Ever lose three hours while being detained by Secret Service agents when, instead, you were supposed to be covering the events leading up to one of the most crucial presidential debates in history? I did.
It all started on Oct. 15 at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, at the last of the three 2008 presidential debates, where the Long Island Press staff had gleefully plotted a different coverage approach: blogging—live—from a half dozen reporters, spread out across the campus. From protests outside the debate hall to proposals made public by candidates Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), we made sure we would cover all angles possible on this clear, warm fall day.
That morning, like kids on Christmas Eve, everyone reported difficulty sleeping the night before, but our adrenaline was carrying us. At some point in the early-morning hustle to get to Hofstra, I made what would prove to be an ironic comment to a fellow reporter: that I’d love to get up close and personal with one of the “spooks”—slang for covert federal agents—today. Little did I know I’d be a lot closer and way more personal with the G-men than I had ever imagined. They say that sometimes, the story finds you. But I never dreamed that the story would find me sitting in an
I should have foreseen a weird day when my fellow staff writer, April Jimenez, was stopped at the metal detector for having pepper spray. She had forgotten to take it off her key ring, and it was confiscated, which seemed pretty lenient. But that, along with the peppy little bomb-sniffing Jack Russell terrier, seemed to poke holes in the attempts at security.
Regardless, the day was a welcome opportunity for this small pack of local journalists to take on national coverage, and with this enormously significant event coming to town, along with its media circus, we knew we needed to get credentialed early to prevent any access issues. This was one story we were not going to miss, and there would be no annoying security snags, no matter what.
Or so we thought.
Once we made it through the metal detector checkpoint just after 9 a.m., the cushy bus shuttled us a half mile from the nearby Mitchel Field Athletic Complex parking lot, past several police checkpoints, to the sprawling campus. Walking off the bus, taking in our new surroundings, it felt surreal, but we soon got down to the work of finding the stories that
the 3,300 other reporters would neglect—or, at least, we tried, until the candidates’ protectors had a change in plans for me.
We were among the first media to arrive at the gymnasiumturned-press-HQ at the David Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex, which was mostly empty except for the cluster of New York State Troopers guarding the door. Next to me was a Fox News reporter doing a radio broadcast from his view of “Spin Alley,” the large open area in front of the press pool where microphones and cameras swooped in to interview high-profile politicians. The sparse pre-noon crowd consisted of janitors, security personnel and a few members of the national press that I would otherwise never have rubbed elbows with.
My foray into the belly of Big Brother began innocently enough that afternoon. I was stationed in the cavernous press center—where a steady trickle of reporters were lined up at cafeteria-style work stations—writing my second story that day, a few observations from a walk around campus after lunch. You couldn’t swing a political banner without hitting a cop, and leaving the convention center grounds meant passing through tougher security than that of an airport terminal, so I was fresh off of my second metal detector search of the day. I was quite confident that there was nothing to worry about. I’d even begun to take solace in the idea that there was a place for me in all this. The campus-turned-media hot spot was welcoming, even comforting.
On to my groundbreaking reporting.
I was halfway through my story when a very official-looking IT guy, clipboard in hand, ambled up to me and said that some of the press pool journalists were experiencing difficulties with wireless Internet connections. He asked to see my computer to make sure it was OK. He tinkered a little and I thought nothing of it. After looking up my Mac address identifying a computer on a network, he said that everything was fine. Yup, all systems were a go. Thanks, Mr. IT guy.
I had just stuck my nose back in my laptop when a Secret Service agent shoved his badge in my face. He and his partner closed me in on both sides and told me to gather my things, including my laptop, and come with them.
So, security was more than met the eye. Mr. IT guy had lied: There was something wrong with my connection after all.
Now, I have nothing to hide. I’m not a terrorist, and the only times I’m involved in dissent is when I cover or research protests for stories—except for that one time in college when I was car-less and then-Nassau County Executive Tom Gulotta proposed bus service cuts.
I don’t belong to any subversive political organization, unless you count writing for an alternative newsweekly that aims to stick a thumb in the eye of the government every chance we get. And I certainly am not a physical threat to any presidential candidates.
But when you find yourself held in an improvised interrogation room being interviewed by agents for one of the nation’s top intelligence agencies, it makes even the most nonthreatening individuals secondguess themselves. I ran through a laundry list of “offenses” I could have accidentally committed, made a mental note to apologize to my neighbor for what I had done to her rose bush, and still came up relatively clean.
The agents escorted me to the back of the gym past a line of officers giving me the knowing eye, then led me upstairs to a row of coaches’ offices, our impromptu accommodations. Seated in the 10-foot by-10-foot tan room that was devoid of paperwork or other signs of use, I shifted uneasily on a plastic-cushioned wooden chair. Time grew longer and the room slowly began to feel smaller.
