Bob Herbert: Tyranny of Fear

Herbert can be a windbag and a broken record, but today he’s neither. This is a scary column.

The Tyranny of Fear
Published: August 17, 2006

Abdallah Higazy was on the phone from Cairo. ‘To describe it as frustrating would be an understatement,’ he said, ‘because you know you’re telling the truth. And you know the people speaking to you have incorrect information about you.’

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Higazy, the son of a former Egyptian diplomat, was in a room on the 51st floor of the Millenium Hilton Hotel, directly across the street from the World Trade Center. He was a student at the time, having won a scholarship to study computer engineering at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. The Institute of International Education had arranged for him to stay at the hotel while he looked for permanent housing.

Like everyone else, Mr. Higazy fled the hotel after the planes hit the towers. He left behind his passport and other personal items. When he returned to collect his belongings three months later, he was arrested by the F.B.I. A hotel security guard claimed to have found an aviation radio, which could be used to communicate with airborne pilots, in the safe in Mr. Higazy’s room.

‘That’s impossible,’ said Mr. Higazy.

It’s a fact, said the F.B.I.

Mr. Higazy was handcuffed, strip-searched and thrown into prison – as a material witness. No one knew what to charge him with. They just knew they wanted to hold him.

Mr. Higazy was all but overwhelmed with fear. ‘I didn’t sleep that first night,’ he told me. ‘ was shivering, and it wasn’t from the cold.’

Like an accused witch in Salem, Mr. Higazy was dangerously close to being sacrificed on the altar of hysteria. He kept telling authorities he knew nothing about the radio. But the assumption was that he was lying.

As there was no evidence that he had committed a crime, it was considered important that Mr. Higazy confess to something. He said an F.B.I. agent, Michael Templeton, told him during an interview that if he didn’t cooperate, his family in Cairo would be put at the mercy of Egyptian security, which Mr. Templeton would later acknowledge has a reputation for torture. He said the agent also threatened to report that in his ‘expert opinion’ Mr. Higazy was a terrorist.

Fear turned to panic. Mr. Higazy began to search frantically for a story that would satisfy Mr. Templeton. His first few attempts were preposterous. He said he had found the radio outside J&R Music World in lower Manhattan. Then he said he’d stumbled across it on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. The story finally decided upon was that he had stolen the radio from the Egyptian Air Force.

He was charged with lying to federal agents – the lie being his initial claim that the radio wasn’t his. Clueless prosecutors stressed in court that Mr. Higazy should be subject to more than 20 years imprisonment.

A month after Mr. Higazy was arrested, a miracle occurred – in the form of a pilot who strolled into the Millenium Hilton Hotel, looking for his radio. The pilot was an American citizen, and thus believable. He had left the radio in his room on the 50th floor, one flight down from Mr. Higazy’s room. Mr. Higazy had been telling the truth all along.

It turned out that the security guard, Ronald Ferry, had been lying. He hadn’t found the radio in Mr. Higazy’s safe. He had made up that story, hoping to steal a bit part in one of the biggest investigations ever. It seems a co-worker had actually found the radio, on a table somewhere. Mr. Ferry was charged with making false statements to the F.B.I. and sentenced to six months of weekends in prison.

Mr. Higazy filed a lawsuit against Mr. Templeton, claiming he had illegally coerced his confession. But an in-house investigation by the F.B.I. found there was no evidence of wrongdoing, and a federal judge — while acknowledging that the confession had been coerced – threw out the suit.

All the authorities have to do nowadays is claim that a case is linked to terror and they can get away with just about anything. The rule of law is succumbing to the tyranny of fear. (There’s no telling how many Abdallah Higazys have been swept up in the so-called war on terror and imprisoned, or worse.)

Jonathan Abady, a lawyer for Mr. Higazy, said an appeal has been filed on his behalf.

Mr. Higazy, who has since married and is now a teacher in Cairo, told me he is angry with Mr. Ferry and Mr. Templeton, but that he’s not bitter. He offered his thanks to those Americans ‘who stood by me and believed in my innocence.’

The Discussion: 5 Comments

How many Mr. Higazy’s are still in Gitmo or being tortured in a Syrian prison after being rendered by the US?

August 17, 2006 @ 7:19 am | Comment

Too many.

I always want to laugh or hurl whenever I hear Bush go on about “freedom” and wrap himself in the flag, because to me what this Administration has done is profoundly anti-American.

August 17, 2006 @ 10:17 am | Comment

Don’t worry, freedom is on the march?

Texas men arraigned on federal charges in cell phone case


By SARAH KARUSH / Associated Press

A terrorism case that alarmed Michigan residents and led to stepped-up patrols around the Mackinac Bridge turned into a far less sinister-sounding consumer fraud matter Wednesday, as local prosecutors ceded jurisdiction to federal authorities and dropped the terror-related charges.

Tuscola County Prosecutor Mark E. Reene backed off the charges he had filed against three Palestinian-American men from Texas. The men, who were arrested Friday after buying dozens of cell phones at a Wal-Mart store in Caro, had been accused of collecting or providing materials for terrorist acts and surveilling a vulnerable target for terrorist purposes.

