I Spy


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.

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.

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.

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.

“But you did,” I said, leaning in toward him, immediately feeling I had something to prove. “I remember very clearly.” And I described it for him. Crossing the bridge. Seeing the towers. Bin Laden’s name. The e-mails from home.

“Oh, you’re right,” Ameen said suddenly, laughing and looking at me again. “But many people knew this.”

Many people knew this. True enough. We’ve been hearing for months that both the FBI and the CIA knew about it, essentially stood by and watched it happen. And yet he was the one who had told me. And on September 11, he was at home in Egypt, thousands of miles from the falling towers.

I had found this out—I had found Ameen himself—from a radio show that aired December 3. He had been interviewed by a WNYC reporter about his experience with the FBI. I recognized him immediately, not just from the identifying details, but also from the lighthearted swagger of his voice.

I was both relieved and distressed when I heard the report. Ameen and his wife spoke of repeated visits from federal agents, of how they were evicted from their apartment, of the uncertainty and sense of injustice they had felt. He had not, however, been arrested. He was not one of the nameless people sitting in a New Jersey prison. Apparently the feds had cleared him.

But the radio report said nothing about Ameen’s foreknowledge of the attacks.

Months after the interview aired, I got up the nerve to call the reporter who did the story and ask her to put me in touch with Ameen. Within a week, I had his cell phone number. It took me a while to dial it. I don’t know what I expected, but I figured it wouldn’t be pleasant. Instead, Ameen joked that I could take him out to a nice dinner because I had turned him in. Within days, we were sitting elbow to elbow in a Brooklyn bar.

Ameen told me the FBI had contacted him first when he was still in Egypt, a few days after September 11. He said they told him they wanted to question him and he told them it would be no problem. Agents met him at JFK when he returned to the United States and subjected him to a lengthy interrogation; he was angered by their suspicions, but claimed he never worried that he would be held for something he hadn’t done. He was a legal immigrant with a green card. He trusted the United States system to protect him. He seemed to have much more faith in that system than I did.

He also was adamant that the information he had shared with me on that July morning was simply common knowledge in the Arab world—and no one in the U.S. government has disproved that. He said he hadn’t left the country in September to protect himself, but to visit his mother, who was gravely ill. “I believe in fate,” he said. “If it is your time to die, there is nothing you can do about it anyway.”

I told him that I didn’t believe in fate. That I believed knowledge could save you sometimes. “What else do you know?” I asked him, only half-joking. “Are there going to be more attacks?”

“Who knows?” he replied. “If they say there is going to be an attack here, it will probably be abroad, and if they say it is going to be abroad, it will be here.” One thing was certain, he said: United States foreign policy was creating legions of new followers for Al Qaeda.

As for the FBI agents themselves, he told me they had tried to recruit him as an informant. “But I would never work with such stupid people,” he said.

I asked him to tell me about himself. He said he grew up in a village near Cairo. He also told me that his uncle had been a mover and shaker in Cairo and had brought him there as a youngster to further his education. He talked about serving in the Egyptian army. He showed me a scar from a bullet wound and said he had gotten it while helping to chase down the terrorists who shot up a bus full of German tourists in 1997. He told me that his marriage had ended, but that he wanted to stay on in the United States. He told me that he had stopped driving for the car service and was working as a “consultant” now. That his goal was to buy a house here.

I realized that there was no way I could be sure whether what he said to me was true.

Ameen was distracted for much of our conversation. A young woman he knew had come into the bar. She was tall and blonde and she gave him a long, close hug when they greeted each other. She ordered a glass of wine and sat a couple of seats away from us, chatting with a friend. I felt his impatience with our conversation; his body yearned toward her.

Before I left, I asked him one last thing. “Are you mad at me for calling the FBI?”

“Mad? No, not at all,” he said, looking at me sideways, a half-smile on his face. “Why should I be mad? I’m clean. If I wasn’t clean, then I would be mad.”

I left him sitting with the blonde. I took one last look at the back of his head as he leaned over and began kissing her. It seemed he was just a guy after all, a 29-year-old guy trying to make it in New York. A guy who knew something, but not too much. Because his papers were in order, he was sitting in that bar with that girl instead of staring at a wall in an anonymous jail cell. My call hadn’t saved the world, but it hadn’t condemned an innocent man, either. He was clean enough. I was clean, too. Or at least as clean as I could be.

Since I tracked down Ameen for this story, I see him on the street all the time. He’s just doing the usual—hanging out with the guys in front of the deli, talking on his cell. We say hello, and it’s perfectly friendly, although there’s an undeniable tension there as well. I guess you could say we’re keeping an eye on each other.

*He asked that his real name not be used.