Modern-Day Revenge

Mad at someone? Turn him in as a terrorist:

A man in Sweden who was angry with his daughter’s husband has been charged with libel for telling the FBI that the son-in-law had links to al-Qaeda, Swedish media reported on Friday.

The man, who admitted sending the email, said he did not think the US authorities would stupid enough to believe him.

The 40-year-old son-in-law and his wife were in the process of divorcing when the husband had to travel to the United States for business.

The wife didn’t want him to travel since she was sick and wanted him to help care for their children, regional daily Sydsvenska Dagbladet said without disclosing the couple’s names.

When the husband refused to stay home, his father-in-law wrote an email to the FBI saying the son-in-law had links to al-Qaeda in Sweden and that he was travelling to the US to meet his contacts.

He provided information on the flight number and date of arrival in the US.

The son-in-law was arrested upon landing in Florida. He was placed in handcuffs, interrogated and placed in a cell for 11 hours before being put on a flight back to Europe, the paper said.

EDITED TO ADD (11/6): Businesses do this too:

In May 2005 Jet’s application for a licence to fly to America was held up after a firm based in Maryland, also called Jet Airways, accused Mr Goyal’s company of being a money-laundering outfit for al-Qaeda. Mr Goyal says some of his local competitors were behind the claim, which was later withdrawn.

Posted on November 6, 2007 at 6:41 AM98 Comments


Grant Gould November 6, 2007 7:20 AM

The man, who admitted sending the email, said he did not think the US authorities would stupid enough to believe him.

So, someone here hasn’t been paying attention lately, has he?

Bob November 6, 2007 7:23 AM

So. He’s a foreigner. The rights we no longer have as Americans thanks to our lusterless leader never did apply to foreigners. Non issue. Why should we care about foreigners and what they think of us. Ain’t that right Heir President? Good for that father in-law anyway. He worked just as our Republican leadership does – he abused and manipulated the system to get his way at the expense of others. I bet he’s getting hired by some American political campaign as we sit. What inititive. What bravado.

J. Robertson November 6, 2007 7:24 AM

Awesome trick. That’s denial of service at its best: next time one of your competitors goes to the US, make up a similar story and Mixmaster it to the FBI.

It just dawned on me that you can actually DOS a country, I’m enlightened 🙂

Schmecurity November 6, 2007 7:37 AM

Neat idea for border control: claim that the entire population of Mexico has ties to Al Qaeda! I’m sure that’ll close the border off for good in no time at all!

tim November 6, 2007 7:52 AM

“When the husband refused to stay home, his father-in-law wrote an email to the FBI saying the son-in-law had links to al-Qaeda in Sweden and that he was travelling to the US to meet his contacts.”

Contacts? You would think that the FBI would want to have the guy followed versus just arresting him once he stepped off the plane. Then again – little of what our friends in the DHS do these days make little sense.

Terry Cloth November 6, 2007 8:33 AM

Only eleven hours in the slammer? The FBI must have actually been awake, and trying to get to the bottom of it all.

It’s interesting (read: depressing) that they checked closely enough to to let him out of jail, but not well enough to let him into the country.

Dale November 6, 2007 8:34 AM

Fortunately the son-in-law was blond and blue eyed, otherwise he would have been taking a different, more secret trip…

Thom November 6, 2007 8:42 AM

I agree that many of our nations reactions have been drastically over done, and perhaps the reaction here were excessive. I’ll be the first to shake my head in shame and disgust. However, in this case, it would have been irresponsible to have ignored it completely, unless were saying Sweden is incapable of producing criminals, terrorists, and beanie-baby smugglers.

Would we be criticizing them if the father-in-law had reported that the husband was smuggling hash?

People call in all sorts of tips on a regular basis. A majority are junk, but enough of them pan out that its generally considered a valuable system.

Qian Wang November 6, 2007 8:42 AM

This may seem bad, but history has seen far worse. During the Cultural Revolution in China, there were instances of kids who, while being mad at their parents, reported them to the authorities as counter-revolutionaries. Many parents were imprisoned and/or tortured and some committed suicide. With any accusation we instinctively believe there must be a grain of truth in it. Depending on the prevailing political climate, that grain can become pretty big indeed.

Nicola November 6, 2007 8:59 AM

@ Qian Wang:

did it really happen (in China)? I ask this because this sort of “whistleblowing” children-parents is present in Orwell’s 1984 (a father tells Winston his little daughter informed the thought-police about what he was telling during sleep).
It would be funny in it wasn’t…

Bruce November 6, 2007 9:19 AM

This trick used to be done by saying the person was an international drug dealer. I don’t have a reference of it actually being used, but I do know a number of people who have joked about doing it in the past.

Seriously November 6, 2007 9:35 AM

Why is it so obvious that nobody from Sweden could be a terrorist that the FBI would be stupid to pay attention? And if they are all above reproach due to their nationality, why would anyone question a Swede’s word?

Tobias November 6, 2007 9:46 AM

The thing that is acutally upsetting is that the FBI did belive an email. An email sent from someone they didn’t know. Haven’t made contact with before and was unable to check his credits.

When this did happen they took an action as Bruce described just a couple of days back CYA. They better do something!

And that is to put the person in jail based on information that is not confirmed in any moment at all.

And as someone ment, he was out of jail in 11hours, but not let inside the country. So will he ever be able to go to States again?

Martin November 6, 2007 10:10 AM

The original swedish article says that he was thoroughly interrogated and then handcuffed and brought to a cell “covered with excrement and blood”. The article doesn’t actually say that he was confined to the cell for 11 hours, but rather that he was put on a returning flight after that time. Afterwards the father-in-law put the blame on american authorities and the FBI for the paranoid response. “The authorities can’t be so damn stupid that they believe anything. But apparently they do.”, he reportedly said.

