Hakim Aziz is seldom hesitant about making radical pronouncements, but when two U.S. Secret Service agents showed up at his doorstep at 10:30 on the night of April 7, he was meek as a lamb. He'd just put his two daughters to bed, and his wife looked on as the two agents asked if they could search the house. Aziz says he didn't have much choice.
"They made it plain to me early on that 'because of this ten-year-old bench warrant [for a DWI] that you didn't take care of, we can just haul you in and make you sit until Perry County comes to get you, which may be never,'" the 42-year-old Aziz recalls the agents saying. "I think they pretty much knew that I was going to do whatever it took to keep from being hauled in that night."
Accompanied by three St. Louis cops, the khaki-clad Secret Service agents sifted through Aziz's files and books. Picking up a copy of Muammar Qadhafi's Third Universal Theory, one of the agents asked Aziz if he admired the Libyan strongman.
"I just couldn't believe they were questioning what I felt," says Aziz. "I was still in shock."
The agents also homed in on a videotaped lecture by Louis Farrakhan and Ahmed Rashid's book Taliban.
"The way they were looking, they honestly expected to find something," remembers Aziz, a self-employed St. Louis accountant who converted to Islam roughly a decade ago. "I couldn't believe that."
The Secret Service did not respond to interview requests for this story, but according to Aziz, the agents said they'd decided to visit him after intercepting a particularly bitter e-mail he'd authored the day before.
"I hate that imbecile Bush so much that I would celebrate if the Honorable Sheik bin Laden succeeded in ridding the earth of his filth," wrote Aziz in an ongoing e-mail debate he'd been having with a neighbor. "Did you honestly think the Iraqi people would welcome the Americans after they finished bombing them and then walked down the street? That is just sheer arrogance to think that you can overthrow the government of a sovereign nation and the people will welcome you with open arms and rose petals."
According to Aziz, the agents told him they'd singled out his e-mail because he'd used the words "Bush" and "bin Laden" in the same sentence. It's a fairly Orwellian explanation, hinting at a bevy of federal computers whose sole task is to scrutinize e-mail word placement.
But according to the American Civil Liberties Union's Christopher Calabrese, federal law enforcement really does have that capability. "It's definitely possible for his e-mail to be intercepted," says Calabrese. "But they would have to be looking ahead of time."
In other words, for Secret Service agents to wiretap Aziz's e-mail account, they had to have been tipped off. And according to Calabrese, there are a variety of surveillance programs that might pluck him from obscurity, most notably the new Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (MATRIX).
First developed by the Seisint Corporation in Boca Raton, Florida, MATRIX scours multiple databases looking for so-called information fingerprints. By cross-referencing an individual's various "fingerprints," MATRIX can measure the likelihood that a given person is, or could be, a terrorist.
According to documents recently obtained by the ACLU, Seisint compiled a list of 120,000 people identified as "High Terrorist Factors" (HTF). The company then donated the list to several federal law enforcement agencies, among them the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Secret Service. It is difficult to determine what, if anything, was done with this information, though in a 2003 slide show Seisint claimed its list had led to "several arrests within one week" and "scores of other arrests using the HTF."
Nonetheless, MATRIX alone would be incapable of rifling through e-mails looking for the word "Bush" in close proximity to "bin Laden." For that, the Secret Service would need a warrant to install a tracking device on Aziz's Internet service provider. It is impossible to determine whether the Secret Service has taken any such action: Under the Patriot Act, it is illegal for an institution to inform an individual when a terrorism-related warrant has been executed against that individual.
Still, Aziz's ten-year-old bench warrant and far-leftist politics hardly seem so extraordinary as to attract the government's notice. He says he's never been investigated before, and like most people aware of the episode, Aziz is convinced his neighbor tipped the feds to his e-mail diatribe. He and his pro-war neighbor had been e-mailing back and forth for days. The dispute first erupted on the normally genial "Shaw Talk" listserv, an online forum where neighbors discuss all things neighborly. The opponents quickly took to e-mailing each other directly, a sort of online equivalent of taking it outside.
"I was thinking that I was going to use him to go into the conservative camp to start recruiting votes for John Kerry," says Aziz. "That using the 'Honorable' [bin Laden] was more to get under his skin than anything. He just fried my brain and made me so mad that I had to get back underneath his skin the best way I knew how."
Apparently it worked. After receiving Aziz's e-mail, his neighbor threatened to call the cops if Aziz wrote him again. Although Aziz hasn't written his neighbor since the agents paid a visit, he suspects his fellow Shaw neighborhood resident ratted him out.
Regardless of the Secret Service's reason for visiting Aziz, the agents left after an hour without Aziz or any of his files. "The [men were] just doing [their] job," Aziz says of the agents. "They were completely professional the whole time."