Friday, August 25, 2006

This is the FBI! Did you say dynamite?

An Illinois man's suggestion -- at a public hearing -- that the Army Corps of Engineers blow up a dam brought him a visit from the FBI, who considered him a terrorism suspect.

The NY Times first reported on the bizarre sequence of events on Sunday:
On July 25, Jim Bensman of Alton, Ill., attended a public meeting on the proposed construction of a bypass channel for fish at a dam on the Mississippi River. Less than a week later, he was under investigation by the F.B.I. — the victim, depending on how you look at it, of either a comedy of errors or alarming antiterror zeal.

The meeting was organized by the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains Mississippi River navigation systems, including the Melvin Price Lock and Dam in East Alton, Ill., where it is considering construction of a fish passage.

At the meeting, Mr. Bensman, a coordinator with Heartwood, an environmental organization, suggested the corps simply destroy the dam. It was an idea the corps itself had considered. In fact, a photograph of an exploding dam was included in the corps’ PowerPoint presentation, explosive demolition being by far the most common method of dam removal.

Mr. Bensman said he had long criticized the system of locks and dams as environmentally damaging and an unfair government subsidy benefiting boat traffic over railroads. “I’ve been fighting these things for decades,” he said.

But news accounts of the hearing did not put it quite like that. One newspaper said simply that he “would like to see the dam blown up.”

On July 31, he said, he got a telephone call from someone who identified himself as Matt Federhofer, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation...

When Mr. Bensman learned what the call was about, “it was just kind of disbelief,” he said. “How could anyone be so utterly stupid as to think that was a terrorist threat?” For one thing, he said, it would be ridiculous for a would-be terrorist to announce explosive intentions at a public meeting, much less a meeting sponsored by an arm of the military.

But when the agent said he wanted to visit him at home, Mr. Bensman became frightened. “I was thinking, I need to talk to an attorney,” Mr. Bensman recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, O.K., I will put you down as not cooperating.’ ”

That was when Mr. Bensman got angry. “I know what Bush is doing with all these secret programs spying on the so-called terrorists, all these provisions in the Patriot Act that I think crosses the line, being able to spy on a suspected terrorist without the check and balance of a court or a judge,” he said. “That’s just something that really worries you.”

He said he also remembered that the F.B.I. had a history of spying on civil rights, antiwar and environmental activists. He said one reason he knew his caller was a genuine agent was that he could cite items in Mr. Bensman’s own F.B.I. file.

Mr. Bensman said the agent had told him that someone from the corps had asked the F.B.I. to investigate him. “I was saying, ‘What in the world?’ There is no way anyone in the corps could reasonably think I was a terrorist threat. They know me.”

Kevin Bluhm, the corps official who moderated the meeting, said he doubted the call came from the corps. Though he conceded that Mr. Bensman had long been a thorn in its collective side, “he’s not malicious, oh no,” Mr. Bluhm said. “This was just Jim. He comes to a lot of our meetings, and he is anti a lot of the stuff that we do.”

Mr. Bluhm, who leads the corps’ public communication efforts along the Mississippi, said he could understand why the F.B.I. felt obliged to check Mr. Bensman out, but “if they would have asked me first, I would have said no, there’s not that kind of risk there.”
In a subsequent story, we learn that the reason the FBI got involved was because someone from the Corps of Engineers fingered Bensman. Just following procedure, the Corps says:
A spokesman for the corps district, Alan Dooley, said he believed that the brouhaha was a result of a security officer’s following Army regulations. Mr. Bensman attended a corps hearing on July 25 on alternatives for improving fish movement in the Mississippi River at the Melvin Price Lock and Dam in East Alton, Ill.

Constructing a channel was one proposal. Another, which Mr. Bensman endorses, was removing the dam, an alternative considered by the corps and a project that would normally be accomplished using explosives.

Mr. Dooley said a report in an Alton newspaper, The Telegraph, described Mr. Bensman as advocating that the dam be blown up, which, technically, he did.

Mr. Dooley said that when the district security manager, Kent Hayes, learned of the report, he “looked at Army regulations concerning possible threats to public facilities, and it was his determination that it should be forwarded to the appropriate federal agency, which in this case was the F.B.I.”

Today, the Times editorializes: A (Terror) Fish Story. Sleep soundly. We're on Orange Alert.


At 12:40 PM, Blogger James Wigderson said...

has anyone seen JJ Jimmie Walker lately? Is he doing gigs at Guantanomo?

At 5:39 PM, Blogger Other Side said...

Last I heard he got caught in a wind storm and blew away ... he always was sort of a light weight.


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