After the preliminary investigation the charges became more serious and the prosecutor regarded the father-in-law’s actions to be “intended to afflict serious damage”. I guess this also says something about what kind of response the prosecutor thinks one could likely expect from american authorities.

The victim suspected his father-in-law but “never thought he would be so stupid as to send a mail from his home computer”. But the swedish security police found out that that was exactly what he had done by tracing the IP address and brought him in for interrogation after which he finally confessed.

Andrew November 6, 2007 10:35 AM

So if I believed that Bruce Schneier has links to al-Qaeda, and told our three letter friends, would that deprive us of the pleasure of reading his blog?

John R Campbell November 6, 2007 10:38 AM


Realize that denunciation in such an environment– i.e. one with limited or non-existent checks and balances– is going to stick. The French Revolution was good that way, too.

It is really boosted when a supralegal entity can be used to harass people. Look at DYFS/CFS/whatnot in each state, for instance, and how just the accusation of sexual abuse will destroy a family, all because it is based on accusations.

I’ve been through the mill from the end where my wife’s ex-in-laws called in DYFS w/ anonymous tips which basically set the state on us… with checks and balances against having the system abused.

Me too November 6, 2007 10:39 AM

Way to go Bob!

Poor guy was lucky to spent 11 hours in jail vs. ending up at Guantanamo or some “undisclosed location” …

FP November 6, 2007 10:40 AM

Some people in the 50s found themselves out of friends and out of a job after being labeled communist sympathisers. Think of the Hollywood Blacklist: So this stunt isn’t exactly new, not even in the US.

@Thom: sure, credible tips should be investigated. Ironically, the father in-law’s failure to cover his tracks might have increased the tip’s credibility over one coming from an anonymous source.

The frustrating outcome is that, after the investigation, after being proven innocent of the crimes he was accused of, the man was still denied entry into the US, and because of that he is not eligible for visaless entry into the US in the future. The Visa Waiver Program asks, “have you ever been denied entry into the US?”

It will be interesting to follow this story, and to see how many problems this man will face when attempting to travel in the future. Will his record be purged from all databases? Will he end up on European Do Not Fly lists?

Arturo Quirantes November 6, 2007 10:55 AM

Back in the 16th century, Francoise Viete cracked some of the ciphers of Spain. Spanish king Philip II then called in the Inquisition and claimed that Viete had links to the devil because only sorcery would allow him to crack his ciphers. At least, so goes the legend. it´s included in Kahn´s Codebreakers, among others, as an example of just kow naive and dumb the spaniards were.

However, Spain´s intelligence service was as good as anybody else´s and the king himself was quite aware of the value of good crypto and the dangers of cryptanalysis (in fact, one of his first measures when he came to power was to change spanish official ciphers). So why did Philip cried “sorcery”? I always though it was to put Viete into trouble. He was off-limits to him, so denouncing him for sorcery was, well, like turning someone in to DHS for accusations of terrorism. it´s false, but will get you into lots of trouble.

And voila, here´s a XXI-century example. Nothing new under the sun…

John November 6, 2007 11:17 AM

Take the following scenario: A whistleblower reports to the FBI that someone he knows has ties to al Queda is traveling to the US. He gives the flight information, which proves accurate. The FBI says “we’re not stupid enough to fall for this.” The individual in question then blows himself up in a shopping mall, killing many innocent people.

All you know-it-alls here would be the first to submit blog posts ad nauseum about how the US were tipped off and didn’t act. Didn’t “connect the dots.”

Must make you feel really smart: sit back after something happens, then say what should have been done. Even though, if you had a grain of intellectual honesty, you would admit that if you had to make a decision before all the post-event information was known, you may have done the same thing.

But it’s more fun to sit back and act like a genius, and take cheap shots at people you don’t like, isn’t it?

Jared November 6, 2007 11:26 AM

Wasn’t “T Kennedy” one of the names on the no-fly list for a while? A rough estimation comes back with several thousand American citizens with that name, including the senator. And for what? When the false positives consist of 99.99% of all hits, the process generating them is less than worthless.

Anyway, apparently the FBI is as gullible and credulous as it is vicious and paranoid. This could be a great deal of fun. All you need is a guaranteed anonymous email route and you can sic the FBI on anyone you like. Or don’t like, rather. I’m thinking a webmail account accessed through one or two anonymizers outside the country. Your boss, landlord, wacky uncle, friends that owe you money, you name it, the FBI will deliver.

Flo November 6, 2007 11:30 AM

@John What about a “we’re not stupid enough to handcuff and place someone in a cell for 11 fscking hours only because we received an email” policy ?

Either that, or you buy enlargment pills and fake watches every time you receive a spam… your local UPS guy must hate you 😉

John November 6, 2007 11:34 AM

Flo, that is a foolish rebuttal. Spam is well known to be a sham. When intelligence officials receive a report from someone’s father in law, of all people, that includes accurate information of someone entering the country, and then says it is a terrorist, do you expect them to do nothing?

They didn’t send him to guantanamo. He wasn’t waterboarded. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been sent on a flight home, but on the other hand those who sent him would be the ones having to explain to people such as yourself after the fact why they let him into the country in the face of such information.

Think, Flo. You’re smarter than that.

Anonymous November 6, 2007 11:35 AM

@ John

Your comments make sense only in a scenario where the only possible options are “detain, interrogate and then deport,” and “ignore completely.”

Please don’t be so intentionally obtuse. There are a number of ways that the FBI could have handled the situation (such as having the man followed) that would have allowed them to act on the information, without making unverified tips all-powerful. (If the FBI is so routinely incapable of tracing an individual that this cannot be considered workable, we have bigger problems.) At the least, they could have let him go on about his business once they determined that the tip they’d been given was bogus. If your whistleblower can’t be bothered to supply any more damning information that his own secret knowledge, and the individual in question is otherwise clean (remember innocent until proven guilty), what more can one expect?

