Case closed: How human rights activists are targeted
By Mazin Qumsiyeh
On Feb 19, 2001 I received a threatening email from someone linked to the Jewish Defense League, a US designated terrorist organization. I immediately contacted the FBI internet fraud office and they took the information and forwarded it to the local FBI office. Since then, I have been subjected to a series of threats, email spamming, forgeries, and once even an interrogation that was justified by what the government acknowledged is a forged message we alerted them to a year before. The incredible experiences of these three and a half years are summarized here because they say a lot about civil liberties, rule of law, and the evolving nature of the relationship between US citizen and an evolving state power post 9/11.
When someone is subjected to unfair treatment, the first question to answer is “why me.” My background include growing-up in Beit Sahour under Israeli occupation as did millions of other Palestinians. The number of Palestinian in America is not high. I came to the US in 1979 and became a US permanent resident in 1989 and a US citizen in 1994. Like most Palestinians, my family includes members in various countries (exiles, refugees etc.) and members who still remain under Israeli occupation. My family is Palestinian Christian and we have traditionally had many Jewish and Muslim close friends. My home-town is well known for its mixed population and emphasis on non-violence as a way to resolve conflict. For example, the first Palestinian uprising (Intifada, 1987-1993) included many forms of resistance, but Beit Sahour became well known for its "tax revolt" (refusal to pay taxes to the occupation army) as the main method of resistance. Currently, it is the center of training and organizing for Palestinian led non-violent resistance including the International Solidarity Movement.
I could not remain politically silent when my taxes and those of fellow Americans (to the tune of $5 billion per year) was sent to support Israeli colonization and oppression of the native Palestinians. I was also interested in other areas like civil rights of Arabs and Muslims in America, Columbia, Iraq, and social justice in inner cities. My own forms of peace and justice activism have been in writing articles, sending out releases and information from human rights organizations, and responding to false information with facts and figures from independent sources. I was also involved in teach-ins, public and private dialogues with those holding different views, lectures, seminars, panels, vigils, protests, and letter writing campaigns. The goals of these activities has been to advance peace with justice for all people by non-violent strategies. All the circle of people involved in these activities with us (Jews, Christian, Muslim, other) regardless of their political persuasions abhor violence and especially condemn the killing of innocent civilians (whether Israeli, Palestinian, or other).
Since Feb 2001, I have repeatedly communicated with the local FBI office in New Haven on the hate male and threatening emails and phone calls received. I also spoke to Yale police twice on these issues. If there was ever a serious investigation, I have no idea since authorities never briefed me n any investigation or outcome.
After the horrific events of 9/11/01, the situation got worse for me and many other human rights activists (including Jewish activists). Letters that I or other human rights advocates published in newspapers were strongly attacked using in some cases calling us liars, "apologists for terror", "anti-semites," "self-hating Jews", "extremist", "un-American" etc. My name among others surfaced on several Zionist Web sites as someone who is advocating positions at variance with Israeli government positions. Some of the sites went on to make the absurd and slanderous claims that we are "anti-Semitic" or "hateful" or "support terrorism" etc. Sites ranged from mainstream Zionist sites like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL.org see under "hate") to the Connecticut Jewish Ledger (where I was slandered as an "Apologist for terror), to the American Jewish Committee (AJC.org , see under activism in Connecticut), to rabid Zionists with Jewish Defense League mentality like Masada2000.org (see HYPERLINK "http://www.masada2000.org/Qumsiyeh.html" http://www.masada2000.org/Qumsiyeh.html where they had an action alert that included my picture and contact info to the chairman).
On June 4th, 2002 a hacker sent an email to thousands on the internet with a forged "from" field showing falsely that it came from my Yale email account (falsely appearing to come from me). This email was generated through an insecure server in Taiwan (dehwa.com.tw). As soon as I discovered this (due to hundreds of bounced messages "returned" to me for incorrect addresses of recipients flooding my email inbox), I contacted the administrator of that server and alerted them about the use of their site for spamming/hacking. The same day, emails were sent to many in Yale using forged messages. The forger took a message I had posted to a private list and added to it my academic affiliation and then sent it to, what later investigation by Yale ITS shows to be, over 1500 Yale email addresses (including deans, chairman, and even the president).
The same technique was used spamming tens of thousands with messages that appear falsely to come from dozens of other activists. Some of the activists were Jewish (who obviously oppose Israeli policies) and the messages disseminated had things like "I am a really sick $%$%". Some included deceptive subject lines and some included articles that supposedly buttress the Israeli government position.
