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. A similar project was aimed at Sunni Arabs in the Washington, D.C., 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.
A check of federal court records in California did not reveal any prosecutions developed from falafel trails.
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson would neither confirm nor deny that the bureau ran such data mining, or forward-leaning “domain management,” experiments, but said he would continue to investigate. “It sounds pretty sensational to me,” he said, upon his initial review of the allegation. The techniques were briefly mentioned last year in a PBS Frontline special, “The Enemy Within”.
Mason, who is leaving the FBI to become security chief for Verizon, could not be reached for comment. (MORE)