Information wants to make you look foolish

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Abdallah Higazy, an Egyptian living in the US, was arrested shortly after 9/11 because an air-to-air/air-to-ground radio was allegedly found in his room. He was suspected of somehow being involved in 9/11 or similar attacks and the FBI interrogated him. Higazy denied possession of the radio and the FBI (understandably) didn't take his word for it. Higazy asked to take a polygraph and, well, I'll let the court tell it:
Higazy alleges that during the polygraph, Templeton told him that he should cooperate, and explained that if Higazy did not cooperate, the FBI would make his brother "live in scrutiny" and would "make sure that Egyptian security gives [his] family hell." Templeton later admitted that he knew how the Egyptian security forces operated: "that they had a security service, that their laws are different than ours, that they are probably allowed to do things in that country where they don't advise people of their rights, they don't — yeah, probably about torture, sure."

Higazy later said, "I knew that I couldn't prove my innocence, and I knew that my family was in danger." He explained that "[t]he only thing that went through my head was oh, my God, I am screwed and my family's in danger. If I say this device is mine, I'm screwed and my family is going to be safe. If I say this device is not mine, I'm screwed and my family's in danger. And Agent Templeton made it quite clear that cooperate had to mean saying something else other than this device is not mine."

Higazy explained why he feared for his family:

The Egyptian government has very little tolerance for anybody who is --they're suspicious of being a terrorist. To give you an idea, Saddam's security force--as they later on were called his henchmen--a lot of them learned their methods and techniques in Egypt; torture, rape, some stuff would be even too sick to . . . . My father is 67. My mother is 61. I have a brother who developed arthritis at 19. He still has it today. When the word 'torture' comes at least for my brother, I mean, all they have to do is really just press on one of these knuckles. I couldn't imagine them doing anything to my sister.
And Higazy added:
[L]et's just say a lot of people in Egypt would stay away from a family that they know or they believe or even rumored to have anything to do with terrorists and by the same token, some people who actually could be --might try to get to them and somebody might actually make a connection. I wasn't going to risk that. I wasn't going to risk that, so I thought to myself what could I say that he would believe. What could I say that's convincing? And I said okay.
Transcription from Psychsound.

OK, so Higazy confesses, or, rather, the FBI coerced a confession out of him. I should mention at this point that his confession is a bit fishy:

Higazy then gave Templeton a series of explanations as to how he obtained the radio. First, he admitted that he stole the radio from J&R, an electronics store. Then he recanted this story, and explained that he found it near J&R. Higazy next denied ever seeing or possessing the radio. Templeton allegedly banged on the table and screamed at Higazy: "You lied to me again! This is what? How many lies?" Higazy then lied again, this time telling Templeton that he found the radio on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. Higazy recalled that Templeton "turned so red I thought he was going to hit me." Templeton accused Higazy of being a liar, and said that he would "tell Agent Sullivan in my expert opinion you are a terrorist." Finally, Higazy told Templeton that he had stolen the radio from the Egyptian military and had used it to eavesdrop on telephone conversations.

Now, this is inherently kind of fishy: air traffic control is analog VHF radio (in the 100-140 MHz range). This doesn't correspond to any telephony frequency of which I'm aware: cell phones are (1) at much higher frequencies, 800 MHz, 1900 MHz, etc. (2) almost all digital at this point. Landline cordless phones are also generally at higher frequencies. The frequencies that telcos use for microwave backhaul are all much higher as well. I'd also be pretty surprised if they're not digital. Some, though not all of them, of them are also digital. [corrected after more research -- EKR]. This isn't to say, of course, that one couldn't make a radio that would receive all these frequencies, but it's not something that one would expect to find in a typical air-ground transceiver, like say this one, which works on some fixed set of analog frequency bands. You'd be talking about a more generic scanning tool. So, the claim that he used this radio to listen in on telephone calls seems pretty hard to believe. And, of course, if you do believe that, it's a lot less of a national security issue than someone communicating with hijackers. Anyway, the FBI arrested Higazy.

At this point, it won't surprise you to discover that Higazy appears to have been totally freaking innocent, and luckily for him, that was discovered:

Three days later, on January 14, 2002, an airline pilot, who had been staying on the 50th floor of the Millenium Hotel returned to the hotel to reclaim his property. After inspecting his items, the pilot informed the hotel staff that his transceiver was missing. Millenium immediately contacted the FBI, which then verified that what was thought to be Higazy's transceiver was in fact the pilot's and that the pilot had not had any interaction with Higazy. The FBI re- interviewed Ferry, who revised his original account, this time explaining that the radio was found on a table in Higazy's room and not in the safe. The government withdrew its complaint against Higazy, who was released on January 16, 2002, after thirty-four days in custody. In a letter to Judge Maas, the government conceded:
The owner of the aviation radio had no interaction with Mr. Higazy. It is still unclear, therefore, how the radio was transferred from the room on the 50th Floor to Mr. Higazy's room on the 51st floor. Employees of the hotel have indicated that, although the hotel has been closed since September 11th, a number of people entered the room in which Mr. Higazy had been staying at different times between September 11th and the day on which the radio was found.

Higazy sued Templeton. The District Court granted summary judgement to Templeton on the grounds of qualified immunity. The 5th Circuit reversed. Here's where things get really interesting: the 5th Circuit's original opinion contained the above quote about how Templeton, uh, convinced Higazy to confess. Shortly thereafter, the court took down the opinion. How Appealing was already hosting a copy and the clerk of the court actually called to ask him to take it down; he refused. Subsequently, the court posted a new opinion replacing the description with:

This opinion has been redacted because portions of the record are under seal. For the purposes of the summary judgment motion, Templeton did not contest that Higazy's statements were coerced.

I'm not a lawyer, but I must admit to being a little puzzled as to why this is an appropriate matter to seal. If Templeton hadn't worked for the FBI and threatened a confession out of someone would that be sealable? If not, doesn't the public have a pretty significant interest in knowing what their law enforcement officials do? Whatever the reason, once you've made the mistake of posting this to a web site somewhere, trying to take it back just makes you look stupid.

1 Comments

They probably agreed at some point that all direct quotes from interrogation logs, etc. would be under seal and that quote slipped through.

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