The most disturbing message came with a forged “from” field (Sami, a Palestinian American Lawyer in California). The forged letter basically stated that he and we support terrorism and that terrorists can contact any of us for legal and financial support. I and Sami and others spoke to the FBI offices about the danger of this forged letter in July 2002. Analysis by spamcop and as acknolwledged by the FBI this was a forged message and did not originate from Sami. It was obviously intended to harm us. I naively thought the FBI would track the person who sent it and set an example for someone who is disrupting business causing harm and also wasting government resources investigating/harassing those not involved in terrorism. The latter is precisely one of the aims of such forgeries. Again, little was heard other than the cliché of “we are looking into it.” But a more disturbing situation developed for me personally as I was questioned twice upon rentry into the US.
The first questioning was two months after the forged email incident explained above. I was invited to speak at the University of Toronto by two student groups. On my way back to the US and on 9/21/02 I was detained at the Toronto Airport and questioned for nearly two hours by US customs agents (it is interesting that such questioning occurs on Canadian soil). The questioning ceased only after I really got angry and spoke to a supervisor. I was handed a “complaint” brochure if I needed to get information. I decided not to pursue it because I assumed this was part of the routine increased screenings especially of Arab Americans and th eplane was delayed so it was merely an inconvenience. This was not to happen the second time.
The second time I left the country was to visit with my terminally ill father in Palestine. The Israeli army insisted that an American Passport when carried by a Palestinian is worthless and that I would have to go back to Jordan and hget Jordanian travel documents for Palestinains. I was delayed in entering the West Bank by two days. I went into the West Bank finally on Tuesday and my father died Sunday. I was grateful to have spent five days with him. The flight from Amman to New York on October 8, 2003 was uneventful until the plane started its descent to NY. The pilot made the unusual announcement that all passengers must show travel documents upon exit from the airplane.
Standing at the door were two uniformed Bureau of Immigration and Customs (BICS) agents checking passports and also two uniformed plice officers. As soon as my passport was shown to them, the four asked me to accompany them. When my wife identified herself asking what is this about, she was asked to join us. We went through a degrading search throughout which I kept asking for the agents to tell us why they are doing this. They refused to answer the question. Again they gave me a brochure about who to write to. This time, I was not going to let this drop so I immediately wrote a strongly worded letter of complaint and mailed to the address provided. Three weeks passed by and then I received a letter saying they received my letter and will respond to it (giving me a name of a person and a phone number, a Mr. Stephen Plitman). When I heard nothing four weeks later, I called Mr. Plitman. He said that I should receive a letter from his boss soon (a Ms. Gloria Marshall). The letter responding to my inquiry of October 9 was finally received December 22 (and it was signed by Mr. Plitman for Ms Marshall). It was a lengthy letter about their bureaucracy structure and new regulations etc. Only one sentence was relevant and it did not answer my question. It said “With respect to your particular situation, we are pleased to report that appropriate action has been taken so that you will no longer be subjected to automatic special attention.” Since it did not answer my questions about why I was targeted, I called Plitman again. He said he was not at liberty to answeer my questions. When I pressed him he mentioned two crucial pieces of information: a) that this had something to do with an email received, and b) that he cannot tell me anything except under Freedom of Information Act (FIA) request. So based on his instructions, I sent a letter January 2, 2004 asking for the same information and now invoking the FIA. I received a response After I called in Mid February asking what is happening, I received a response dated February 23rd, 2004. It said that to do this I have to fill an attached form! This time the letter was signed by Gerold Crowley on behalf of Ms. Marshal. I dutifully filled the latest form and sent it in. I received the reply March 29th (this time signed by Ms. Marshal herself). It included pages from the “investigation” with a lot of blacked out information.
Here is the relevant part:
“On July 30, 2002 an unsolicited e-mail message was received on an ATT Word net account containing terrorist propaganda, sent from (xblacked outx). The email listed the senders and 18 contact names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. The message stated that these contacts would provide financial, legal and or logistical support to fight the U.S. or Israel…. The findings indicate that hackers may have appropriated or “spoofed” (xblockedx)’s e-mail address and identity and sent the email in (xblockedx)’s name in an attempt to solicit harassemnet for (xblockedx) and those individuals listed in the e-mail. The case is closed”
This investigation was closed in 2002, the year I Mr Mashni and I dealt with the FBI about this threatening letter to which they now used as an excuse to humiliate and search me at two airports in 2003. Note also that the case is “closed” without them bothering to investigate the actual origin of the letter while acknowledging its intent to do harm.
