Momma Said There’d Be Days Like This

by Belle Waring on May 25, 2004

My mother was visiting here in Singapore when Brandon Mayfield was first arrested in Oregon. The FBI claimed to have found his fingerprint on a plastic bag associated with bomb materials turned up by Spanish investigators of the Madrid train bombings. Mayfield is a white American convert to Islam, and was tangentially associated with one of the men convicted in an Oregon terrorism case (Jeffrey Battle), having represented him in a custody dispute. He claimed not to have been outside the US in nearly ten years, a claim made all the more plausible by the fact that he does not currently have a valid passport.

Mom’s verdict: this is a total set-up. The FBI has been monitoring this guy for a while and now they want to pin something on him. But Mom, I said stupidly, granting that fingerprint matching is not a particularly exact science, and wrong ID’s do happen, what are the odds that the wrong match would happen to be a convert to Islam with any connection, no matter how tenuous, to any alleged terrorists? And she said, exactly. You just wait and see. Well, once again, she was right (though, as of a few days ago, he was still barred from talking about the case or leaving his house without permission from the authorities). Here is a quote from the official FBI apology to Mayfield (I’m actually pleased and suprised that they did apologize, so, 10 points for the FBI):

The submitted images [of the latent prints from Spain] were searched through the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS).

An IAFIS search compares an unknown print to a database of millions of known prints. The result of an IAFIS search produces a short list of potential matches.

A trained fingerprint examiner then takes the short list of possible matches and performs an examination to determine whether the unknown print matches a known print in the database.

Using standard protocols and methodologies, FBI fingerprint examiners determined that the latent fingerprint was of value for identification purposes.

This print was subsequently linked to Brandon Mayfield. That association was independently analyzed and the results were confirmed by an outside experienced fingerprint expert.

Soon after the submitted fingerprint was associated with Mr. Mayfield, Spanish authorities alerted the FBI to additional information that cast doubt on our findings.

As a result, the FBI sent two fingerprint examiners to Madrid, who compared the image the FBI had been provided to the image the Spanish authorities had.

Upon review it was determined that the FBI identification was based on an image of substandard quality, which was particularly problematic because of the remarkable number of points of similarity between Mr. Mayfield’s prints and the print details in the images submitted to the FBI.

Note that the FBI all along spoke of “a fingerprint”, while the Spanish now say that the fingerprints of an Algerian man, Ouhane Daoud were found:

Spanish authorities, however, expressed doubts from the start about the FBI’s fingerprint match. Yesterday, officials in Spain released a statement saying the fingerprints belong to an Algerian, Ouhnane Daoud. The Europa Press news agency reported Daoud had a residency permit to live in Spain and had a police record.

“The extensive and meticulous work of the Spanish scientific police has determined completely that the fingerprint identifications are of the medium and thumb fingers of the Algerian’s right hand,” Spanish authorities said.

From the same article: “Newsweek, which broke the story, quoted an unnamed U.S. counterterrorism official as saying the fingerprints were an “absolutely incontrovertible match.” So, the FBI was looking at a constellation of the medium and thumb prints of a single person’s hand, and claiming to have found a match with only one of those prints. Likely? Was he wearing some kind of Mission Impossible fingerprint mask, but only on his thumb?

Seriously, does anyone believe that the FBI innocently ran this through a general database and just happened to mistakenly come up with a Muslim advocate for one of the “Portland Seven”? Not to get all Ockham’s razorish on you, but isn’t it much more plausible that the FBI had a hard-on for Mayfield and tried to pin a heinous crime on him? The most charitable explanation is that the FBI ran the prints against a special secret list of suspicious Muslims, and Mayfield’s was the closest match. But is that so great? And, given that Mike Hawash and co. faced the threat of indefinite detention without access to counsel (the Padilla treatment), how secure are you feeling about their guilty pleas now?

I know the Constitution isn’t a suicide pact, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable for the FBI to focus on adherents of Islam rather than, say, Lutherans when fighting extremist Islamic terrorism. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if the government knows how to “only sort of” violate your rights. The dial goes all the way to eleven, right from the start. Sorry, Mom. I’ve learned my lesson. Next time, I promise not to trust the government.

(Timberite fans of my mom’s no-nonsense hatin’ on the government should be aware that she’s also a total babe.)

UPDATE: Mayfield was indeed already under FBI surveillance prior to the bombing: “In a report prepared more than three weeks ago by Spanish police about the lead involving Mayfield, he was described as a U.S. military veteran who was already under investigation by U.S. authorities for alleged ties to Islamic terrorism.”

Hat Tip: my mom.



P O'Neill 05.25.04 at 4:02 am

And how about this whole crock of the “material witness” warrant? The Administration loves to talk about the US respecting the principle of innocent till proven guilty (except for terrorists) and even people who know better will claim that evil countries like France have preventive detention where innocent people can be locked up while only under investigation…except…that’s exactly what a material witness warrant does. Lock up first, ask questions later. Another end-run around the constitution.


Giles 05.25.04 at 5:32 am

“The result of an IAFIS search produces a short list of potential matches.”

“seriously, does anyone believe that the FBI innocently ran this through a general database and just happened to mistakenly come up with a Muslim advocate for one of the “Portland Seven”?”