As the room closed in, I thought harder. Maybe while Googling some conspiracy theorist’s claim, I had clicked on some website that tagged me as a domestic terrorist. Or maybe some spam e-mailed to me got past the filter and a hacker had control of my computer. Perhaps I was a little too forthcoming in a rant on one of my personal blogs. But there was only one way of finding out what had made me a candidate for a sit-down with the two clean-cut, dark-suited men: Wait and see where this line of questioning goes.
The funny part was, the day before, while gamblers worldwide were betting on famed Australian psychic Blossom Goodchild’s prediction that extraterrestrials would land on Earth on Oct. 14, I joked to my office mates that looking up such info online would come back to haunt me. “Man, the Secret Service is so going to ban me from the debates for reading all this alien news online,” I teased. We had a good laugh.
But now, I was sitting with two investigators, one who could easily be Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy for Halloween, and the other a taller, younger guy with a square jaw. Neither identified themselves by name. The mustachioed Levy lookalike hooked up his gadgets to my laptop and began the electronic search from behind the desk while his partner sat next to me and asked basic questions. I was starring in the scenario I’ve seen hundreds of times on TV cop shows. How did this happen?
The questions went on: Where do I work? Who’s here with me today? What is the focus of my coverage? And just what
the heck is the Long Island Press, anyway? After I told the 5-minute version of my life story, the agent doing the questioning explained why I was being asked to give them permission to search my computer.
And to think, just two weeks prior, I had been in a heated debate with some graduate students on the ethics, when
homeland security is cited, of librarians asked by FBI agents with no warrant to turn over a public computer. “Tell them to come back with a warrant. It’s not like it’s that hard to get,” I had answered. Those theoretical situations are a lot less intimidating than actually being questioned by federal agents.
For the record, since I have nothing to hide, I signed the damned thing. I’ve covered the police beat long enough to know my rights, and I knew that cooperation was the best policy. No need to make myself a martyr without a cause.
It was about 3:15 p.m. when our little chat began. Things were picking up in the convention center as show time approached, and my editors were getting antsy. The boss wanted more frequent blog posts. I believed that there was no reason I should be more than 20 minutes with the agents. I just figured I’d sign the waiver, get the search over with and go back to the business of reporting the pre-debate festivities.
As Agent Mustache explained, there were some “volatile” Wi-Fi signals coming from my computer. I’m not remotely tech savvy, but as they explained, my laptop’s “digital fingerprint” had tracked them to me. They said they wanted to check my machine to see if there was something that I had installed to bring down the debates, or determine if my computer was simply the victim of hackers and an ineffective virus scanner. Say what?
But that would take some time. First, they were more interested in me and my known associates. We talked more about the generic details of the boring, paperworkfilled life of a weekly newspaper writer. Then in walked Bill and Erica, more Secret Service agents, who joined us to see just how this diabolical suburban reporter—likely the most local member of the media in attendance—planned to overthrow the government, or whatever they thought I might be up to.
What political organizations do I belong to? Am I politically active? How do I feel about the candidates? Who am I voting for? My head was spinning.
Federal investigators asked me directly who I was voting for—how disturbing. I thought those little curtains at the polling places were there for a reason.
No, I’ve never worked on a campaign, nor contributed money to or volunteered for a political campaign, I said. When filling out forms, I click the “other” box for my political party, I told them. The only reason I checked a box on my voter registration is so I could vote in the primaries, I said. And I still don’t know who will get my vote—something that, even had I made up my mind, I would not tell this audience. So I went with the standard reply for those who challenge my journalistic ethics.
“I’m undecided. It’s a tragic flaw of trying to maintain objectivity as a reporter,” I told Erica, the pretty blonde tasked with the politically pointed questions. “Me too,” she said. Odd, I pegged this room to be a bunch of McCain supporters.
Of most interest to them were my instant messages, especially those to my friend Dave, a former Press colleague who is now a graphic designer in Manhattan. His less-than-flattering comments about vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin and his asking if I would meet the candidates raised eyebrows for the investigators. It seemed the comments were easier for the Secret Service to investigate than finding who had screamed “Kill Him!” in reference to Obama at a recent Palin rally.
On the subject of Dave’s dumb Palin joke, I thought better of citing the First Amendment, as no threat had been made
and I really wanted to get this finished and return to work without making the now-more-than-hour-long-interview-turned interrogation last longer than it needed to. God forbid that I would have exercised my rights—told them to screw off, asked if I were under arrest and if so, told them to get me my lawyer—I probably would have been watching the debates for the first time on DVR sometime next weekend, with luck. Or, at the very least, I would be reporting the debates watching TV at the nearest pub.