In the days to follow the closing of this investigation with the note above that I aquired through the FOI, I and many activists continued to be harassed with unsolicited, forged, spoofed, and threatening emails. In total, three forged messages were sent to Yale staff and faculty until we developed a system to block it. Dozens more were sent to thousands of activists around the US each appearing to come from me or from some other human rights activist (forged from field).
I supplied the FBI with a steady stream of information about these attacks and even tips from fellow activists and computer experts, material I deemed useful to their investigation. On June 18, 2002 a computer expert and friend forwarded to me and to the FBI agent in charge an analysis of origins of some of the forged emails. He even provided a list of the victims of the forged emails. He indicated that he has no time to pursue this as it is very time consuming task and requires authorization to get into the hardwares used as relays and open systems that allow spamming and forgery.
One computer expert wrote: “It has been my experience that most incidents of cyber crimes are perpetrated by people who are not associated with any organized country or agency… the main offenders are cyber rogues, cowards, and hate merchants. …I commend you for wanting to get hard evidence to catch your tormenters, and encourage you to continue pursuing your cause.” Another with a history of civil rights legal work and an expert on history of US agencies like the FBI had a different opinion telling me that it is likely that the FBI where the ones who initiate such Trojan horses and forgeries. This provides them with a legal loop-hole to carry on investigations and control of civil and human rights groups (similar to what was done in the 1950s and 1960s). I am personally not sure which of these two scenarios are the real one. It is however interesting that there was promised investigation from the New Haven FBI. Now nearly 3 years later, there has not been any reports, as far as I know any arrests, nor do I have any knowledge of what the investigation has accomplished (if it was done at all). Over this period, I continued to send many (nearly 20) communications to the FBI about further spamming, hacking, and forged messages. Not once have they indicated to me that they have followed up on any of these or on the leads provided by computer experts.
I also continued to contact any institutions I found being used for such cyberterrorism and asking them to secure their servers.
In May 2003, Daniel Pipes wrote an article titled “Professors who hate America” including me and Prof. Noam Chomsky of MIT. This was published in a number of newspapers from the Jerusalem Post to the New York Post. I received dozens of hate mails in response to this defamatory article.
I and many of the human rights activists of all faiths will not allow such attacks to achieve their goals to intimidate, confuse, terrorize, and silence our right to free speech. My contract at Yale is ending in December and I was informed will not be renewed. I will continue to speak out for human rights and justice.
It is disturbing that our own government is willing to open investigation only as far as using such to harass innocent people. The irony of opening an investigation based on our own request into a forged message being used as an excuse to harass us in our travels is striking, Shirking its responsibility to investigate crimes if the victims are Arab is reminiscent of our government’s amnesia when it comes to Israeli state terrorism against Palestinians. While every single human rights organization clearly stated that Israeli ooccupation forces target civilians, the US administration (Democrat or Republican), under strong Israeli lobby, keep parroting the non-sense about how the native Palestinians need to stop the violence against a brutal colonial occupation. Congressman Paul Findley wrote a book two decades ago titled “They Dare to Speak Out” in which he listed many examples of Americans daring to speak out against the disastrous US foreign policy in the Middle East. In it he sites many examples with people who came under attack for daring to speak out.
Who now dares to speak out? Surprisingly many millions around the US. Few are in government though, a gvernment that has been hijacked and in which dissent is sometimes punished. But those punished do not go away and some do come back stronger. It is heartening to hear that Cynthia McKinney is likely to return to Congress after she was targeted by this Israeli lobby and the Zionist movement in the US. It was nice to see people like Congressman Kucinich and Senator Byrd speak out in no uncertain terms about the danger of what is happening at the highest levels of our government. Despite an organized smear campaign, the Green Party and Ralph Nader are staning up for Palestinian human rights, We need more brave people and groups speaking truth to power. It is the only way America can reclaim the respect of the World squandered because of US support of ethnic cleansing and occupation in Palestine and Iraq. The millions who spoke in the streets (mostly ignored by an embedded media), will not go away and will not take no for an answer. As one sign at one of those prtotests said: This is what Democracy Looks Like.