And your accusations of hypocrisy are both unfounded (you can allegedly read, so name names) and moronic. Some of us understand the risks that come in living in a free society. I can’t speak for everyone here, but it’s pretty clear that most of us don’t expect perfection – just honest, intelligent, and good-faith efforts to combat the problem.

Jared November 6, 2007 11:36 AM

Dear FBI,

I know for a fact that the indivdual using a pseudonym by the name of “John” is planning on hijacking an airplane. I don’t know where he’s hiding out right now, but I’m sure you can track his IP logs from his postings on Bruce Schneier’s blog. He is a dangerous man who hates America and needs to be arrested.

Now John, by your own reasoning, you should have absolutely no cause for complaint when the feds kick in your door and haul you away based on nothing more than some vague, anonymous tip from a complete nobody. Better safe than sorry, right?

Jim November 6, 2007 11:41 AM

I think it is appropriate to respond to information. But, the response has to be metered based on the quality of the information and a basic respect for human rights. This of course requires that people think before they act – perhaps a tall order in our current state of affairs. I see three major issues here.

  1. There are ass holes in the world – the proof is in the pudding here. No accounting or controlling that (except identify them publicly and hope that evolution will breed them out of existence).
  2. Back before 9.11 we constantly heard that there was a lack of qualified people willing to become police officers in this country. Well, since September 2001 we have greatly expanded our police services. So, we all of the sudden have more qualified people or we have a lot of unqualified people carrying guns and badges in this country. From first hand experience I believe the latter rather than the former.
  3. No matter how good you are, mistakes will happen. The key is to atone for those errors. If we are to be the bastion of freedom and the shining example for those who worship and desire freedom, then we must set the example. You should not punish the innocent. Cuffing, interrogating, jailing and deporting someone on hearsay is a violation of the basic principals on which this country was founded. Yes, he was a foreign national, but that’s all the more reason. It is actions like this that inspire, otherwise supportive or neutral, people to bash us or worse.

There are so many levels at which this situation could have been handled better and it is just one in a countless number of situations that occur on a daily basis (specifically related the culture of fear which has been cultivated nationwide).

If we do not make them known, discuss them and take appropriate action they will consume us.

That is why I am here.

Viva La Liberté!

FNORD November 6, 2007 11:45 AM

@John: Given that the tip said that he was here to “meet his contacts” locking him up is the dumbest possible thing to do.
If they had him tailed, they would not only avoid locking up an innocent man if the tip were false, they would gain valuable intelligence on other Al-Qaeda if it were true.

The tip doesn’t even mention “blowing up a shopping mall” or similar actual terrorist activities. And, if he’s under surveillance, there’s a fair chance that any terrorism he tries to do will be detected and prevented anyway.

So, no, I can say in all honesty that I would not have acted in that way.

ARM November 6, 2007 11:55 AM

Okay, people. Let’s not get crazy now. While I think that John’s basic point – that we confidently armchair quarterback, while expecting perfection from law enforcement – is bogus, it should be kept in perspective. Not having seen the father-in-law’s e-mail, I can’t say that he didn’t include enough information to make the FBI realistically think that “Sven Doe” was up to something shady, and on a timetable that precluded a more thorough investigation before moving for detention. So it may have been perfectly legitimate for them to nab him. It’s what happened after that, that I have a problem with.

He should have been released, with apologies, and allowed to conduct his business in the United States. John’s scenario doesn’t provide any justification for the deportation of apparently innocent people outside of the fact that everyone was, at some time, a first time offender. Thus, just because they haven’t done anything in the past doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to do anything as soon as you release them. But that’s true of anyone. John’s broader point, that we’re all so afraid of terrorism that we should be willing to let go of such notions as “innocent until proven guilty,” sells us all short, but it can be addressed intelligently.

John November 6, 2007 12:04 PM

@ARM: Thank you for that. The “blowing up a shopping mall” scenariou was intentionally overblown, with the purpose of illustrating that if something were to have happened, that the email that many seem to think the FBI should have known wasn’t true would be used as proof they didn’t do enough before hand.

I admit the FBI may have overreacted. But like you said, we have not seen the email, and we do not know what information the FBI had. I’m just asking others to consider that the FBI had things to consider that we don’t know.

I do not think we should let go of innocent until proven guilty, and if that was the broader point I implied, it wasn’t intentional. Like you said, I’m asking for perspective.

John November 6, 2007 12:06 PM

@Jared: You’re not my father in law, you don’t have accurate flight itinerary, and you aren’t making sense.

John November 6, 2007 12:08 PM

@Anonymous: It was supposed to be overblown. I don’t think the FBI handled it properly, but I also don’t think we have enough information to condemn them as moronic, as you so readily condemn my opinion as moronic.

Jay November 6, 2007 12:38 PM

Someone suggested you could do this to your competitors. Probably it has already been done.

The Indian airline Jet Airways was accused of laundering money for al-Qaeda, apparently as a tactic by a competitors to prevent it getting a licence to fly to the US.

Similarly, kids know if they really want to get a teacher, just accuse them of making sexual advances.

Becuase of that, in the UK some teaching unions advise their members never to talk alone with a pupil.

A climate of hysteria is open to manipulation in this way.

havvok November 6, 2007 12:41 PM

Perhaps the FBI/DHS has taken to deporting people after “questioning” because their techniques for “questioning” have the undesirable side-effect of convincing people that launching an attack is a reasonable course of action?

Anonymous November 6, 2007 12:41 PM

1) Did the FBI deport him before or after finding out that the father in-law lied?

2) In situations like this, can you/do you get a refund for your expenses (plane ticket, hotel bills)?


