ADVERTISEMENT

Francis Van Asten of Bloomington brought a video camera to the Mall of America in 2008. After guards stopped him, he was questioned for two hours at the mall.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Mike Rozin was hired in 2005 by the Mall of America to lead a new special security unit.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

They're watching at the Mall of America

  • Article by: G.W. SCHULZ, DANIEL ZWERDLING and ANDREW BECKER
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • September 11, 2011 - 5:32 PM

On May 1, 2008, at 4:59 p.m., Brad Kleinerman entered the spooky world of homeland security.

As he shopped for a children's watch inside the sprawling Mall of America, two security guards approached and began questioning him. Although he was not accused of wrongdoing, the guards wrote a confidential report about Kleinerman that was sent to police.

The reason: Guards thought the Avon, Conn., man might pose a threat because he looked at them in a suspicious way.

The episode is one of many cases in which seemingly innocent people have been ensnared by the mall's counterterrorism initiative, an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and National Public Radio has found.

In many cases, information about people stopped at the mall has found its way into the hands of law enforcement without their knowledge. The information in reports obtained by reporters includes birth dates, employer names, Social Security numbers, and names of family members and friends. Some reports contain shoppers' travel plans and surveillance images.

Nearly two-thirds of the people mentioned in more than 100 reports were minorities.

Mall of America officials say its security unit conducts up to 1,200 "security interviews" each year for a variety of reasons. Officials say the program focuses only on behavior.

"The government is not going to protect us free of charge, so we have to do that ourselves," said Maureen Bausch, the mall's executive vice president of business development. "We're lucky enough to be in the city of Bloomington where they actually have a police substation here [in the mall]. ... They're great. But we are responsible for this building."

Najam Qureshi, who once owned a mall kiosk that sold items from his native Pakistan, recalls when his father left a cellphone on a table in the food court. An FBI agent came to their home, asking if they knew anyone who might want to hurt the United States.

An Iranian man, now 62, began passing out during questioning. An Army veteran sobbed in his car after being questioned for nearly two hours. Much of the questioning has been done in public while shoppers mill around.

The Center for Investigative Reporting and NPR obtained 125 suspicious activity reports totaling more than 1,000 pages referring to the mall and dating back to 2005. Bloomington police and a state intelligence center released the reports under the state public records law. It's unclear how many other reports may have been shared with law enforcement.

The documents give a glimpse inside one of the legacies of the terrorist attacks 10 years ago. In 2008, the mall's security director, Douglas Reynolds, told Congress that the mall was the "number-one source of actionable intelligence" provided to the state's fusion center, an intelligence hub created after 9/11 to pull together reports from an array of law enforcement sources.

Heightened awareness

The push to encourage Americans to report suspicious activity began in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when government officials and citizens found out that hints about the attackers had been missed by intelligence analysts.

The Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security launched programs urging citizens and the private sector to report suspicious activity. Among those formally enlisted were parking attendants, Jewish groups, stadium operators, landlords, security guards, fans of professional golf and auto racing and retailers such as the Mall of America. Visitors "may be subject to a security interview," the mall's website says.

Commander Jim Ryan of the Bloomington police said shoppers are not under arrest when stopped for questioning by private guards. He said even he would walk away if the questioning seemed excessive.

"I don't think that I would subject myself to that, personally," he said. Ryan, however, defends security procedures at the mall.

In nearly two-thirds of the cases reviewed, subjects are described as African-American, people of Asian and Arabic descent, and other minorities,.

Mall spokesman Dan Jasper said the private security guards do not conduct interviews based on racial or ethnic characteristics because "we may miss someone who truly does have harmful intent." He said subjects are chosen "solely on suspicious behavior" and research indicates that "profiling based on ethnic or racial characteristics is ineffective and a waste of valuable time and resources."

Ryan said the reports are crucial to the nation's safety and could be held by his agency for two decades or longer. He acknowledged that the mall's methods, and its reports to law enforcement, may "infringe on some freedoms, unfortunately."

"We're charged with trying to keep people safe. We're trying to do it the best way we can," he said. "You may be questioned at the Mall of America about suspicious activity. It's something that may happen. It's part of today's society."

Anyone can be questioned

Dale Watson, a former top counterterrorism official with the FBI, said the mall's reports suggest that anyone could be targeted for intrusive questioning and surveillance.

"If that had been one of my brothers that was stopped in a mall, I'd be furious about it -- if I thought the police department had a file on him, an information file about his activities in the mall without any reasonable suspicion to investigate," said Watson, who helped investigate the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Shoppers, who for the most part had no idea that a visit to the mall led to their personal information being shared with law enforcement, reacted with anger and dismay when shown their reports.

"For all the 30 years that I have lived in the United States, I've never been a suspect," said Emil Khalil. The California man was confronted at the mall in June 2009 for taking pictures, and he said an FBI agent later questioned him at the airport. "And I've never done anything wrong."

