New York woman visited by police after researching pressure cookers online
by Adam Gabbatt
August 1, 2013
A New York woman says her family’s interest in the purchase of pressure cookers and backpacks led to a home visit by six police investigators demanding information about her job, her husband’s ancestry and the preparation of quinoa.
Michele Catalano, who lives in Long Island, New York, said her web searches for pressure cookers, her husband’s hunt for backpacks and her “news junkie” son’s craving for information on the Boston bombings had combined somewhere in the internet ether to create a “perfect storm of terrorism profiling”.
Members of what she described as a “joint terrorism task force” descended on Catalano’s home on Wednesday.
Catalano was at work, but her husband was sitting in the living room as the police arrived. She retold the experience in a post on Medium.com on Thursday. She attributed the raid largely to her hunt for a pressure cooker, an item used devastatingly by the two Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, but also used by millions across the country to prepare vegetables while retaining most of their nutrients.
The story later took on a different complexion when police finally explained that the investigation was prompted by searches a family member had made for pressure cooker bombs and backpacks made at his former workplace. The former employer, believing the searches to be suspicious, alerted police. Catalano said the family member was her husband.
In her first post, Catalano, a writer for indie music and politics magazine Death and Taxes wrote:
What happened was this: At about 9:00 am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. He looked out the window and saw three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving.
Six gentleman 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 [name redacted]?” 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.
At this point, Catalano said, the police 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.”
It was at this point that the conversation took a delightfully culinary turn, with quinoa making an unlikely appearance in the police inquiries:
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.
The joint terrorism task force did not press Catalano’s husband on the dilemma facing liberals over whether quinoa consumption is ethically sound – many Bolivians can no longer afford their staple food now everyone in Brooklyn is eating it.
“By this point they had realised they were not dealing with terrorists,” Catalano said.
Still, she was left worried by the visit, which she attributes to her family’s internet history.
I felt a sense of creeping dread take over. What else had I looked up? What kind of searches did I do that alone seemed innocent enough but put together could make someone suspicious? Were they judging me because my house was a mess (Oh my god, the joint terrorism task force was in my house and there were dirty dishes in my sink!). Mostly I felt a great sense of anxiety. This is where we are at. Where you have no expectation of privacy. Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list. Where you have to watch every little thing you do because someone else is watching every little thing you do.
All I know is if I’m going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I’m not doing it online.
I’m scared. And not of the right things.
Late on Thursday, Suffolk County police confirmed its officers had gone to the house, but explained that it was as the result of a tipoff and was not due to monitoring of home internet searches.
In a statement, the office of the county’s police commissioner said:
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 the visit the incident was “determined to be non-criminal in nature”, the statement said.
Earlier on Thursday, the FBI told the Guardian that Catalano was visited by the Nassau County police department working in conjunction with Suffolk County police department. “From our understanding, both of those counties are involved,” said FBI spokeswoman Kelly Langmesser. She said Suffolk County initiated the action and that Nassau County became involved, but would not elaborate on what that meant.
The Nassau County police department said Catalano “was not visited by the Nassau police department” and denied involvement in the situation.
In a new post on her Tumblr on Thursday, Catalano said: “We found out through the Suffolk police department that the searches involved also things my husband looked up at his old job. We were not made aware of this at the time of questioning and were led to believe it was solely from searches from within our house.”