Friday, 02 August 2013 18:10

Backpacks, Pressure Cookers, and the Truth

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When Michele Catalano blogged yesterday using the title “pressure cookers, backpacks and quinoa, oh my!” it didn't gain purchase until it was picked up by The Guardian. From there the story jumped to The Atlantic Wire which, 24 hours later, had more than a third of a million views.

Catalano used to be the music editor for Forbes but now mostly freelances at The Magazine, Maura Magazine, and Boing. Her husband, Todd Pinnell, used to work as a product manager at Speco Technologies but at present seems to spend most of his days at home.

And so when three black SUVs from the Suffolk County (New York) Police Department showed up in front of their home on Wednesday with six plain clothes detectives aboard at 9 a.m., Pinnell was there to greet them. Forty-five minutes later Pinnell called his wife, who then riffed on what happened:

It was a confluence of magnificent proportions that led six agents from the joint terrorism task force to knock on my door Wednesday morning. Little did we know our seemingly innocent, if curious to a fault, Googling of certain things was creating a perfect storm of terrorism profiling. Because somewhere out there, someone was watching. Someone whose job it is to piece together the things people do on the internet raised the red flag when they saw our search history.

There were enough errors and false assumptions buried in just this opening paragraph that it took a massive effort at The Atlantic Wire to make sense of it all. Catalano’s basic assumption was that the surveillance state is watching everything, recording everything, and storing everything. Revelations just in the past week have revealed that many of her assumptions were correct. But just not in this particular instance. For example, there was no “confluence of magnificent proportions,” there was no “joint terrorism task force” involved, it had little to do with Google providing the cops with the lead, but she was correct when she said that “somewhere out there, someone was watching.” What she didn't know, at the time, was just who was doing the watching. Wrote Catalano:

I had researched pressure cookers. My husband was looking for a backpack. And maybe in another time those two things together would have seemed innocuous, but we are in “these times” now.

And in these times, when things like the Boston bombing happen, you spend a lot of time on the internet reading about it and, if you are my exceedingly curious news junkie of a twenty-year-old son, you click a lot of links when you read the myriad of stories. You might just read a CNN piece about how bomb making instructions are readily available on the internet and you will in all probability, if you are that kid, click the link provided....

My son’s reading habits combined with my search for a pressure cooker and my husband’s search for a backpack set off an alarm of sorts at the joint terrorism task force headquarters.

The only problem is that, in this case at least, the people watching resided at her husband’s previous place of employment. After Pinnell left Speco, a routine cleaning of his office computer uncovered searches for backpacks and pressure cookers, and someone there called the police. It’s unclear if this was some form of retribution or genuine concern that their previously loyal employee was actually a budding terrorist. Only the Suffolk County PD were involved. Not the Nassau County PD or the FBI or its Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). They could have been. Under different circumstances, they might have been. But not on Wednesday, July 31, at Catalano’s home.

This is how the Suffolk County PD responded when pressed for details:

Suffolk County Criminal Intelligence Detectives received a tip from a Bay Shore based computer company regarding suspicious computer searches conducted by a recently released employee. The former employee’s computer searches took place on this employee’s workplace computer. On that computer, the employee searched the terms “pressure cooker bombs” and “backpacks.”

After interviewing the company representatives, Suffolk County Police Detectives visited the subject’s home to ask about the suspicious internet searches. The incident was investigated by Suffolk County Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Detectives and was determined to be non-criminal in nature.

Catalano described that investigation:

Six gentlemen in casual clothes emerged from the vehicles and spread out as they walked toward the house, two toward the backyard on one side, two on the other side, two toward the front door.

A million things went through my husband’s head. None of which were right. He walked outside and the men greeted him by flashing badges. He could see they all had guns holstered in their waistbands.

“Are you [Todd Pinnell]?” one asked while glancing at a clipboard. He affirmed that was indeed him, and was asked if they could come in.

Sure, he said.

They asked if they could search the house, though it turned out to be just a cursory search. They walked around the living room, studied the books on the shelf (nope, no bomb making books, no Anarchist Cookbook), looked at all our pictures, glanced into our bedroom, pet our dogs. They asked if they could go in my son’s bedroom but when my husband said my son was sleeping in there, they let it be.

Meanwhile, they were peppering my husband with questions. Where is he from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked.

After 45 minutes, finding nothing suspicious, the “six gentlemen” left, Pinnell called his wife, her genuine concerns about the surveillance state kicked in, and the rest is history.

In validating and exploring the background of Catalano’s blog, the writers  from The Atlantic Wire confirmed what she feared about the declining state of privacy in the country:

Local and state authorities work jointly with federal officials on terror investigations similar to the one Catalano describes. Both Suffolk and Nassau County's police departments are members of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF)....

Suffolk County is also home to a "fusion center," a regionally located locus for terror investigations associated with the Department of Homeland Security....

The task force deputizes local authorities as federal marshals, including some in Suffolk and Nassau, who can then act on its behalf.

Lessons learned? The surveillance net over the country is unnervingly omnipresent. Local law enforcement officers can be deputized and thus granted federal powers. And they will make house calls, where appropriate.

