I Spy

My Not-So-Secret Life as an FBI Informant

I recognized him by the back of his head as soon as I walked into the candlelit bar: Ameen, the Egyptian car-service driver. The cocksure young man who had argued politics with me from Brooklyn to Manhattan, gesturing with one hand and steering with the other. Who had told me back in July 2001 that something terrible was going to happen in New York, and that Osama bin Laden would be responsible. The guy I had handed over to the FBI. Whose life had been disrupted. Whose phone had been tapped. Whose family had been questioned. Because of me.

On the phone, setting up a time to meet, Ameen* had used flattery. "You live in Brooklyn?" he asked "Why don't I know you? Are you sure I haven't told you you are beautiful? I bother everybody in the neighborhood." It felt like the most awkward possible blind date. You're flirting with me even though you know I turned you in to the feds as a potential terrorist?

He didn't look around when I walked in the door, so I had one more moment to observe him unobserved: tight black curls, crisp button-down shirt. In front of him, a bottle of Corona with a slice of lime. Pack of Marlboro Lights at the ready. Talking, talking, talking, to whoever was next to him.

illustration: Max Grafe

I approached the bar and said his name. He swiveled quickly to meet my gaze, smiled instantly and easily, and put out his hand. I was close enough to smell his cologne. "Sarah?" he said in his lightly accented voice, his dark brown eyes sparkling. "So glad to meet you."

My brief career as an FBI informant began on September 13, 2001. It's the kind of experience that Attorney General John Ashcroft would like to encourage. There are all sorts of hot lines you can call if you want to be one, too. The federal TIPS line is geared toward people who might spot suspicious activities while they're on the job, like cable employees and postal workers. New York State just set up its own TIPS line after the recent bust of six young Middle Eastern men from Lackawanna, New York; authorities say civilian informants helped in that case. The government wants you to think that an ordinary citizen like you can help save the United States from the forces of terrorism. That's what I wanted to think, too.

Still, making that call violated every principle of New York neighborliness I knew. This is a city built on the solidarity of individuality, in which people's privacy, their right to go about their business—even, sometimes, illegal business—is a civic birthright. But when we were attacked on September 11, the rules changed. We became a small town, in more ways than one. Now, as in a small town, certain people among us are cause for suspicion and must be watched carefully.

But back on July 16, 2001, we were still playing by the old rules. That was the day Ameen showed up in a livery cab sent to take me to a morning appointment in Manhattan. He started talking as soon as I got in the backseat, bragging about a movie star and a director he had driven around town the previous weekend.

We were nearly halfway over the Brooklyn Bridge when he changed the subject.

As we crossed the river, on a bright sunny day very much like the day that awaited us two months in the future, he said, "You know, I am leaving the country and going home to Egypt sometime in late August or September. I have gotten e-mails from people I know saying that Osama bin Laden has planned big terrorist attacks for New York and Washington for that time. It will not be safe here then."

In my memory—I trust my memory here—we were swinging onto the FDR Drive, the shimmering twin towers already behind us and out of sight, when I responded. Something noncommittal and earnestly liberal about how I didn't worry about terrorism, how I believed in the goodness of the Muslim people of the world. Then things started getting ugly. I told him I had a job in the media. He started complaining about Jewish control of the American press. I told him I thought his opinions were based on ignorance.

By the time we reached my destination on the Upper East Side, a chill had settled over the car. I tipped him generously—as if this were proof of my high-mindedness—but as I got out, I realized I was pissed off. I had been so reasonable. Why had he persisted with that anti-Semitic nonsense?

Angry as I was, I did not think to fear this smiling, charming man. I did not think to call the FBI and report his warning. I'm no stool pigeon. After all, 50 years earlier, my innocent grandfather, an Italian opera singer named Ezio Pinza, had been thrown in an internment camp by Hoover's G-men—detained for several months as an enemy alien in wartime, without ever seeing the charges against him. I was not going to be a party to government surveillance of this obviously harmless driver. That wouldn't be my style.

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