Instead, Maruan Muhareb, 18, Adham Othman, 21, and Louai Othman, 23, all of Mesquite, Texas, now face federal charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit fraud by trafficking in counterfeit goods. They were arraigned on the new charges Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Bay City, following a brief hearing in Caro at which a judge dismissed the state charges.

The conspiracy charge is punishable by up to five years in prison. Money laundering carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Magistrate Judge Charles Binder ordered the men held at least until a detention hearing Friday.

Nabih Ayad, an attorney for the accused trio, called the new charges “outrageous.”

“This is a clear indication of racial profiling: picking someone up and holding them for days and trying to find something to charge them with. It’s supposed to be the other way around,” he said.

Ayad accused state and federal officials of “scratching each other’s backs” by shifting jurisdictions.

The federal complaint contains no mention of terrorism. It alleges that the three men defrauded consumers, TracFone Wireless Inc. and Nokia Corp.

Miami, Fla.-based TracFone sells prepaid cellular phones with a limited number of minutes at subsidized prices. It makes money when buyers of those phones purchase additional minutes from the company.

The government alleges the men are part of a scheme to buy up phones that Nokia makes for TracFone and then remove TracFone’s proprietary software, making it possible to use the handsets with any cellular provider.

By altering the phones, they’re no longer genuine Nokia products even though they bear Nokia’s trademark, the government says.

The complaint said TracFone estimates that more than 800,000 of its telephones have been “fraudulently converted.”

People involved in the trade of so-called “unlocked” cell phones maintain that it is legal.

Consumer advocates say locking the phones in the first place is illegal, and there haven’t been any court rulings about the legality of removing the phones’ software.

The money laundering charge stems from the government’s contention that the men used proceeds from their trade in cell phones to buy more cell phones.

Ayad said all the information in the federal complaint came from the defendants’ own statements to the FBI in hours of interviews before they were charged in Tuscola County, about 80 miles north of Detroit.

In a similar case, two Dearborn men who originally were charged with supporting terrorism after buying large numbers of cell phones in Ohio were released from jail Tuesday. Prosecutors dropped the terrorism charges, saying they couldn’t prove a terrorist link. The men still face misdemeanor counts of falsification stemming from allegations that they initially lied to deputies when questioned.

In both cases, local authorities never said what they believed the men intended to do with the phones. But officials gave varied examples of illegal acts that can be committed with cell phones, including using them as detonators and using the batteries to make methamphetamine. Some officials also said TracFones can be used for communication among terrorists because they are harder to trace than other phones.

Supporters of both the Dearborn and the Texas men have said they were targeted because of their Arab ethnicity.

In the case of the Texas men, Tuscola County authorities were alarmed not only by the approximately 1,000 cell phones the government says were in their van, but also by images of the Mackinac Bridge on their digital camera. Those photos led to the surveillance charge. Ayad said they were innocent tourist snapshots of the landmark, a 5-mile-long span linking Michigan’s two peninsulas.

Reene’s statements that the group was targeting the Mackinac Bridge led the U.S. Coast Guard to increase patrols around the bridge last weekend.

But the FBI said Monday there was no imminent threat to the bridge and no information linking the men to known terrorist groups. The head of the Michigan State Police said there was no indication the men were plotting any kind of attack.

Reene said Wednesday that he was “deeply troubled” by the FBI’s statement, which appeared to contradict the charges he filed. He called it “a very peculiar development,” given that the FBI worked with local officials on the case from the beginning.

August 18, 2006 @ 2:36 am | Comment

I am from Michigan and have taken photos of Big Mac. It would be interesting to see the pictures. Are they artsy postcard shots of the bridge spanning the water behind the shore or are they more technical-looking? Are there photos of other natural and human landmarks? Northern Michigan is pretty – lots of forests, huge sanddunes, and rugged coastline. Buying a large number of cell phones is unusual, but if the men haven’t altered or tried to resell them yet, then it seems they haven’t committed a crime. Looks like authorities jumped too quickly on this one.

August 18, 2006 @ 7:05 am | Comment

Rush and Ann will run with the great job the incumbant is doing protecting the motherland, uh, oh, sorry, the homeland – it is so easy to get mixed up these days. Innocent is dangerous these days.


Mr. Herbert, thanks for moving closer to 911, although the lies told to indict Mr. Higazy are nothing compared to the lies used to indict the wrong criminals. Oh, right, no one has been indicted for 911, not even the guy the 911 Commission said did it (Khalid Shaikh Mohammed) who presumably is being tortured in US custody.

And, what sort of argument does one use in court when trying a terrorist who committed suicide?

Let’s see an analysis of the 757 contrails at the pentagon.

Let’s hear what happened to WTC 6 & 7.

The only important lie is the lie told to Americans about what happened on 911. Stop your subscription to that absurd periodical and start a new one; “Mr. Bush, tell us what really happened on 911.”

August 19, 2006 @ 9:11 pm | Comment

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