On the other hand, Pinnell was only too willing to let the officers into his home without question. He failed to ask why. He failed to ask if they had a search warrant, signed by a judge, specifically noting the items to be searched, as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. He failed to exercise his right to remain silent. He failed to refuse to answer questions without his attorney being present. By letting them into his home, all Fourth Amendment rights he has disappeared and the officials were free to roam at will.

And roam they did: bedrooms, living room, kitchen, back yard, and garage. That they found nothing was a blessing for Catalano and Pinnell. But they might have, and that evidence could have been used against them, even without a search warrant. 

Despite Catalano’s concerns about the loss of privacy, there is one other massive roadblock to the surveillance state: a human being — out there, somewhere — has to sort through the nearly unimaginable amount of data being hoovered by PRISM and other surveillance technologies in order to put the pieces together and build a case for an in-person investigation by local authorities deputized with federal powers.

In the Catalano/Pinnell/backpack/pressure cooker case, however, the lead was handed to them on a silver platter.


A graduate of Cornell University and a former investment advisor, Bob is a regular contributor to The New American magazine and blogs frequently at, primarily on economics and politics. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

1 comment

  • Comment Link J. Warren Clark Saturday, 03 August 2013 12:54 posted by J. Warren Clark

    "On the other hand, Pinnell was only too willing to let the officers into his home without question. He failed to ask why. He failed to ask if they had a search warrant, signed by a judge, specifically noting the items to be searched, as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. He failed to exercise his right to remain silent. He failed to refuse to answer questions without his attorney being present. By letting them into his home, all Fourth Amendment rights he has disappeared and the officials were free to roam at will."

    Really, this is the central part of the news item. The surveillance state is not news--though the net is widening and tightening at the same time that it is speeding up. Nevertheless for those who are watching it is nothing new--it is simply in the nature of things that evil will expand if not resisted. But here you have an intelligent, well educated, and presumably well read man who:
    0ne) is not on guard (and in any case probably hasn't the wherewithal to defend himself and his family) when 6 armed and unknown men come on his property,
    Two) is not offended by the same,
    Three) is not angry by the stupid presumptuousness of it,
    Four) does not ask to see a legitimate warrant, or copy their names and badge numbers down,
    Five) freely and without any coercion allows local/federal agents to enter the sanctity of his home and go wherever they please--which once you let them in they have the right to do!,
    Six) gives up immediately his Fourth Amendment rights,
    Seven) gives up immediately and stupidly his First Amendment rights to remain silent,
    Eight) does not, on principle, send them packing and,
    Nine) does not interrogate them correct them before sending them on their way, and
    Ten) if he even has one, probably could not lay his hands on a copy of the Constitution without an hour search and probably hasn't read it since he was in school!
    So, in essence what DID he do? Well, like all good citizens of a police state, he just rolled over and gave them his belly! This is contemptible.

    Now, you may be asking, and I hope you are, "Why would he do such a stupid and dangerous thing," and I would like to address that in all its simplicity. There are limited possibilities none of which are in any way intelligent or justified because any encouragement only emboldens these criminals--and they are criminals if the Law and the words it is couched in have any meaning!
    First, I think it is this man's habit to yield to (instead of questioning) authority whenever he encounters it.
    Next, I think he knows well enough the facts of our current constitutional situation and the fact that we are now living in a (soft and sometimes not so soft) security/police state, but (for whatever reason: laziness, timidity, naivete, stupidity, cowardliness) has not studied it with sufficient care to see that situation either in terms of its nature or its implications.
    Or, lastly, he like so many Americans (I won't call them American citizens) has his timid, foolish and complaisant head in proverbial sand.
    One thing is clear though, he like so many of my neighbors, on both sides of the insidious and dangerous (G. Washington) party divide, he does not see that the decline we are on will neither stop of itself nor with mere words from timid journalists with only a shallow understanding of the crisis we are in. The monsters who run the show, and it is a show, understand only two things (if you leave out money) and those are numbers and force. And this is a philosophical and metaphysical certainty since this is all they understand--money, numbers, and force all manipulated by their primary method which is, as Dostoevski taught, deceit.
    This, namely the fact that so many otherwise intelligent Americans are completely cowed by any form of "authority," is the real story here and if those same "citizens" do not begin to stand up and say no, to refuse consent, and in a very very large way, then the "Grand Experiment" is over and in the short space of two generations, 53 years, a formerly free republic has allowed itself to become the very tyranny that it sacrificed hundreds of thousands lives to defeat--based of course upon the foolish notion that by continual invasion of sovereign foreign nations, (and without any Constitutional sanction whatsoever) we could preserve the very same for ourselves. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Did I mention the stupidity of this?
    So I say to Americans of all parties: you had better gird up your loins, stand firm at the door, and make them arrest or shoot you if they want access to the sanctity of your homes.
    Oh, and kick the bums out, cut off their corporate coffers, institute term limits with teeth, and take back the powers that properly belong to the states! The Constitution is a compendium of Natural Law. Thus in addition to being a fine Law book, it is in fact a sacred document and if we throw it out we will not likely get a new one even half as good--I mean, who would write it, Blitzer and Biden!? Clearly, we had better use the one we have; that is our only chance--and may God have mercy on our timid and oh so foolish souls. JWC

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