Protection -- or paranoia?

Why is the Secret Service treating harmless professors and pacifist homeless advocates like they're members of al-Qaida?

By Justin Rood
Published August 6, 2004 6:19PM (EDT)

The Secret Service had good reason to be on its guard when President Bush visited Minnesota last month. The state was once home not only to alleged al-Qaida pilot-in-training Zacarias Moussaoui but also to Mohammad Warsame, arrested last winter for supporting al-Qaida with money and training. And Mohammad Kamal Elzahabi, who taught sharpshooting to the wrong side in Afghanistan, hung his hat in (and got a hazmat driver's license from) Minnesota. He's currently being held for allegedly lying to the FBI about shipping radio equipment to Pakistan. Most recently, on July 7, an Iraqi named Ali Mohammed Abboud Almosaleh was arrested in Minneapolis by federal agents after deplaning with videos of Iraqi militia leaders and a note hinting at public suicide; he has pleaded not guilty to charges that he lied to agents about trips to Iraq.

So when President Bush visited Duluth, Minn., for a Bush-Cheney rally on July 13 -- just one week after Almosaleh's arrest -- it wasn't surprising that the Secret Service was on alert. It had even done some homework, identifying three specific men to watch for. Fliers with photos of the men were taped to tables at the Secret Service's security checkpoints at the rally, apparently to aid agents in spotting and stopping the men before they could harm the president.

Who were these three men? Members of an al-Qaida sleeper cell? Iraqi resisters "bringing the fight" to Minnesota? If so, at least two were under very deep cover. One, Joel Sipress, 40, is a University of Wisconsin history professor and Green Party activist. Another, Joel Kilgour, 27, is a pacifist, homeless advocate and member of the 71-year-old Catholic Worker Movement, which is "committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken," according to its Web site. The third man, whom the Secret Service would not identify, remains unknown to the public.

The fliers were spotted by several of the rally's 8,100 attendees, including members of the local press. When Bob Boone, publisher of Duluth's Reader Weekly, a local alternative weekly, walked through the metal detector in the press line to enter the event, he noticed the flier with the three men's photos taped to a table. "My photographer recognized them and said, 'What's Joel's picture doing here?'" Boone recounted. "The Secret Service person said, 'Is he a friend of yours? What's your concern?'" Boone said that as he and the photographer, Wendy Sjoblom, tried to take a picture of the flier, "two Secret Service [agents] wheeled on me and wanted to know what I was doing ... My press pass was sticking conspicuously out. They said it wasn't my concern, to go about my business and leave."

Boone then looked around other security checkpoints for fliers featuring the well-known local activists. He saw some at other tables and tried to take pictures of those, too. "Instantly, two Secret Service [agents] wheeled on me, put their chests in my face and said, 'No pictures are allowed. What are you doing here?' and booted me back into the arena."

Secret Service spokesman Tom Mazur refused to tell me why the agency featured those men's faces on the fliers or what the fliers were for. "We can't speak about our protective intelligence mission," he said in response to all questions. When I pointed out that the questions did not involve the Secret Service's mission but, rather, why these men were considered threats, Mazur repeated his earlier response.

Although the Secret Service may not want to discuss its mission with the press, one would hope it would discuss it with local cops. The local police liaison to the Secret Service for the event was Deputy Chief Jim Wright. And he knows Kilgour quite well. "Joel? He's a good boy," Wright said warmly of the young activist. "He's an incredibly nice person," Wright continued. "He's like my nephew in some ways -- his real uncle is my best friend from high school," Wright explained. Wright said that when he pulled up to the civic center before Bush's rally and saw Joel holding a sign that read "The Poor Can't Eat Your Weapons," "we gave each other a hug." Wright said he didn't know if the Secret Service had coordinated its threat information with the local police or asked for their input. He offered to check, but then said, "If I find out, I probably wouldn't tell you" because it was, as he termed it, "intelligence gathering." He referred all my questions about the fliers to the Secret Service.

If the Secret Service failed to check with the local police before drawing up its Minnesota threat matrix, it's a good bet that it checked local papers. On July 9, the Duluth News Tribune ran a story on local activists planning antiwar demonstrations to coincide with the president's visit. Kilgour and Sipress are two of the three men quoted in the story. (The third man quoted, Eric Lehto, a local union leader, confirmed that he was not the third man pictured on the Secret Service fliers.) The story noted both men's peaceful intentions. The theme of Sipress' rally, it reported, was "Yes to freedom, justice and peace; no to Bush." Kilgour -- whose arrest record for civil disobedience was noted in the story -- was quoted as saying he anticipated a "peaceful demonstration."

The White House did not return calls for comment.

When I asked Bush-Cheney campaign spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt what she could tell me about the fliers, she said, "That's going to be something for the Secret Service. I'm not going to have anything for you on that." Pressed again, she responded, "I'm not going to be able to weigh in on this." But shortly thereafter, Schmitt called back to add that "the campaign works to create an environment where as many people [as possible] can hear the president in a nondisruptive environment."

The unexplained fliers in Duluth are not the latest in a series of strange and unusual actions related to security measures for Bush-Cheney campaign rallies. On July 30, a campaign staffer asked the Arizona Daily Star, reportedly at the behest of the Secret Service, to identify the race of one of its photographers assigned to cover a rally featuring Vice President Cheney. The newspaper declined to provide the information. And in New Mexico last week, a minor brouhaha erupted when the Bush-Cheney campaign insisted that attendees at a rally held at a public school sign an "endorsement" of Bush and Cheney before being allowed entry. The campaign workers running the Duluth Bush-Cheney event didn't ask attendees to sign an endorsement, but according to observers, they did ask those requesting passes whether they supported the GOP ticket.

Civil-liberties experts are obviously concerned about these actions by the Bush-Cheney campaign. If campaign volunteers are used to keep out hecklers and protesters, that's one thing, says Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. But the involvement of the Secret Service, whose primary mission is to protect the life of the president, is another. "If the Secret Service is being used to do political investigations on people who are not physical threats to the president, that is fundamentally wrong and ought not to be tolerated," Samuelson says. He thinks the targeting of Kilgour and Sipress in Duluth is absurd. "These guys aren't dangerous. They might be embarrassing you, but they're not going to do anything." Samuelson opined that presidential assassins are generally "wackos," like John Hinckley, or "lone gunmen," like Lee Harvey Oswald -- but not pacifists. "These are not people who have ever advocated violence or anything. They don't have guns. They're anti all that."

There's an element of paranoia in such incidents that's understandable to Samuelson, however. "The Secret Service, they're worried about Bush," he said. "I would be too, if I was in their shoes. This electorate is divided. It isn't lukewarm," said Samuelson. "It's love-hate."

Justin Rood

Justin Rood writes on issues of intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security.

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