The Boston Joint Terrorism Taskforce, or JTTF, consists of federal agents, U.S. prosecutors, and local and state police. It has come to rely more and more on the public to help it uncover potential suspects and acts of terrorism.
But this reliance on tips raises serious concerns about the possibility of racial and religious profiling.
“If you see something, say something.” It’s a refrain that plays over and over at Boston’s Logan Airport, like a catchy tune in your head that you would sometimes rather forget.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Harold “Hank” Shaw presides over five regional JTTF offices — and the annex here at Logan. He recognizes that what has become one of his office’s best tools can also be problematic.
How does he deal with the reality that something someone sees and reports could be predicated on prejudice?
“One of the first steps we will do is go back and really get the details from the complainant," Shaw explained. "We have one going on right now where we spend a lot of time going back and speaking with the individual who brought the complaint to really be sure about what they have heard or what they said."
The JTTF doesn't conduct surveillance on people simply because someone else reported them as a possible person of interest, according to Shaw.
“It’s just basically sitting down and going through the details with the complainant,” he said.
But the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, says that when the public is asked to say something if they see something, what they often see is someone wearing a hijab or headscarf rather than a legitimate threat. Civil rights groups point to examples like the two Muslim women pulled off a Jet Blue flight from Boston to Los Angeles last spring after the cabin crew noticed one of them filming the safety instructions.
John Robbins, who heads up CAIR Massachusetts, says the counterterrorism community is relying more on the public at a time when the FBI is also reporting an increase in hate crimes.
While the JTTF is working to protect Muslim institutions, Robins said, it is also "over-scrutinizing" the Muslim community. “We’ve really insisted that no member of the mosque community be approached without having an attorney present, because this is obviously standard civil liberties and civil rights procedure for any group within the United States, whether they're Muslim-American, Christian-American, or Jewish-American," he said. "We believe everybody should exercise their rights.”
JTTF officials bristle at the suggestion that they racially profile. FBI counterintelligence chief Peter Kowenhoven says the agency investigates potential terrorists of every stripe.
“We look at all those threats that come in — the white supremacists, the sovereign citizens. And we look at those through the purview of domestic terrorism and the hate crimes that follow," he explained.
Kowenhoven asks the public to consider a range of factors before calling in what they might perceive as a terrorist threat: “Is that behavior something that's unusual and something that we may see it as an indicator that maybe something nefarious is going on?”
This year marks the 30-year anniversary of the creation of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The evolving dangers posed by ISIS, right wing terrorists, and lone wolves mean it will probably be around a lot longer, Kowenhoven says — warts and all.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING CAMPAIGN