Two ferry riders sought by FBI last summer were just tourists
They were software consultants in town for a weeklong business conference — not terrorists planning an attack to cripple the country's...
Seattle Times staff reporter
They were software consultants in town for a weeklong business conference — not terrorists planning an attack to cripple the country's largest ferry system.
Last summer, the FBI launched an international search for two men after crew members and riders on a Washington State Ferry reported their unusual behavior — namely that they were taking pictures below deck, in areas that don't hold much interest for most tourists.
A ferry captain snapped their photo, which was passed along to the FBI.
Turns out the men, both citizens of a European Union nation, were captivated by the car-carrying capacity of local ferries.
"Where these gentlemen live, they don't have vehicle ferries. They were fascinated that a ferry could hold that many cars and wanted to show folks back home," FBI Special Agent Robbie Burroughs said Monday.
The FBI's decision to release the photograph to the media last summer was controversial because the men — who were described as Middle Eastern-looking — were not suspected of committing a crime. While law-enforcement officials say they focus on behavior, not ethnicity, local activists say members of the Arab-American community often complain of racial profiling and many are afraid to ride ferries or board planes because of it.
Two weeks ago, the men appeared at a U.S. Embassy and identified themselves as the men in the photo released to the media in August, a couple of weeks after they took a ferry from Seattle to Vashon Island during a business trip, Burroughs said.
They came forward because they worried they'd be arrested if they traveled to the U.S. and so provided proof of their identities, employment and the reason for their July trip to Seattle, according to the FBI. The bureau was able to verify that information but declined to identify the men or the city where the embassy is located, citing privacy concerns.
One of the men recognized himself in the photo sometime in the fall but didn't know what to do, said David Gomez, the FBI's assistant special agent in charge of national-security programs in Seattle. He contacted his friend and they consulted family members involved in law enforcement in their home country. Then they went to the U.S. Embassy, Gomez said.
"We want to put the issue to rest," he said, noting that all along, the FBI only wanted to talk to the men. They aren't in trouble, nor do their names appear on a government watch list or no-fly list, he said.
For someone who rides the ferry every day, taking photos of the car deck is pretty unusual — but not so for "a guy who rides it one time in his life," Gomez said. "Their story makes sense; their story has validity ... . It was perfectly normal once we learned what was going on."
Gomez defended the decision to release the photo to the public after agents became "somewhat stymied" in their investigation into the men's identities.
The Seattle Times initially refrained from publishing the photos in print or online to allow time for additional reporting on the circumstances surrounding the FBI investigation and the photographs. After more reporting, The Times did publish the photos with a story that also covered the controversy.
But Rita Zawaideh criticized the FBI's decision to release the photo — then and now. At the time, Zawaideh, chairwoman of the Seattle-based Arab American Community Coalition, questioned why officials didn't first consult community members, who might have been able to identify the men.
"Everyone yelled at me for telling the FBI off," she said. "We're lucky it came out the way it did."
Had the men been terrorists, the publicity could have forced them to change tactics and targets, creating a risk for another city, she said. Or the men could have been innocent victims had someone spotted them and "decided to take the law into their own hands," she said.
Zawaideh says relationships between the local Arab community and law-enforcement agencies have since improved. Still, at least 30 calls to the coalition's 24-hour hotline are logged each month with complaints of racial profiling, said Zawaideh, who suspects the problem is underreported. The majority involve the treatment of "anyone who looks dark-skinned and foreign" when they ride ferries, board airplanes or cross the U.S.-Canada border, she said.
Aziz Junejo, who hosts a weekly public-access television program and writes a column on Islam for The Seattle Times, said he's heard stories about and even experienced more scrutiny on local ferries, particularly when he's with Muslim women who wear traditional head scarves.
"We kind of get the walk-by a little slower and a little more noticeable than any others on the boat," he said. "It perpetuates fear, especially in Muslim children who are Americans, first and foremost."
A ferries spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Monday.
Coast Guard Cpt. Steve Metruck said none of the agencies that meet monthly to discuss the ferry system's vulnerability to a terrorist attack — including the FBI, Washington State Ferries and the Washington State Patrol — engage in "any profiling of that sort." Threats to the ferry system — which carries 24 million people and 11 million vehicles on 10 routes each year — are constantly monitored, he said.
"We're constantly changing our [security] practices so they can't be predicted," he said. "This work is never done — it's always continuous."
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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