Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen and convert to Islam, is on trial in Miami. He’s been accused of plotting with al Qaida to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in the United States and faces charges of supporting international terrorist groups.
The testimony offered in a Florida court Tuesday set off a minor panic here in our Cairo bureau. Evidence introduced in Padilla’s case includes phone conversations recorded while he lived in Egypt, where he was studying Arabic and had married an Egyptian woman.
In one February 1999 phone conversation, according to accounts of the testimony, Padilla told his friend (and now codefendant) that learning Arabic was “hard work” and that his first priority was getting “settled with my marriage.” Then comes the disturbing part, courtesy of the AP:
Defense attorney, Michael Caruso, asked Kavanaugh whether Padilla ever was heard using what prosecutors say were code words for violent jihad, such as “picnic,” “smelling fresh air” or “eating cheese.”
“No, he does not,” Kavanaugh replied. (James T. Kavanaugh is the lead FBI agent in the case.)
Picnic. Fresh air. Cheese. Hmm, I thought, how many times have I used those words in my phone calls home?
Cairo is so polluted. Surely at some point I had mentioned over the phone to my mom in Oklahoma the need to “smell some fresh air.” My brothers (conveniently named Mohamed, Ahmed and Amir) call all the time and we talk in our own “code,” namely lines from the movies and TV shows we loved as children. Had we ever mentioned the Fresh Prince of Bel Air? Did “fresh” and “air” in the same sentence set off alarms in some underground intelligence bunker in Virginia?
Then there was the time a friend was coming from Paris and I asked her to bring me some Brie. Did that count as “eating cheese,” wink wink, nudge nudge?
And poor little innocent “picnic.” Before the Padilla trial, the word conjured up soothing images of finger sandwiches, ants and springtime. Now, I scanned my memory. Oh, dear. Hadn’t I once told an editor in Washington that getting a visa to Libya was “no picnic?”
By now, we’ve all heard about the once-secret U.S. eavesdropping program, CIA listening posts and other unsolicited visits from Big Brother. But Padilla’s conversations were recorded in 1999, two years before the 9/11 attacks.
I used to shrug off all that wiretapping talk as paranoia. I even called some of my best friends conspiracy theorists for suggesting our phone conversations were being recorded. But the testimony in the Padilla case gives me the shivers.
I live in Egypt. I’m American. I study Arabic.
Does that mean the FBI heard me singing a criminally off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” in a call to my little sister?
Might be time to switch to text-messaging.