On March 11, 2004, a series of bombings took place in Madrid which killed 191 people and injured 2,000. A fingerprint lifted from a bag of detonator caps was erroneously identified by the FBI as belonging to Brandon Mayfield, a 37 year old lawyer in Portland, Oregon. Although Mayfield was living more than 5,000 miles away from Madrid and there was no evidence that he had been outside the country, and despite the doubts of Spanish authorities about the fingerprint match, what sealed the deal for the FBI was that Mayfield’s wife was from Egypt and he had converted to Islam and had Moslem clients. As far as they were concerned, he had to be a terrorist. As a result, the FBI began a highly intrusive surveillance of Mayfield including wiretaps and searches of his home and office which culminated in his arrest on May 6, 2004 as a material witness, a detention which lasted two weeks. As Mayfield described his ordeal
The days, weeks and months following my arrest were some of the darkest we have had to endure. I personally was subject to lockdown, strip searches, sleep deprivation, unsanitary living conditions, shackles and chains, threats, physical pain and humiliation.
It is important to realize the intensity of the government’s pressure on Mayfield. They were hanging death penalty offenses over him and generally terrorizing both him and his family. In this, the government’s investigation recalls the heavy-handedness and sloppiness of its anthrax investigations (see item 366).
Nevertheless, a January 6, 2006 report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General Glenn Fine, in a fairly typical whitewash characteristic of IG reports, found that the FBI had not misused any provisions of the Patriot Act although it noted that the government’s sharing of information on Mayfield to other agencies had amplified the effects of its “mistake”.
On November 29, 2006, the government settled with Mayfield for $2 million. It issued him an apology, and allowed his case challenging the Constitutional validity on 4th Amendment grounds of the Patriot Act to go forward.
With great power comes great responsibility. Along with understanding a lot about human nature, the Founders understood this. They knew from their own experience that there were plenty of fools and zealots who would abuse and misuse any power that was given to them. It is why they were so careful to make sure that no power went unchecked. Post-9/11, the Bush Administration went on a bender and with considerable help, or complicit silence, from the Democrats undid many of the simple lessons that the Founders struggled so hard and sacrificed so much to bequeath to us. Bush and the political leadership on both sides of the aisle thought they were considerably smarter than the Founders gave them credit for. What they did not understand was that they were the ones the Founders were warning us about.