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FBI Not Using Sale of Middle Eastern Food to Track Terrorists



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Earlier this month, Congressional Quarterly ran a story on how the FBI was tracking the sale of Middle Eastern food as a way to track terrorists:

Like Hansel and Gretel hoping to follow their bread crumbs out of the forest, the FBI sifted through customer data collected by San Francisco-area grocery stores in 2005 and 2006, hoping that sales records of Middle Eastern food would lead to Iranian terrorists.

The idea was that a spike in, say, falafel sales, combined with other data, would lead to Iranian secret agents in the south San Francisco-San Jose area.

The brainchild of top FBI counterterrorism officials Phil Mudd and Willie T. Hulon, according to well-informed sources, the project didn’t last long. It was torpedoed by the head of the FBI’s criminal investigations division, Michael A. Mason, who argued that putting somebody on a terrorist list for what they ate was ridiculous — and possibly illegal.

And the MSM ate it up, literally.  From the LA Times Opinion Blog, for example:

“FBI Hoped to Follow Falafel Trail to Iranian Terrorists Here”

No, it’s NOT an Onion article. It’s a real-news piece from Congressional Quarterly, documenting one of the FBI’s increasingly desperate attempts to make terror out of teriyaki. Bad metaphor, but…

Like Hansel and Gretel hoping to follow their bread crumbs out of the forest, the FBI sifted through customer data collected by San Francisco-area grocery stores in 2005 and 2006, hoping that sales records of Middle Eastern food would lead to Iranian terrorists. 

Of course, I need to start out by pointing out how absurd this short-lived plan was. It’s like saying you can track Americans traveling around the world because they all head to the nearest McDonalds! Oh, wait…

And ABC.  And Al Gore’s Current TV.  Oh, how easy this story fits into the incompetence and civil liberty violation narratives of the press.

However…the story is not true.  Let’s see if the pesky fact that all of this reporting was wrong will make as much news.  Here’s the FBI press release from yesterday

We at the FBI were surprised to read about a supposed FBI program to monitor the sales of Middle Eastern food products in the San Francisco Bay area in support of counterterrorism intelligence gathering (“FBI Hoped to Follow Falafel Trail to Iranian Terrorists Here,” November 2, 2007).

Having never heard of this, I spoke to the counterterrorism managers, who in the story were identified as having hatched the plan, as well as everyone else who would have had any knowledge of it. Nobody did. At one point in the story, writer Jeff Stein opines “as ridiculous as it sounds,” in reference to the alleged food monitoring plan, which reportedly was described to Mr. Stein by “well-informed sources.”

In this case, too ridiculous to be true.

While the story may have been the source of some amusement, I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight on something that touches on something so important as national security and civil liberties.

John Miller
Assistant Director, Office of Public Affairs
Federal Bureau of Investigation



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