Five California men who say they came under police scrutiny for innocent behavior sued the Obama administration Thursday over an information-sharing program designed by the federal government to help flag potential terrorist activity in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The men, including an accountant and a photographer of public art, say law enforcement produced “suspicious activity reports” on them even though they had done nothing wrong. The reports were then disseminated in national counterterrorism databases and prompted the FBI in some cases to make house visits, run background checks or open up files on them, the men allege.
One plaintiff, an accountant of Egyptian descent, said a “suspicious-activity report” was filed about him after he tried to make a bulk computer purchase for work from Best Buy. Another man, a biotech industry worker of Pakistani descent, says he aroused suspicion simply while waiting for his mother — who was wearing a hijab, a formal head covering — outside a train station bathroom.
A third plaintiff, 86-year-old James Prigoff, said he was visited at his California home by a member of a joint-terrorism task force months after trying to photograph a piece of public art in Boston on a natural-gas storage tank.
“Given my age, I lived through the McCarthy era, so I know how false accusations, surveillance and keeping files on innocent people can destroy their careers and lives,” Prigoff said in a statement.
The lawsuit filed in San Francisco challenges the legality of the federally designed Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative — a joint effort of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and local and state law enforcement that was launched after the 9/11 attacks to facilitate the sharing of information among agencies across the country.