Which brings us to another problem. According to Jamie Zuieback, a spokesperson for United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (the largest investigative agency in the Office of Homeland Security) there is no such thing as a book “watch list.” She insists that the agency is concerned with “violations of the law” and not with peoples’ “reading habits.”

She does not contest that, if somebody has come to the attention of Federal agents, their reading habits (and much else besides) will be investigated. It’s just not the case that routine book requests are checked against some list.

Further, Zuieback says that, when the story broke, the agency’s office in Boston went through their records to see if some actual investigation was the source of the story, and could find nothing. One important proviso, Zuieback insists, is that without the name of the student (which is being withheld by the reporter who wrote the original story and by the University of Massachusetts), no definitive check is possible.

We also have difficulty believing that DHS agents would bring the book in question with them when they went to talk to the student. What was the point of doing that?

Finally, if DHS agents visit people who have done no more than spend some time abroad, and then order a left-wing book through interlibrary loan (and a left-wing book that has nothing to do with radical Islam, at that), should we not have heard of a lot more cases like this?

This whole story first broke when Aaron Nicodemus, a reporter for the The Standard-Times, called two professors and asked them “to comment on a report that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to spy on as many as 500 people at any given time since 2002 in this country.” One or both of the professors thought the story was relevant and passed it along to the reporter.

Quite obviously, there were ample opportunities for the story to get mangled in transmission, quite aside from the possibility that it was simply a hoax.

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