Kansas City FBI Agents Attempted to Chill ACLU Official's Free Speech Rights

Affiliate: ACLU of Kansas
October 12, 2004 12:00 am

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ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri Files Complaint Letter with Kansas City FBI Field Office

KANSAS CITY, MO — In a complaint letter filed today with the Special Agent in Charge of the Kansas City FBI office, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri charged that FBI agents with the local Joint Terrorism Task Force exercised “poor judgment” in an effort to intimidate Executive Director Dick Kurtenbach after he publicly criticized its ethnic and racial profiling activities.

“The place and manner in which the FBI agents chose to confront me was intimidating and unfortunate,” said Kurtenbach. “At least two Muslims who witnessed the confrontation came up to me afterward and said, ‘Now you know how we feel.’ If those agents chose to attend the event to make a good impression or to open up lines of communication, this incident was not helpful in achieving their goals.”

The complaint stems from an incident following the September 24 Heartland Muslim Council annual dinner in Kansas City, where Kurtenbach was a speaker at the event. In his remarks, Kurtenbach was critical of alleged ethnic and racial profiling by FBI agents and detailed a recent example involving a naturalized American citizen from the Middle East.

On the way out of the event, Kurtenbach was stopped by the head of the local FBI Joint

Terrorism Task Force, Debbie Stafford, who along with a colleague were guests at the dinner. “After tapping me on the shoulder to get my attention, Agent Stafford was in my face and confrontational,” Kurtenbach said. “The message from her was clear – Who the heck am I to be critical of the FBI? – It was a blatant effort to intimidate me.”

According to Kurtenbach, a Justice Department official who was at the dinner and witnessed the incident called him the next week to offer to set up a mediation session with the agents.

“This official was clearly troubled by the actions of the FBI agents,” Kurtenbach said.

“What went on that night was not the FBI’s finest moment, and I hope my complaint letter leads to corrective action.”

The complaint letter appears below.

Transmitted by Facsimile

October 12, 2004

Mr. Kevin Stafford
Special Agent in Charge
Kansas City Division
Federal Bureau of Investigation
1300 Summit St.
Kansas City, Missouri 64105

Dear Agent Stafford:

I am writing to report an encounter I had with two FBI agents that escalated into a verbal confrontation. This incident occurred after the Heartland Muslim Council dinner at the University of Missouri Kansas City on Saturday, September 24. I feel compelled to document my version of events with you because of the way the confrontation made me feel and the message it conveyed to the many people who witnessed it.

Let me say that I am not talking about hurt feelings owing to the confrontation mentioned above. I don’t take these things personally. However, the encounter was exceedingly intimidating to me, and I believe the two agents intended it to be. The message of these two agents was: “Who the hell are you to be critical of the FBI?”

The two FBI agents were invited guests, while I had been invited to speak. One part of my 15 minute presentation on the topic, “Civil Liberties in the Current Climate,” included remarks about my concern that the FBI and other law enforcement entities are using racial and ethnic profiling as a law enforcement tool in the war on terrorism.

To illustrate my concerns, I told the story of Mohammed Hafez, a naturalized American citizen who contacted our office about a year ago to report that he had been visited at Sprint, Mr. Hafez’s workplace, by two FBI agents. In the course of their visit, the two agents identified themselves to Mr. Hafez’s supervisor as members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Mr. Hafez reported that the agents told him they wanted to talk with him because they had been alerted by the post office about a package addressed to him. According to the agents, the package had been accidentally opened at the post office revealing its contents related to suicide bombers, the subject of Mr. Hafez’s research. Mr. Hafez asked the agents to meet with him at his home so he could get back to work. The agents complied with his request.

It so happens that Mr. Hafez is also a visiting professor at UMKC and is working on a research project examining the psychology of suicide bombers. He receives some funding for his project from an international peace foundation partially funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress.

In recounting this example, I do not allege that Mr. Hafez was detained. Nor do I know if he has been placed on some list or has an FBI file started as a result of the inquiry. I do know that he felt intimidated by the experience, which he told me had a chilling effect on his academic freedom.

The point I made in my speech is that I believe this incident illustrates ethnic profiling on the part of the FBI. I further stated my belief that had that package been addressed to me, Dick Kurtenbach, the FBI would not have sent two agents to visit me. I believe Mr. Hafez’s name was the sole reason there was suspicion sufficient for an FBI visit to his workplace.

That story provoked the confrontation I had with the two agents following the dinner. It started when Debbie Stafford tapped me on the shoulder as I was leaving the dinner and identified herself as an FBI agent and the head of the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Her first words were, “I don’t appreciate what you said about the FBI tonight.” She didn’t ask that we step aside or give me her card and invite a call to talk about our concerns. She was in my face and confrontational, challenging my concerns about racial profiling by saying the FBI follows up on every lead.

At one point she said we talk to white people all the time in these investigations. I don’t doubt that, but my point was narrower than that. My point had to do with what happened to Mr. Hafez. When she said the materials he received would raise the same level of suspicion if they were addressed to me, I said the FBI then has too much time on their hands and has lost track of the essence of the society they are trying to protect.

I have used that example to make my point time after time in public events. At several of these events, I have shared the platform with U.S. Attorneys and Assistant U.S. Attorneys; and they have taken issue with the anecdote and the context I use it.

On a couple of occasions, these government attorneys have argued that agents would have been sent to my place of work under similar circumstances, saying that the FBI follows up on every lead. A point repeated by Agent Safford that night. Think about that for a second. Are we to believe that every time the FBI learns about someone receiving materials about suicide bombers that they can expect a visit from the FBI? Some time ago the Discovery TV channel did an hour-long program on the psychology of suicide bombers. If I order a VHS tape of that program and your office learns about it, can I expect agents to visit my home?

I know the public relations predicament you are in with this issue. To admit that you don’t follow up on all of these so-called leads, is to admit racial and ethnic profiling, so you expect me to believe that your limited resources are being committed to every situation where you learn that someone in this country has received materials on the psychology of suicide bombers.

While I am the last person to question anyone’s right to express an opinion or to confront information they believe is wrong, the place and manner in which Agent Stafford and her colleague chose to confront me was intimidating. As I said earlier, I believe that was their intention. The agents should have suggested we step aside or invited a later phone call to discuss their concerns.

The argument we had in front of people leaving this dinner was unfortunate. I repeat: the place and manner in which they chose to confront me was intimidating. At least two Muslims who witnessed the confrontation came up to me afterward said “Now you know how we feel.” If those agents chose to attend the event to make a good impression or to open up lines of communication, this incident was not helpful to achieving their goals.

I have been on programs on many occasions where I have raised criticisms of law enforcement in the presence of law enforcement representatives. I have never experienced the attitude or the poor judgment of these two FBI agents. Their intimidating tactics illustrates extremely poor judgment on their part.

This conclusion was reinforced in a call I received after the incident from Bill Whitcomb of the Justice Department’s Community Relation’s Service office in Kansas City. Mr. Whitcomb was at the event and witnessed the incident. He called to say that he felt the agents used poor judgment in the place and manner of the confrontation. He offered to attempt to set up a meeting to mediate the situation.

The purpose of this letter is to inform you about what happened, to urge you to provide training and counsel to your agents so this behavior is not repeated. Further, it’s incidents like this that put the ACLU and those of you on the frontlines of our effort to combat terrorism without the loss of basic freedoms at odds.

Dick Kurtenbach
Executive Director
ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri

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