So I uncomfortably explained that my friend and I think Sarah Palin jokes are funny, along with millions of Americans
who made Saturday Night Live top viewing again, but that this is just a harmless occupational diversion. We meant no ill will toward Alaska’s top hockey mom, I explained. I searched for some humanity or agreement. The four suits stared back at me.
Again and again and again we went over the same facts. My newspaper is a local weekly. I graduated from Queens College. I live in Bay Shore. Dave is a friend and no, he isn’t here today. I’m clueless when it comes to technology.
Name, rank, serial number.
Now we were getting into even more spicy territory. Bill, the eldest, who looked like he had lost a few nights’ sleep over the top secret national security threat alerts weighing on his mind, took things to the next level. Apparently the only locally based agent, he started out friendly, acting as though we might already know one another. Then he directed the questions toward any potential instability in my mental health.
Cue the bright lamp and the dark, smoky room. Nope, I’m not suicidal, but thanks for asking. And no, I don’t take
psychiatric medication, nor am I in any way mentally ill.
At one point, one agent joked that it drives him crazy always having voices in his ear, but it’s when you take the earpiece out and still hear them that there’s a problem. That must have been his standard mood-lightening setup. “You don’t hear voices, do you?” he asked. No, I don’t suffer from auditory hallucinations, the telltale symptom of a paranoid schizophrenic.
After the agents held several sidebars amongst themselves, our small talk being interrupted by pagers, they told me to stop text messaging my co-worker, who was wondering where the hell I was. Then there was even more uncomfortable chitchat and we sat in the tiny room some more. At least they never turned off the surf-rock station on my AOL radio player, confessing to be fans. It was all the more amusing when the James Bond theme song came on.
But there were only so many times they could repeat questions. Going on hour number two, bring on more small talk. Even though there were far more important things for these guys to be doing, we were stuck with each other and had to pass the time somehow.
We discovered that one agent liked mountain biking, as I do. I offered some tips on a new bike and expressed regret
about getting so lazy. He wasn’t interested, though, as he’s more of a swimmer. So we moved on to marvel at the trophies of the Hofstra women’s soccer team, there in the coach’s office.
Ultimately, the interrogation became a federally funded meeting with the likely smartest and best paid unofficial members of the Geek Squad produced by the federal government. Finally confident that I wasn’t criminally insane and wouldn’t hack the next president’s computer or worse, these forensic computer investigators explained how to rid my computer of the “key loggers” embedded in it (that my spyware somehow never found) and how to secure my home Wi-Fi access from potential hackers.
They suggested I save my files to a flash drive and reinstall my computer’s operating system. Oh, and no more unsecured networks. But they were not the Geek Squad. They were not going to take the malware off my computer.
Eventually, we ran out of small talk. And when I got bored and turned the interview around, they weren’t answering
my questions: Who else was detained? How often do you detain reporters at debates? When do the candidates arrive, anyway? The circumlocution flowed not only from the candidates and their spinmeisters, it seemed.
So we sat in silence, the surf rock tuned out while the investigators wound down the hard drive search. The search was never actually completed, they conceded, but no one wanted to wait until midnight for it to finish, and other reporters’ equipment had set off red flags as well. They had more potentially dangerous, seditious news folks to interrogate.
Finally, at about 6:30 p.m., after sunset, I was set free—a little fish in the big pond once more. The press room was filled with the busy sounds of the biggest newsroom I’ve ever laid eyes on, as the journalists traveling with the candidates typed and chattered away. The candidates had arrived, I noted. But the fact that I made it back again was even more surprising to the Spanish-language TV channel Univision’s news crew seated next to me, who had witnessed my detention.
Surely, they figured, I had a one-way ticket to Gitmo by now. But before letting me go, the agents gave me a warning, forbidding me from using the Wi-Fi access my company had shelled out $200 for that day. If another red flag is raised and I’m found to be at the keyboard, “there’s going to be more questions,” the Levy-lookalike said. Great, so much for all those interactive Web features we had planned, I thought.
My editor was not surprised at all. Three theories had surfaced while my phone was turned off and calls went to voicemail: I had a hot scoop and didn’t want to be bothered; I’d overindulged in the free beer at the Anheuser-Busch-sponsored dining tent and wandered off drunk (in that case, I was about to get fired); or I had been detained by the feds. At least I was living up to their suspicions.
Thankfully, these Men in Black didn’t use their memory-erasing device on me, so I landed my original story after all: a firsthand look at the inner workings of just how tight security at the presidential debates really is. It was not quite as big as getting a word in with one of the candidates, or finding something suspicious in Joe the Plumber’s trashcan, but I’ll take it.
As I finished writing this, the debates finally got under way on the HDTVs before us. I realized that just to my right stood two Secret Service agents—coincidence, or was I under close watch? Well, no one can blame me for being a little paranoid.