Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
When a 20-year-old Arab American named Yasir Afifi took his car in to get an oil change recently, his mechanic found something unusual: an electronic GPS tracking device attached near the right rear wheel. The mechanic removed it and gave it to Afifi.
A couple days later, two people showed up outside his apartment and started to inspect the car, according to Wired.com, which broke this story.
Afifi went out and got in his car and tried to drive away but was soon pulled over by two SUVs with flashing lights.
As Wired reported, one FBI agent identified himself and told Afifi: “We’re here to recover the device you found on your vehicle. It’s federal property. It’s an expensive piece, and we need it right now.”
Afifi gave it to them without incident. He told Wired there’s no reason the FBI should be spying on him since he’s done nothing wrong. Afifi’s attorney, Zahra Billoo, calls the FBI’s actions “outrageous.” Billoo, who is also a staffer with the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, adds: “My initial reaction was puzzlement at how strange it was. The irresponsibility of the FBI about who they’re choosing to track—plus the whole ‘give it back to us, it’s ours’—baffled the mind.” She says this is “an extraordinary case” especially because of Afifi’s courage in challenging it, which she applauds. “Going up against the FBI is frightening,” she says. Billoo puts this latest incident in context. “Our office averages about one new complaint each week about FBI contacts,” she says, noting that the complaints are coming in at a much higher rate than last year. “The FBI will visit individual employers. And that’s really frightening because it’s your livelihood. Or the FBI will go to neighbors and friends and ask about you.” The FBI’s actions in Afifi’s case, she says, “was absolutely unreasonable and unwarranted.” Afifi and Billoo are requesting the assistance of their Representative, Mike Honda, Democrat of California, to get the FBI to come clean on this incident, according to Jeff Stein of the Washington Post. Billoo confirms the outreach to Rep. Honda. “Our country is acting in hysteria, and it makes us all the less safe when you go after people who are innocent like this,” says Billoo, adding that it might make members of the Muslim American community less inclined to cooperate with the FBI. The kicker is that this FBI spying may now be legal, after an August ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That decision said law enforcement officers don’t need a warrant to plant a GPS recording device on your car, even if it’s in your own driveway. So next time you take your car into the shop, you might want your mechanic to take a good, hard look.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his other "McCarthyism Watch" pieces by clicking here.
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