ARM November 6, 2007 12:46 PM

@ John

You should read your own writing more carefully. In the admittedly overblown shopping mall scenario you outlined, with the information you said that the authorities had on hand – accurate flight information – the only way they could have prevented the bombing would be to presume the traveler was guilty of something, despite a lack of evidence. Therefore, for the readers of Schneier on Security to then “submit blog posts ad nauseum about how the US were tipped off and didn’t act,” would require us to presume that they had enough information to support an arrest or deportation. Remember, all you’ve given us is some random whistleblower who claims that he has personal knowledge of the traveler’s al-Queda membership, and is able to provide accurate flight information. Your stoolie didn’t even mention the shopping mall plot, or any other planned overt act. There aren’t enough dots to be connected. You could never make a conspiracy charge stick with that, or even get a prosecutor to take one to trial. It’s illegal to belong to al-Queda, but that still doesn’t give one grounds to deport someone without any concrete evidence of membership.

Hence, my assertion that you believe that we, as readers of this blog, are so frightened of terrorism that we no longer believe that verifiable evidence of guilt is required before action is taken.

John November 6, 2007 12:55 PM


You’re right. I did come across in a way that was not intended. Sometimes how one sounds in their own head is not how they come across in text.

I do stand by my point that we don’t know enough. I seriously doubt the people at the FBI are dumb.

Insofar as my shopping mall scenario, you sort of make my point, even though I don’t think it is how I came across. You’re absolutely correct that the email wasn’t enough to connect the dots–but people after the fact will likely say it was if something were to happen, especially if the tip came from family. That is my point. Is it enough? No. Would people argue it was enough when they have 20/20 hindsight? Probably.

I overreacted to some assertions against the FBI. However, I don’t think the FBI, as some people seem to think, sit around and think “hey, let’s make this guy miserable.” They may very well have already traced the email to his father in law, and after deciding he probably wasn’t a terrorist, they may have still been hesitant to let him in the country. Is that the correct decision? It doesn’t look like it. But I can see where a rational person at the FBI, with no ill intent or bigotry whatsoever, could say “okay what should I do? i don’t think he’s a terrorist, so I’ll let him go, but not let him stay.” To them, it may have seemed a reasonable balance between not detaining an innocent man, and not risking letting a threat into the country. Wrong decision? i think so. Stupid? i don’t think so either.

I enjoy the dialogue, and thank you for opening my eyes to how I came across. I certainly didn’t intend that.

Best regards.

sven doe November 6, 2007 1:04 PM

@ second anonomyous: You are supposed to get a refund in these cases (you were refused to fly without your cause or fault).

BUT if you booked with eboookers you don’t.
They owe me and spouse 2 return tickets that were not able to be used for the same reason.

Martin November 6, 2007 1:10 PM

This excerpt from the swedish newspaper article gives a picture of what the mail looked like:

He sent a mail to the FBI:

???Watch out for X, he likely has connections to the terror organization al-Qaida’s network in Sweden and is known for his statements about helping the muslim world take revenge for the terror of the USA” he said and provided information about which flight the son-in-law was to take.

He added that X would likely try to “make an impression of” being in the USA on a business trip while he actually were to meet his “contacts”.

John November 6, 2007 1:14 PM

@Jay: I think it is very difficult to deal with an accusation when the evidence is lacking, but the consequences could be dire. In most cases, the accusations should be dismissed, but as your example illustrates well, I can see where there are situations where those responsible may not want to take the chance. Not that I’m endorsing any specific solutions, but I do endorse keeping in mind that some problems just aren’t simple.

John November 6, 2007 1:16 PM

@Martin: Thanks. More information helps those on both sides make better assessments.

If anyone has information on whether they traced the email to his father in law before sending him home, that would be particularly useful. I can’t find it.

Thanks again.

Martin November 6, 2007 1:35 PM

The original article doesn’t say whether the email had been traced back to the source before deporting him.

Jared November 6, 2007 1:47 PM

Oh, so that’s all I need? To claim to be a relative or acquaintance, know your name and where you happen to be? As long as I’ve got that, then it’s no problem getting you arrested?

Talk about being willfully obtuse.

They overreacted. In every possible way, their behavior was not appropriate. The only fact they could possibly have established was that the email came from the father-in-law, and there is considerable doubt they did even that. Without bothering to verify one single item of what they were told, they locked the guy up and sent him packing. And as someone else asked, is he even allowed to enter the country again?

As I said, that sort of behavior is wildly vulnerable to abuse and DOS attacks by outsiders. Assuming I had only the basic info about you, John, I stand by my statement that it would be trivial to ruin your life with bogus accusations and an attitude of “better safe than sorry”. Any complaining from you about it would be hypocritical since the only people interested in preventing these sorts of mistakes are just “taking cheap shots at people we don’t like”, right.

Joe Buck November 6, 2007 2:26 PM

Actually, if the FBI had traced the mail back to the guy’s father-in-law, that would make the mail more credible: a family member would be likely to know. Remember, the Unibomber was caught based on a tip from the man’s brother.

John November 6, 2007 2:31 PM

@Joe Buck: Precisely. I haven’t been able to find this information yet. I’m hoping someone else posts it.

Thomas November 6, 2007 2:34 PM


No matter what happens I agree that someone will always use the benefit of hindsight to point ‘obvious mistakes’.

I think the problem that’s facing the ${TLA} is one of expectations.

Given the immense cost (in terms of time, money, freedom, privacy etc) of the measures implemented to combat terrorism, people expect these measures to actually work.

So now, instead of having a reasonable system in place, with reasonable expectations, we have an unreasonable system and people have equally unreasonable expectations, namely that it is 100% effective.

Unfortunately the only way to provide 0% ‘false negatives’ is to lower the threshold and downplay the ‘false positives’ (read “The War on the Unexpected”).

