Savage Minds drew my attention to the story, reported originally in the Standard Times South Coast Today, that a UMass Dartmouth student was visited by the Department of Homeland Security after requesting a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book via interlibrary loan.
My initial reaction, posted to Savage Minds, was that the story seemed a bit… odd. It’s admittedly been a while since I lived in the US, but I never had to provide my social security number to request a book from interlibrary loan. And then there’s the issue of Homeland Security priorities: why would a request for a single work by Mao take priority, given all of the other issues students and faculty research that are more closely related to immediate security threats? And the further problem that the story is essentially a third-hand account: a student described the incident to two professors, who in turn recounted it several weeks later to a news reporter looking for reactions to the recent revelations on Bush’s authorisation of warrantless surveillance of US citizens.
Not surprisingly, others had similar questions and, as the story bounced around the blogosphere, some of these folks set about investigating whether the story were a hoax. (I was lazier – after some initial internet searches to confirm that the newspaper and reporter appear to be real, and that the professors named in the article appear to exist and teach in relevant areas, I satisfied myself with emailing the problem to the good folks at Snopes.)
As this investigation has unfolded, the story has become, if anything, odder than the one reported in the original article. A copycat story, repeating the narrative of the original, but transposing the events to UCSC and naming Bruce Levine as the faculty source, began circulating – and was quickly demonstrated to be a hoax. And minor facts of the original article were also quickly disproven: social security numbers are not collected by UMass Dartmouth for campus transactions – whether for interlibrary loan or other purposes – nor does the library there have any record of anyone placing an interlibrary loan request for Mao’s Little Red Book.
At the same time, the reporter who published the original story has insisted that the story was sincere, and that he published after confirmation from the two university professors named in the article. One of those professors – Brian Glyn Williams – has stepped forward to defend the still-anonymous student but, in the process, has provided a few other details about the incident that are stranger than those reported in the original article. According to Williams, UMass has no record of the interlibrary loan request because the request was made through another library entirely, and the Homeland Security officers personally picked up the offending book from the source library, and took it with them to the student’s home, when they went to enquire to what purpose the student had requested the book.
The story now sits in a very awkward place, with many people suspecting that the student may have misrepresented the facts, or even invented the story in its entirety, without realising that it would suddenly reach a far wider – and more critical – audience. Others have argued that, if the story has even a grain of truth, it merits concern – and that the recent wiretapping revelations lend the story some credence, even if specific facts may not be fully correct.
I have to position myself on the skeptical side of the continuum on this one. I am very curious to know whether there is any relation between the story as reported, and the actual events (was the student visited by Homeland Security, but for another reason? was there some inadvertant miscommunication between the professors and the student, resulting in a somewhat distorted story that hit the press? etc.). Others are trying to get the student to come forward, and Homeland Security to comment, so we may have a clearer story soon.
Update (22 Dec.): While Boing Boing has posted an update that quotes library and university sources who do not believe the story is a hoax, Aaron Nicodemus, the reporter who originally broke the story, has published an update that quotes sources from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI who are highly skeptical that an investigation would proceed as reported in the original article. Nicodemus writes:
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said the story seemed unlikely.
“We’re aware of the claims,” said Kirk Whitworth, a DHS spokesman in Washington, D.C.
“However, the scenario sounds unlikely because investigations are based on violation of law, not on the books an individual might check out from the library.”
Mr. Whitworth pointed out that while the original story stated the student was visited by agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the DHS does not actually have its own agents. Under the umbrella of the DHS are Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Inspector General, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Coast Guard, among others.
Mr. Whitworth could not comment on the record whether the agency monitors inter-library loans, or whether there is a watch list of books that the agency maintains.
An FBI spokeswoman was similarly skeptical.
“I have never heard that we would go after someone because of a book,” said Gail Marcinkiewicz, who works in the FBI’s Boston office. “That event in itself is not a criminal activity. I can’t imagine how we would follow up something like that. Everyone is protected under the First Amendment, which would include what you would read.”
Nicodemus has attempted to contact the student and the student’s parents, but they have refused to comment.
Update (24 Dec): BoingBoing now reports that the story has been confirmed as a hoax. News articles covering the hoax admission can be found at the Boston Globe, and at South Coast Today. It will be interesting to see, as Robert KC Johnson has asked, what action, if any, UMass Dartmouth will take. It will also be interesting to see, as Savage Minds has suggested, whether this hoax will now be used to discredit legitimate accounts of the abuse of investigative powers in the war on terror.