In 2005, the Mall of America hired Mike Rozin to lead a new special security unit. Its officers look for unexplained nervousness, people photographing such things as air-conditioning ducts or signs that a shopper might have something to hide, according to records.

Last January, guards spotted a suspicious man who tried to run, but was arrested. The man had a loaded handgun, Rozin said. "Potentially that day, my ... officer prevented a disaster, a case of indiscriminate shooting," he said.

Rozin acknowledged that the vast majority of people who come into contact with his unit "have done nothing wrong, have no malicious intent." He said interviews average five minutes.

Shaken by encounter

Francis Van Asten's experience with mall security lasted much longer. On Nov. 9, 2008, the Bloomington resident videotaped a short road trip from his home to the mall. Van Asten, now 66, planned to send it to his fiancée's family in Vietnam so they could see life in the United States.

As he headed down an escalator, camera in hand, mall guards saw him. "Right away, I noticed he had a video camera and was recording the rotunda area," a security guard wrote in a suspicious activity report.

Van Asten, a former U.S. Army missile system repairman, was questioned for about two hours, records show. He was asked about traveling to Vietnam and how he came to know people there. Van Asten was even asked through which mall door he entered.

Suspecting he was conducting surveillance, guards asked what was on the camera. "The footage of all the vehicles and structures of the east ramp really worried me," the security guard wrote.

Authorities were concerned about footage of a plane landing at nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Van Asten said it was not clear to him at the time why he was stopped. He was told nothing prohibited him from taking photographs or footage of the mall. But the guards alerted Bloomington police, who notified the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. Van Asten was given a pat-down search, and the FBI demanded that his camera's memory card be confiscated "for further analysis."

Exhausted and rattled, Van Asten had trouble finding his car after the ordeal. "I sat down in my car and I cried, and I was shaking like a leaf," Van Asten said.

Man files discrimination suit

Bobbie Allen, now 47, headed to the Mall of America on June 25, 2007, for lunch with a woman. As he waited for her, Allen sat alone writing in a notebook, which caught the attention of guards, who wrote in Allen's suspicious activity report: "Before the male would write in his notebook, it appeared as though he would look at his watch. Periodically, the male would briefly look up from his notebook, look around, and then continue writing."

Guards asked for his name and for whom he was waiting. Allen, a musician who lives in downtown Minneapolis, became frustrated, saying the questioning was intrusive. Allen, who is black, felt singled out for his race, according to the report. The guard responded that he was "randomly selected" for an interview.

The guards called Bloomington police after deciding that Allen was uncooperative and his note-taking "suspicious." He was cleared, but a suspicious activity report was compiled, complete with surveillance photo, age, height, address and more. Much of that information ended up in a Bloomington police report.

Allen complained to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and sued. Department investigators found probable cause to support Allen's claim of racial discrimination. Allen declined an interview, citing a settlement with the mall.

Not everyone reacted negatively to being written up. After information naming him was sent to the FBI, Sameer Khalil of Orange County, Calif., said he believed police and private security have important jobs to do.

"I think [the mall's program] makes America safer," he said.

Lost cellphone brings FBI

Businessman Najam Qureshi once had a small kiosk at the mall so his aging father, a former aeronautical engineer named Saleem, could keep busy. One day in early 2007, Saleem Qureshi left his cellphone in a mall food court. When he returned for it, security personnel had established a "perimeter" around the phone and a nearby stroller and two coolers that did not belong to him.

The "suspicious" objects eventually were cleared by security, documents show. But mall guards pursued Saleem Qureshi with questions. "At one point, he moved to his kiosk and proceeded to take items off of two shelves just to switch them around," security guard Ashly Foster wrote in a report. "... He seemed to get agitated at points when I would ask more detailed questions."

On a trip to the Twin Cities in May 2008, Kleinerman, a human resources director for the Cigna health services firm, stopped at the mall to return shoes and buy a SpongeBob SquarePants watch for one of his kids.

Two security officers reported that Kleinerman was "closely observing" them deal with an unrelated call. They considered his behavior "very odd," and followed him to "watch for behavioral indicators," Officer Sean McArdle wrote in a suspicious activity report.

Later, they attempted an interview, but Kleinerman refused, the report said. Kleinerman was told he had two options: Answer questions, or police would be called. Kleinerman said in an interview he repeatedly asked why he was stopped, but got no answer until a supervisor arrived and said shoppers sometimes "exhibit cues" the mall looks for.

"I explained to them why I was there," Kleinerman said. "That really should have ended it, even if there was something odd about what I was doing. Yet for 45 minutes, they kept trying to get my name and information and seemed to get more upset with me the more I wouldn't comply."

G.W. Schulz (gwschulz@cironline.org) and Andrew Becker (abecker@cironline .org) are reporters at the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Berkeley, Calif. Daniel Zwerdling (dzwerdling@npr.org) is a reporter for NPR. Margot Williams of NPR contributed to this report.

© 2014 Star Tribune