John November 6, 2007 3:05 PM

@Thomas: You’re right. False negatives and false positives are negatively correllated. You increase one, you decrease the other. What is the best point? The is subjective, and depends.

The man who sent the fraudulent email is saying that he didn’t think the FBI was stupid enough to believe him. Maybe they didn’t think he was stupid enough to do something this, well, stupid. In any case, I’m glad they let him go, although I wish he would have been able to stay and conduct his business. What a lot of it boils down to is some of the people responsible would rather explain a false positive than a false negative. Total CYA.

Martin November 6, 2007 3:05 PM

@Joe Buck and John: I don’t believe that FBI traced it on their own. The deported person suspected his father-in-law and this caused the swedish security police to request a copy of the mail and the IP from the FBI (at what time this request was made I don’t know). It was then swedish police that managed to connect the IP address to the father-in-law. I must assume the FBI was then notified of their findings.

John November 6, 2007 3:17 PM

@Martin: I’m sure you’re right. It definitely would have been Swedish authorities tracking the IP address. Question is when in the process did they learn it was his father in law: in flight, during detainment, after he was sent home. Hopefully, they will publish more on this. I’ll keep looking.

billswift November 6, 2007 8:44 PM

OT – general comment on blogs and comments

You’re right. I did come across in a way that was not intended. Sometimes how one sounds in their own head is not how they come across in text.

This is a common problem in blog posts and even more so in comments – Remember, hard thinking makes easy reading. If you have trouble reading something, unless it is inherently difficult like quantum mechanics, it is a good sign the author didn’t think enough about his topic.

John November 6, 2007 9:35 PM


Sort of. I have given a lot of thought to this topic, as it is similar to part of my work. I just hurried through the presentation. I never intended to sound as obtuse as I did.

John November 6, 2007 9:37 PM

Also, in regards to my above post, where I said it is similar to parts of my work, that I do not work for the federal government. : )

David November 6, 2007 10:04 PM


If you’re going to defend the FBI, please show how what the FBI did was potentially useful in stopping terrorism.

If the anonymous tip had been accurate, the thing to do was to let him in, and tail him. Certainly the possibility of finding al-Qaeda operatives in the US is more important than kicking out one sympathizer. This also has the advantage that, if the information is wrong, the innocent traveler doesn’t even know he’s been under suspicion. (He could also be picked out for additional questioning and searching. If the tip is true, this does risk him deciding not to talk to his friends.)

What does arresting him do? Assuming he’s innocent, well, there’s the obvious downside. If he’s guilty, the FBI has just informed him that he’s under a great deal of suspicion, in a way nobody could misunderstand. They prevented him from talking to any al-Qaeda contacts in the US, at the cost of losing a lead to find those hypothetical contacts. They have prevented him from committing any terrorist acts in the US, but that wasn’t what the tip was about.

If you’re going to defend actions on the basis that it’s safer to do something, and the false claim that we in general wouldn’t understand if the FBI didn’t overreact, here’s a tip: Make sure that the actions you’re defending would do something useful. This one doesn’t qualify. No matter how dire the situation, it doesn’t justify doing stupid things.

sam November 6, 2007 10:09 PM


I suspect having to check the “yes I’ve been refused a visa/refused entry/deported” box on visa applications/customs forms will be as big a problem.

RonK November 6, 2007 11:42 PM

@ John

I think one of the other problems is that you posted in a blog which has a long history of trolls or otherwise stupid people posting knee-jerk reactions to criticism of TLAs. Your post got classified as one of those kinds of posts.

Personally, I was rather amazed when you continued to discuss the issue and revealed yourself as a rational individual.

greg November 7, 2007 4:53 AM

@Colossal Squid
Yea, first communist then Afghanistan followed by Iraqis and now Iranian.. is there a Pattern?

John November 7, 2007 7:11 AM


I understand that.

Please also understand that I was responding to and getting hammered by knee jerk criticism and irrationality, and wrongly I responded with the same. For example, I never suggested that we should be okay with the FBI kicking down our doors on flimsy evidence. Someone also made a post that I was a terrorist, and responded that according to my logic that they should do the same to me–most rational people on both sides should be able to see that a post like that is no where near what the was giving to the FBI. Now my reaction to irrationality was equally irrational–i own up to that. I’m just saying it is easy for those on both sides to get frustrated. Not to mention, there was knee jerk irrationality towards the FBI when we only had a short news story to go on–not the email, not the other intelligence they received from Swedish authorities (perhaps they knew by then the tip was from family).

Yes, I think the FBI overreacted. But I also think that it is much easier for us to say that after the fact. Had the tip turned out to be true, it would have been used against them viciously. They were likely weighing their options.

David pointed out that they should have followed him, which is would have given more information. But that would have lead to concerns too.

Even when they do something we think is silly, I think we should try to be a bit less vicious towards them until we have more information.

Your attitude towards me he is a small but good example. You made an initial judgment on me based on limited information on a short time. As you learned more, you realized there was more to me. I think we should show the same courtesy to others. We really don’t know everything.


Non Flyer November 7, 2007 7:26 AM

Like most readers, I found this tale a bit worrying and I was glad that John decided to play Devil’s advocate to get us thinking about the FBI’s actions.

Correct me if I’m wrong but when you are passing through international borders you basically don’t have any right to refuse being stopped, searched or detained if the authorities feel like it.

So although I don’t think it was right to deport the victim of this mean, stupid prank, does the FBI technically have to justify it’s actions in this case? I suspect not.

If anybody bothers to read this, they will probably be thinking to themselves that the FBI were morally in the wrong. However all that happened here is another case of police using their powers to the fullest extent, irrespective of the circumstances. It happens all the time.

