I Spy

My Not-So-Secret Life as an FBI Informant

In the hours after the towers fell, as the debris rained on my Brooklyn neighborhood and the plume of smoke turned day into hideous twilight, I thought again and again of the glib and handsome driver. For a couple of angst-ridden hours, I even wondered if I could have prevented the horror somehow, if only I had been willing to play the role of informant. If only I had taken him seriously.

And then another part of our conversation came swimming up out of my memory. We had talked about my fear of flying. He was dismissive of my apprehension. He had been, he told me proudly, an air-traffic controller back in Egypt, and was going to air-traffic control school out near LaGuardia so he could do the same work here. He trusted the system because he knew it from the inside.

Suddenly, getting through to the FBI seemed like the most important thing I could do.

illustration: Max Grafe

I was frightened—of reprisal from him and his friends? Of the knock of a federal agent on my own door? I decided to make the call from a pay phone. I got the number from a scroll that crawled by on the television while Ashcroft was speaking woodenly about the duty of American citizens. I scribbled it on a tiny piece of paper, shoved it in my pocket and went looking for a pay phone. An American citizen on her way to do her duty.

This was late in the day on September 11. I hurried from booth to booth in downtown Brooklyn, a safe distance from my neighborhood, I reckoned, and dialed the number until I had it by heart, each time to be greeted by a series of high-pitched tones, a squawk of static, and a woman's voice telling me all circuits were busy. At one booth, I tried for several minutes, looking absentmindedly at a sign that said, "GIVE BLOOD! PEOPLE ARE DYING!"

The next day, I gave up the hope of anonymity and started trying from home. I still couldn't get through. All over the country, I figured, people were dialing that number. People who knew something.

By Thursday, my little piece of information had swollen in my chest. I felt like I might be an unfound piece of some heroic puzzle.

Finally, I walked up to a cop on Court Street and told him my story. He told me to go to the precinct house, that there might be an agent there who could take my statement.

I practically ran through the streets as dusk fell, the smoke to the west billowing in the glare of the rescue workers' lights. Throat stinging, I made my way past the barricades that surrounded the station, hoarsely explaining myself to cop after cop to get to the next layer, until I found myself inside. They showed me to a telephone in a room where two clerical workers were sitting eating Caribbean takeout food. The smell of jerk sauce filled the cramped room. On the other end of the phone was a federal agent.

As I recited my story yet again, I looked around the shabby office. The two women were chewing placidly. I couldn't tell if they were listening. I hunched over the phone as if I were the one with something to hide. When I hung up I realized the agent had never asked me my name.

I walked out into the empty hallway with the adrenaline ebbing from me. I had done it. And I would never know, I figured, what it was worth.

Informant. It's a slightly dirty word. A word that calls up Orwellian excesses, prison blocks, the Berlin Wall. A word for Stalinists and McCarthyites. It's not something you pull out proudly in cocktail conversation. Oh, so you're an informant? How interesting.

Now we're being explicitly encouraged to look at the guy across the hall, at the newsstand, in the airport waiting room, with suspicion. That's what the TIPS program is all about.

The day I reached out to touch the FBI, I couldn't have known just how efficiently and completely the Bush administration would be working to get rid of the legal process as I had known it my entire life. But in the weeks and months that followed, I got the picture pretty quickly. Hundreds of people of Middle Eastern descent were being arrested and held incommunicado, indefinitely, in prisons around the country—for immigration violations or as "material witnesses" in the war on terrorism.

Every time I saw the headlines about those people, I thought of how my grandfather had been interned in a cell on Ellis Island. Every time I saw pictures of the detainees' family members protesting the confinements, I wondered about the driver, the happy-go-lucky driver.

I had to remind myself why I had called in the first place. I had to remind myself that he had known what should have been unknowable.

Ameen's eyes slipped away from mine when I asked him about it more than a year later. He picked up the pack of cigarettes in front of him on the bar, flipping it nervously. "Nooo . . . I didn't tell you that," he said.

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