By Jeffrey Denning
Call it irony. While my colleague, P. Jeffrey Black, and I were on the phone with the Washington Times techie department creating this Aviation Security weblog today, I received a call on my other phone line from the Department of Homeland Security (which I didn’t answer). Not five minutes later, Mr. Black received a call on his other phone line from “U.S. Government” (which he didn’t answer either).
It wouldn’t have seemed so strange or ironic, except for the fact that something very revolting and disturbing happened to me a couple weeks ago involving a phone call from our federal government, specifically, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
I hadn’t been home a week from serving a year in Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserves when I received that phone call from TSA Criminal Investigator Greg Neiderer. After welcoming me home and telling me he was a “criminal investigator” from TSA internal affairs office, he got down to business. Our conversation went something like this:
“I’m calling regarding an email you forwarded in March.”
My heart dropped and my tone immediately changed — mostly to mute. There was a long pause as I searched what I might have sent.
I had written numerous times on my personal blog about the Federal Air Marshal Service and the TSA a couple times and I forwarded the links to friends, but I was careful not to reveal anything which would help terrorists, criminals or kooks attack vulnerabilities in aviation security. After all, my greatest desire is to help America and to keep Americans safe. It’s in my blood.
Special Agent Neiderer continued, “The email you forwarded was from someone looking for current or former air marshals willing to speak to CNN. What we want to know is who sent you that email.”
Pause. Gulp. Double Gulp.
“Ah…um…” Do I need a lawyer? I thought silently.
I’m sure I didn’t leave my home phone number on my email. This government agent had done a thorough-enough background check on me. He knew when he called my wife looking for me, prior to my coming home, that I was in Iraq. She told me he made her feel uncomfortable when he chuckled about my being overseas and eluded to the fact that he knew I was there. Something just wasn’t right, she explained to me afterwards. And, it made her feel uneasy.
When you learn that a man from the federal government calls your wife, scared and home all alone while you are in Iraq, acting like he’s a personal friend of yours and then laughs when she tells him you’re off fighting in a war, that makes you a little mad. I had never heard of him before in my life.
Special Agent Neiderer knew I had left the Federal Air Marshal Service more than a year previously — on good terms, I might add. From my personal Yahoo email account, he learned enough about me to call me at home the moment I came back from Iraq. Now, my duffel bags still sitting by the door, unpacked, he was calling me and conducting an official, seemingly all-important investigation.
Surely, there was more to this so-called investigation than trying to track down some nameless person who was looking for current or former air marshals willing to speak with CNN. The government wouldn’t be that wasteful with hard-earned tax-payer money … or would they?
I reiterated what he asked me. “So, you’re saying I forwarded an email to a couple people and that the content of the message was requesting any current or former air marshals willing to speak with CNN?”
“Is that it?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
If you haven’t experienced it before, when a government agent calls you at home with probing questions about your personal email communication, a lot of upsetting and disturbing feelings erupt. Personally, I was scared out of my mind. I felt vulnerable. I felt like a victim of voyeurism — were all of my personal and private conversations being monitored by the government? Was every personal and private phone and email conversation I had with my wife while I was in Iraq being spied upon?
“Am I in any trouble?” I questioned, knowing I couldn’t have possibly been.
“No,” he said. But what would happen if I failed to cooperate? Would that be considered obstruction of justice?
I was beginning to get angry.
“I left the Federal Air Marshal Service early last year.”
“I know,” he said. He seemed to know a little too much about me. What else did he know? Probably everything. Didn’t he know he was chasing the wrong guy? There are a thousand things the TSA can do to improve its operations, and yet our government tax-payer money is being spent on an investigation of this nature? Absurd, isn’t it?
“Well, I send a lot of emails…” The last one about media I recall sending was one from Audrey Hudson, the homeland security reporter for the Washington Times.
I took down Special Agent Neiderer’s name and phone number and got back to spending time with my family. But it left an awful pit in my stomach. Is my freedom of speech really being impeded? Will I get hassled, harassed and investigated for speaking to members of the media? Is my Constitutional guarantee against unlawful search and seizure being usurped since my personal email conversations are being monitored and reviewed?
Shoot, I’m a red-blooded American patriot. I’ve taken numerous oaths to protect the Constitution against all enemies foreign … and domestic. Having lived in a war zone for the last year, I’ve learned more than ever how sacred and special the freedoms are that I enjoy as an American.