John November 7, 2007 7:27 AM


In regards to the addition by Bruce above, I think that we should have harsh penalties for intentionally filing false reports. It is very similar to making false 911 calls–the police can’t really ignore a call or decide which ones they “aren’t stupid enough to fall for” (as the Swedish father in law said) when confronted with information that may be true, but we all understand why false calls are a very serious matter.

Any ideas on how to deter this?

John November 7, 2007 7:33 AM

@Non Flyer.

Thank you. That was really my intent, was to get people thinking about what position the FBI would be in if it went the other way. Though their decision was wrong, and i realize i’m sounding like a broken record here, they had two choices: send him home and deal with an annoyed passenger today (they probably didn’t consider news stories), or let him in and risk having to explain why they had him in custody and let him go after an incident.

Again, I do apologize for sounding obtuse before. But Non Flyer really nailed my intentions. And a short Yahoo News story doesn’t really tell us enough.

Jurgen Voorneveld November 7, 2007 9:36 AM

@ Non Flyer
“Correct me if I’m wrong but when you are passing through international borders you basically don’t have any right to refuse being stopped, searched or detained if the authorities feel like it.”
The authorities may only act within the boundaries of the law, if they do anything else you have every right to object and resist. The authorities may never use their powers because they “feel like it”.

“However all that happened here is another case of police using their powers to the fullest extent, irrespective of the circumstances. It happens all the time.”
Just because it happens doesn’t mean it should nor that it cannot be prevented. This mistake was preventable.

“Any ideas on how to deter this?”
Yes, sue the man who send you the e-mail for false incrimination and wasting governement resources.
The yahoo article only says that the man is being sued for libel. In a libel case the claimant is the person who was lied about. In this case the man who was detained. The article doesn’t say anything about the US bringing suit against this man.

The libel case is actually quite interesting. This situation resembles calling someone a jew in front of neonazis. A reasonable man can expect the ‘jew’ to be assaulted and you are therefore responsible for it when it happens. In this case the neonazis are the FBI and instead of calling someone a jew you are calling him a terrorist. The question the swedish judge now has to answer is “How can a reasonable man expect the FBI to act when given this information?”.

John November 7, 2007 9:55 AM

@Jurgen Voorneveld:

I agree.

One thing I have been unable to find out, and I wish I knew, is when in the process it was determined that the person making the accusation was a relative. I’ve concluded that the FBI was wrong to send him home after determining he wasn’t a threat, but until I have more information than a short news story I’m not ready to say they acted inappropriately prior to that.

There should be serious consequences for false allegations like this. This father in law would probably have never dreamed of calling 911 and making something up. Getting his son in law sent home isn’t the worst thing he could have caused.

Geoff November 7, 2007 12:24 PM

What has happened, often understandably, is our probability-based thinking has been overtaken by a worst case scenario mindset.

The FBI obtained information through a tip that proved accurate: the who (son in law), where (Florida), when (flight), why (business). Swedish authorities also traced how the information came into being (father in law). We do not know when the FBI learned it was from the father in law, it would be important because this certainly would give credibility to the claim.

The final of the “how, who, what, when, where, why” is the what, which in this case the what was a prank. We also do not know when authorities were told by the father in law that it was a prank.

After detainment and questioning, the FBI did not see a threat and put him on a plane home. This is where then prank information comes in. If they were informed it was a prank, he absolutely should not have been forced to leave the country.

On the other hand, if they did not know it was a prank, this is where worst case scenario thinking comes into play. He probably isn’t a terrorist, so we should not detain him, but if we let him go he may turn out to be. As Bruce has previously written in Psychology of Security, there is an emotional aspect to security, as well as a dimension that we make different decisions when issues are thought of in terms of gain or loss. The FBI weighed the choices between sending a man who was probably innocent home, or risking letting a possibly dangerous man in. In the case of the former, the worst case scenario is an irritated customer and maybe embarrassment. In the case of the latter, the worst case scenario is terror attacks. This is where the emotional aspect comes in: it may not be enough for the FBI to argue (correctly) they did not have enough credible information to take action, as the opposing side of the argument will put forth weeping relatives and point to the tip as evidence they didn’t do enough.

There are two timelines. The FBI timeline, of when they got the tip, questioned the son in law, and sent him home. And the Swedish timeline of identifying the father in law and learning it was a prank. Where these lines cross is not known to us, and is very important in assessing what actions were taken and why.

Jurgen Voorneveld November 7, 2007 7:40 PM

I’m surprised that people keep saying this was an overreaction. It was not an over reaction, it was the wrong reaction. The issue here is not that the FBI inconvenienced an innocent man, the issue is that the FBI failed to properly protect America. If the e-mail message had been true the FBI just let the remaining terrorists know that they are being investigated as well as blowing a perfect opportunity to find out more about this terrorist cell. Detaining this man is the wrong decision if he is innocent and it is the wrong decision if he is guilty.
I agree that knowing the timeline is necessary to find out exactely who made the wrong decision where and with what information. But whoever this is and whatever the circumstance, the wrong decision was made.

Anonymous November 8, 2007 1:32 AM

@John: “…a rational person at the FBI, with no ill intent or bigotry whatsoever…”

Your sentence brings to mind an unrelated thought: that someone who’s normal, nonviolent, and unprejudiced can nevertheless treat detained persons horribly. If you don’t know about it, do a search for “Zimbardo prison experiment” or “Stanford prison experiment.”

John November 8, 2007 7:14 AM


I think i know of the prison experiment you are talking about. Is it where students basically where able to inflict pain on other students in that scenario, and they had to stop the experiment because they inflicted too much pain? It doesn’t surprise me. Sadly, that is little evil that would in our world.

