Poet Amir Sulaiman was on a professional high after his taped performance aired across the country on HBO's Def Poetry Jam in February 2004. He had performed a piece titled "Dangerous," a poem he describes as passionate and intense.
But just six days after his performance first aired, the 26-year-old African-American father of three had FBI agents waiting to question him at his mother-in-law's house in San Francisco.
"I'm not sure," he said about the FBI knocking on his in-laws door because of his HBO performance. "The reason the two (events) are connected is six days after the show aired, they knocked on my mother-in-law's door...Itwas a bizarre, almost surreal, phone call that the FBI was waiting for me."
While they waited, FBI agents asked Sulaiman's brother-in-law why his poetry was "anti-American." That's a charge he denies, saying his ancestors helped build America and he never once mentioned America on his album, but instead tackles issues like poverty, oppression and tyranny.
The day after the FBI visited Sulaiman, he also found out that while trying to board a plane, his name had been added to the "no-fly list," subjecting him to extra security before boarding a plane. He was never charged with a crime or given a reason why
Contrary to popular belief, both of Sulaiman's experiences had nothing to do with the controversial USA Patriot Act, passed by Congress days after the Sept. 11 attacks to give law enforcement more power to investigate potential terrorists.
Since its passage, there have been a lot of myths attached with the Patriot Act's supposed power, from immigrant roundups after Sept. 11, to the creation of the "no-fly" list. Some of the powers associated with the act are more like a general sense of heightened security by law enforcement agencies than any single bill, some of which were set in motion before any attacks of American soil.
The "no-fly" list, for example, was initiated before the Patriot Act was passed in 2001 by a Federal Aviation Administration-issued security directive in 1996. But, still the origins of the no-fly list is mired in secrecy and some confusion. Some security experts have been left scratching their heads when asked when or where exactly the list originated, who's on it and what rights innocent passengers whose names are similar to those on the list actually have.
"The truth is you cannot really do a lot in the situation because you're not going to get on the plane if you don't comply," said Shirin Sinnar, an Equal Justice Works Fellow for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.
Sinnar has worked on immigrant rights after Sept. 11, including the no-fly list and other lists like the United States Treasury Department's Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list, which is used by banks and car dealerships, for example, to screen out people and organizations before issuing a loan. That list is available for the public to view on the United States Treasury's Web site.
Another issue thought by some to be associated with the Patriot Act is that of FBI interviews and roundups. Both, again, are not tied to any legislation, but instead to a heightened sense of security, according to Dorothy Ehrlich, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
"The government has taken action since Sept. 11 (and) the heaviest hand has fallen on people from Muslim background and people from 24 other countries targeted," she said.
She said the FBI was also interested in people involved with the Tablighi Jamat, an Islamic movement founded in India, which encourages members to participate in evangelical efforts across the world.
All of the initial interviews are voluntary, according to Sinnar, though some of those questioned are not aware of this.
"They don't even need legislation to do this because they are asking people to do this," she said. "There are definitely some patterns from the questioning. ... Some stuff has been, 'what do you think of Iraq? Do you think we should go in there?'"
After following a lead, the FBI conducts an interview and then creates a web connecting people together for more potential interviews.
Even within the powers granted under the Patriot Act, the FBI says there is misinformation.
"I think people need to understand what we can't do," said Special Agent LaRae Quay of the FBI's San Francisco bureau.
One of the more talked about provisions of the act is Section 215, which gives agents the ability to access library, medical and financial records.
Civil libertarians have argued that the act does not require the proper checks and balances for federal authorities to access records.
Quay, however, said a federal judge still has to approve an FBI's agent's request to obtain records or set up a roving wire tap, as was the case before the Patriot Act passed. Judges have still the authority to deny a request, though she admitted it is rare.
"They (judges) absolutely can say no," Quay said. "Let me tell you the reality. Rarely does a judge say no. You want to know why? Because of all the checks and balances that exist."
The ability to search library records was available to law enforcement before passage of the Patriot Act as well.
Jackie Griffin, the director of library services for the Berkeley Public Library, said her library has been served with court orders for book records not involving terrorism cases. She said the library has been served with subpoenas involving two parents getting divorced and one trying to prove the other is an unfit parent based on what books they checked out for their children.
Still some of the controversy over powers under the act is more a difference of opinion. For instance, there is the sneak-and-peek provision, which gives FBI agents the ability to secretly search through a suspect's house without giving the suspect notice. The ACLU says the measure is unfair while the FBI says it is necessary for national security.
"The idea that you have no chance to say you're innocent and they had the wrong address," Ehrlich said.
"Again very controversial," Quay said. "We've been doing this for decades for criminal investigations. You delay the notice of your presence to the person. If you have left a note behind saying 'good afternoon Mr. bin Laden. We were here.' That might hurt the investigation because they might leave or destroy evidence."
Sajid Farooq can be reached at (925) 416-4813 or firstname.lastname@example.org.