The FBI says it came up with a list – not just one persone – but a list out of which the most likely suspect was selected.

So your whole premis is false


Belle Waring 05.25.04 at 5:42 am

No, I don’t think so. The fact that there were two stages, first the large database and then the short list, doesn’t detract from the overall unlikeliness that a misidentified print would — just by chnce– belong to a Muslim already under FBI surveillance, rather than one of the hundreds of millions of Americans who are not. The FBI says that he was picked off the short list based on careful fingerprint analysis, not external factors. I don’t buy it.


Giles 05.25.04 at 7:08 am

No, he was selected off the list because he was a “Muslim already under FBI surveillance,” as opposed to a the 70 year old granny in Fairbanks or whoever else was on the list. And since you dont know what the list was, you’re rather jumping to conclusions speculating that he was infact the most innocent sounding person on the list.

Think about it, tt’d be a strange police service that investigated the least likely suspects first.


Greg Hunter 05.25.04 at 11:29 am

Mayfield appears to be a set up, but so is every part of the Patriot Act. The Act was sold as strictly a terror-fighting tool. However, it appears to be a criminal enforcement tool and it is being sold to the American Public, and indirectly the world (in the Mayfield Case), through John Ashcroft’s targeting of Child Pornographers and Drug Runners.

If one equates this process with the break down at Abu Ghraib, the future for American/World citizens under the Patriot Act does not look good.


arthegall 05.25.04 at 11:56 am

Not to get all Ockham’s razorish on you

I guess it depends on what the value of your prior is. And, not to defend the FBI here (which pretty obviously made a gross mistake), but “surveillance” != “investigation,” right?


daithi mac mhaolmhuaidh 05.25.04 at 1:31 pm

The most charitable explanation is that the FBI ran the prints against a special secret list of suspicious Muslims, and Mayfield’s was the closest match. But is that so great?

No it most certainly is not. And well done your skeptical mother.


Barry 05.25.04 at 3:03 pm

And the two-stage process leads to a question: it’s reasonable that the initial set of [potential] matches were done automatically. However, once a short list was generated, a re-check should have been done.


Your Devoted Mom 05.25.04 at 3:32 pm

If Allah comes down to my house this afternoon in all splendiferous godhood, I would still have to say “No Way. Talk to the hand, Allah. This is the US of A and I’m not converting”.

My favorite part of the story about the bust on Mayfield’s house was the confiscation of his children’s Spanish homework,[AHA WE CAUGHT HIM] as evidence of a connection to Spain. I hear the kids are getting their workbooks back and hopefully their teachers won’t fail them for not turning in their notebooks on time.

I miss you guys. Your most devoted fan, yr Mom


notanumber 05.25.04 at 3:35 pm

I wonder who the “independent expert” is, and how “independent” she/he really is?


Giles 05.25.04 at 8:04 pm

It would seem that Oregen and fingerprints dont work too well together:

At San Jose Superior Court today (11 May) biometrics company Identix will seek to have a product liability and slander lawsuit against it and the States of California and Oregon dismissed. Plaintiffs Roger Benson and Miguel Espinoza are seeking restitution for the damage inflicted on them by duplication in police records which gave them other people’s criminal records.

Benson was wrongfully imprisoned for 43 days for carrying a firearm when a convicted felon, although the felony on his record had been committed by someone else, while Espinoza, had his restaurant business destroyed by a false record of a criminally negligent homicide conviction. The plaintiffs claim that their problems stemmed from Identix’s Livescan 10-print, a fingerprint scanner used to enter fingerprint data into police systems. Two months ago Identix was re-confirmed as the winner of a Department of Homeland Security Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA) for fingeprint systems, this being worth and estimated $27 million over five years. Identix is also supplying equipment for the UK Passport Service’s ID card pilot, so one might reasonably consider that the stakes in San Jose Superior Court will be rather high.


Tom T. 05.26.04 at 3:03 am

You denounce the FBI for the apparent assumption that if Hawash is guilty, then Mayfield must be too, but then you suggest that since Mayfield is apparently innocent, then Hawash must be too.

Also, bear in mind that the FBI has very recently been beaten over the head by the 9/11 commission (and various people who tend toward “hatin’ on the government”) for having failed to connect various dots prior to that date. Presumably one effect of that criticism has been to suggest to the FBI that it is currently better to err a bit on the side of overly aggressive dot-connecting.


Matt Weiner 05.26.04 at 6:45 pm

This morning I read (above the fold in a newspaper vending-box) that the FBI was so confident about Mayfield that they never looked at the original fingerprint. Does that strike you as behavior induced by excessive caution and concern over screwing up?


Tom T. 05.27.04 at 12:33 am

Indeed not, and that’s precisely my point. Current incentives toward “overly aggressive dot-connecting” push the FBI away from “excessive caution and concern over screwing up.”


Matt Weiner 05.27.04 at 3:51 am

Well, I don’t think the FBI earns any brownie points by failing to examine the goddamn evidence. I mean, the message I got from the 9/11 hearings was not “Make more shit up, please.” I recommend that there are two imperatives that potentially conflict but I think it’s pretty easy to see that they don’t conflict in this case–locking up people whose innocence you can easily check doesn’t make us any safer.

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