Basically, what I was saying in that quote was this. I’m not saying the FBI was or wasn’t bigoted, i have no information either way. What I believe, walking through their scenario, is how they could have made their decision without any malice for any number of reasons, whether those reasons were worthy or not. CYA, fear, worst-case mindset, etc.


Martin November 8, 2007 7:28 AM

Nobody seems to have commented on the man’s description of the cell as being “covered with excrement and blood”. Is it standard practice to treat visitors like that based only on a mail which could have been sent by anyone one has to wonder.

@Jurgen Voorneveld:
It would seem that way, but in practice I’d guess that the cost of having a person followed is pretty high, so if there’s not a high enough level of suspicion it might actually make sense to interrogate the person. The way it was handled in this case though leaves much to be desired.

markm November 8, 2007 8:35 AM

Suppose that next time Congress recesses, someone sends anonymous mail to the FBI:

Watch out for someone traveling from Washington DC to California under the name “Nancy Pelosi”. She is known to have recently traveled to the Middle East and met with people suspected of sponsoring terrorism.

She may claim to be the Speaker of the House…

John November 8, 2007 9:55 AM


I understand your point, but that doesn’t really compare. The FBI can’t magically know what is real and what is a prank, certainly not in the Swedish scenario. If it was an email about the speaker, it would be much easier for them to determine that it was prank.

The man who made the prank said he didn’t think the americans would be stupid enough to fall for it. Well, they probably wouldn’t think he would be stupid enough to do send them a prank. The FBI should not be pranked with intensionally false terror tips. It is tantamount to calling 911, then saying I didn’t think they’d fall for it when they actually question someone.

There are good points on both sides, and i understand how it can be frustrating (I made a jerk of myself in frustration in this very blog). But let’s try to be reasonable.

John November 8, 2007 11:45 AM

@Martin: “covered with excrement and blood.”

I didn’t ignore it, I just overlooked it. Do you have a link to a credible source?

There are so many stories that are exaggerated or false (or outright made up lies) about the US. I would rather have the facts before commenting.

Martin November 8, 2007 3:32 PM

I believe that’s the man’s own words, so it’s hard to verify. On the other hand, he seems to have been an ordinary man working in the computer business on the way to a conference, so I can’t see any likely reason why he would want to make it up.

You said “The man who made the prank said he didn’t think the americans would be stupid enough to fall for it. Well, they probably wouldn’t think he would be stupid enough to do send them a prank”.

Well, personally I believe he actually thought they would fall for it to some extent. Why would he have done it otherwise? And if that’s the case the stupid decision from his point of view was not to send it but rather making it so easy to trace back to him. Surely FBI can’t rely on everyone always having good intentions.

John November 8, 2007 4:40 PM

@Martin: “Surely FBI can’t rely on everyone always having good intentions.”

No, they sure can’t. But on the other hand, some pranks like this would certainly be hard to identify, and like 911 calls they must initially err on the side of looking into it (unless the prank is totally obvious). I’m sure the victim didn’t seem like a terrorist (obviously because he wasn’t one), but most terrorists are prepared to try to blend in and appear otherwise legit.

It’s a very complicated issue. Respond to a prank, and you have egg on your face like now. Don’t respond and later find out its not a prank, they egg is probably worse. I’m grateful i’m not responsible for sorting everything out.


David November 8, 2007 8:40 PM


I don’t think anybody was suggesting that the FBI actions were motivated by malice or bigotry, but rather stupidity. The FBI’s actions were clearly bad (in the sense that the result was worse than doing nothing) in either case: whether the man was innocent or guilty.

This also raises the possibility that any of us could be pranked in a similar way, and could face thoroughly unpleasant consequences from an anonymous accusation. That really isn’t very compatible with a free society.

Whether you’d describe the FBI actions as overreacting or not, they certainly are bad reactions. It suggests that doing stupid and counterproductive things are seen as better as doing nothing, even on something as tenuous as an anonymous tip.

Mark November 9, 2007 9:41 AM

What does arresting him do? Assuming he’s innocent, well, there’s the obvious downside. If he’s guilty, the FBI has just informed him that he’s under a great deal of suspicion, in a way nobody could misunderstand. They prevented him from talking to any al-Qaeda contacts in the US, at the cost of losing a lead to find those hypothetical contacts.

Of course had he actually been a terrorist operative his contacts would have known that something was up. The worst case senario is that arresting part of a terrorist gang is that the remainder would decide to carry out attacks before the police caught up with them. (Especially if they were were not expecting to survive whatever they were planning. Dead people can’t be questioned.)

Also relevent to this is the British Police wanting more time to hold “suspects” without charge. If they actually are part of some gang or conspiracy it is unlikely that they will be routinely out of contact with their co-conspirators without notice for any length of time in the first place. (It’s also probably the case that if police can’t find any evidence within a fairly short time either there isn’t any or they are so incompetent that it’s unlikely that more time would actually help.)

Mark November 9, 2007 10:20 AM

The FBI weighed the choices between sending a man who was probably innocent home, or risking letting a possibly dangerous man in. In the case of the former, the worst case scenario is an irritated customer and maybe embarrassment. In the case of the latter, the worst case scenario is terror attacks.

A terrorist attack could also be the result of him not being let into the country. It’s hard to know how people are likely to react if they suspect the police are somehow onto them. Especially those who think that they have God on their side when it comes to killing themselves and as many bystanders as possible.

Bala November 11, 2007 3:51 PM

The daily show had a clip on exactly the same topic. I can’t find it on their website now, but it involved tipping off the FBI that your neighbor was a terrorist so that you can covet his wife.

John November 13, 2007 11:32 AM


May make for a funny clip, but one could just as easily call 911 to do the same thing. For some reason, most don’t think that is funny and wouldn’t blame the authorities for incompetence. The FBI did not handle this the way I would of (and as always, it is easy for me to say what I would have done from my keyboard), but they did let the guy go based on lack of evidence. Hopefully the real guilty party–the father in law–will be punished appropriately.


