I was working on a story about the FBI’s harassment, intimidation and extortion of friends and associates of Ibragim Todashev, the man they executed at the end of a six-hour night-time interrogation in his apartment in Orlando, Florida earlier this year. Since his death, which the FBI initially claimed, variously, was the result of his lunging at an officer, or trying to grab the officer’s gun, or attacking the officer with a sword or a broom, but later admitted it couldn’t explain, the agency has been systematically picking up and intimidating, Gestapo-style, his girlfriend and other friends and associates, reportedly threatening them with deportation or arrest if they don’t agree to assist the FBI by spying on local mosques or middle eastern restaurants in Florida’s Islamic neighborhoods.
One particularly egregious case involved a friend of the late Todashev’s named Ashur Miraliev, who last month was picked up by the FBI, which claimed he was wanted for questioning on a charge of “intimidating a witness” to an alleged bar fight (a local, not a federal charge). Miraliev, according to the Florida office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), says that the agents, once they had him, never asked about that case, but wanted to question him about his relationship to Todashev, who had been a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two brothers accused of the Boston Marathon bombing, and who died in a shootout with Boston police. Miraliev said he demanded an attorney, but was told he couldn’t have one, and was then grilled for hours in violation of his Miranda rights. He remains in a local jail on $50,000 bail on the “intimidation” charge, and has been there now for 15 days, unable to raise the bail.
I tried to call the FBI for comment, since one news report had quoted the FBI’s top flak, Paul Bresson, as claiming that the FBI would never question a witness who had requested an attorney’s presence, unless the witness agreed to be questioned without legal counsel. I wanted to ask how voluntary such questioning could be in this case, since Miraliev would clearly have known that his friend Todashev was killed by the FBI during his attorney-free interrogation. Not the kind of situation in which one would be comfortable refusing to answer questions, one would think!
Anyhow, when I called the FBI Public Affairs office, the phone just rang on and on. There was not even a voice-mail recording offering a journalist a chance to leave a message.
Curious about what was going on, I called the Justice Department, which oversees the FBI. That federal department’s press office line had a recording saying:
“In the event of a lapse of appropriations, this message will be listened to and responded to upon a funding resolution.”
Wow! That could be some wait. I left a message, but if Republicans continue to block passage of a rise in the debt ceiling, I may have to wait weeks for a response or maybe longer.
Wondering how many federal departments, agencies and offices have shut down their public affairs and press offices, I phoned the White House press office. That call elicited another recording. This one said:
“You have reached the White House press office. This office remains open during the lapse in appropriations, but with greatly reduced staffing. We are available to handle urgent or emergency requests but no one is available at this time to take this call. Please firstname.lastname@example.org  with any urgent requests. Thank you. Sorry. Cannot leave a message now because user’s mailbox is full.”
So it has come to this: The US government, including the White House and the Justice Department and the FBI, are no better than the Apple help line or the Verizon Wireless customer support office, only without the Muzak.
Except that when you get lousy customer support from a company, at least you can change to another one.
What do we do in this case? Hmmmm….
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).