UNTER November 13, 2007 4:16 PM


Unlike others who applaud you for being a “Devil’s Advocate”, I simply find you obtuse and irrational.

For example,
“May make for a funny clip, but one could just as easily call 911 to do the same thing. For some reason, most don’t think that is funny and wouldn’t blame the authorities for incompetence.”

What would be the metaphor? Well, I were to call the police and claim you were a drug-dealer, and the police were then to raid your home (with the full risk involved of blowing off some child’s head). This metaphor is particularly apt, because it is done in the US so often. Rather than properly channel their resources into investigations, they take the easy and least thoughtful response, which is least likely to result in the claimed goal. I would blame folks at 911 for overreations or misreactions which would act as a denial of service for the rest of us; how much more should I expect from the FBI?

No one claims intentional malevolence (your strawman), what is claimed is stupidity, CYA, organizational inertia, and once again stupidity. Stupidity is a particularly apt accusation, because we have a history of incompetence being rewarded with Congressional Medals of Honor. Such behavior then risks propagating stupidity through an organization. Instead of Tenet and Chertoff being canned after their massive failures which resulted in widespread death and destruction, those morons have been honored as national heroes. What message does that send to the trenches? What kind of hiring practices do you think such “leadership” results in?

Look, John, we should expect the people placed in positions of responsibility to be among the brightest we have. To say that you might have made such a mistake is no defense — I pay my taxes not to hire people like you to be in the FBI or design our counter-terrorism programs, but to hire people much brighter than you.

John November 13, 2007 4:30 PM


Obtuse, irrational, not bright. And I suppose calling me those things makes you tolerant, rational, and brilliant?

I’m not going to be drawn into an argument with you. I made that mistake with someone else before and have calmed myself. I suggest you do the same.

UNTER November 13, 2007 4:40 PM

@Mark: “The FBI weighed the choices between sending a man who was probably innocent home, or risking letting a possibly dangerous man in.”

We make that choice every time we let a man in the country. We even make a similar choice every time we let a woman in the country. By your logic, our course of action should be to close the borders.

Without good evidence, careful action should be taken rather than random exclusions. If that man were to be dangerous, sending him home does next to nothing – it’s not like it’s difficult for anyone to enter the country through the Canadian border if they’re willing to enter illegally. If he might be dangerous, we should investigate – if there’s not enough reason to investigate, there’s not enough reason to exclude.

Just think, what if a multi-million dollar deal was hanging on this man entering the country, which would have revived some po-dunk small town? Say this guy was a consultant for opening a new factory, and now he went home and told his bosses it was unworkable because of his experience? The economic consequences of that could literally be the death of Americans – folks without health insurance, families disrupted, etc. Much more likely than a terrorist attack, no? We have had more European businesses invest in the US than terrorist attacks, no?

Now, if the current policy is followed, the only thing a terrorist would need to do to cause significant economic disruption is to get a feed off an airplane booking service and begin sending anonymous emails accusing random people of being terrorists. Maybe it’s already happening?

Why are there no reasonable defenses of these actions? Because there do not appear to be defendable reasons for such actions — stupidity and CYA are not exculpatory!

Geoff November 14, 2007 6:27 PM

In the “obtuse” and “irrational” categories, UNTER has Mark and John beat easy.

Can’t really see how bright he is through all the bitterness either.

Wonder if I’m in his crosshairs now.

UNTER November 14, 2007 7:01 PM


Now, now, play nice.

I’m also hideously misshapen, crook-nosed, short, an amputee, unloved and lonely, angry (much better than just bitter, by the way), a misanthrope, a misogynist, a misandronist, radical, fascist, commie, sterile, impotent, barren, narcissistic, amoral, self-righteous, obnoxious, craven and subservient.

See, that’s better!

Geoff November 14, 2007 7:28 PM


At least you’re upfront about it. 😛

Seriously, disagreeing with someone is one thing. A good thing even. Insulting their intelligence isn’t. I’ve seen good discussion here.

UNTER November 15, 2007 9:05 AM

Geoff, you’re standards are just lower than mine. I’m perfectly happy to have a civil, good conversation. But I get annoyed when I see the same childish points repeated ad nauseum. In particular, when the argument is “well, I may do x, why should we expect any better of group Y”, well, that’s just BS. We should expect the elite to be brighter than we are; if they’re not, why the hell should they have all that power? If the FBI is no better than I am at investigating crime, why should they get paid? I pay for expertise, not dilettante best effort.

Geoff November 15, 2007 12:19 PM

UNTER: “Geoff, you’re standards are just lower than mine.”

My standards are probably higher, although I won’t pretend to know you as well as you pretend to know the people you insult. However, when it comes to childish rhetoric versus civic discourse, those you insult look far better than you. They look less obtuse and more rational on top of it.

We’ve become part of the ad nauseum BS you preach again. I’m done.

jackie January 3, 2008 3:20 AM

All you who are so quick to second guess the FBI actions in this case are oblivious of one fact: the number of these sorts of “tips” that FBI receives
every day. If they did all the extra work that you would have them do: letting the person in and then follow them; calling back to country-of-origin and checking if s/he is really a terrorist; ad nausem, then when would FBI ever get serious work done? How many agents do you think FBI have available
for chasing down all the frivolous emails, calls, etc.?

If the liberals think all this activity is in the best interest of everyones personal freedoms, then write your Democratic congressperson and have then jack up FBIs annual budget so they can hire all the extra agents you would like them to have, for all the feel-good, do-good stuff you would have them
do to anyone so unjustly accused. Yeah, sure.

Personally, I liked their response in this case: put the person on a plane back to their country of origin, then move on and deal with the next piece
of business.

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