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Joseph Adams has flashbacks sometimes. In those moments, he practically relives the time he spent in a prison cell in Kuwait, the beatings and interrogations, the terrible feeling of not knowing when or if he would see his family again.
But the bad memories are only part of it. They are kept vivid by what he has endured since he returned to Denver four years ago -- the anxiety, the fear, the creepy-crawly feeling of being watched. Every time he hears a clicking on the phone, receives a piece of already-opened mail, spots a distinctly out-of-place van parked in his cul-de-sac or returns from vacation to find his belongings slightly rearranged, he wonders: "Are they back? What do they want?"
It's as if he's trapped in an episode of The Prisoner. In that classic 1960s spy series, reluctant secret agents are sent to a remote island where they are subject to round-the-clock surveillance, psychological warfare and endless treachery. (Think Survivor with better clothes.) Like Number Six, the protagonist of the television show, Adams has come to believe that his own government is behind his elaborate ordeal. He was imprisoned in Kuwait shortly after he refused to spy for the United States, he says, and federal agents have been spying on him sporadically ever since.
Adams knows his story sounds crazy. But, he argues, you're not paranoid if they really are out to get you. And he has witnesses and documents that prove the FBI did have a keen interest in him in 1997 and may still be monitoring his movements. What he doesn't have is a reason why -- unless you happen to believe that the FBI, an agency under much criticism of late for its rogue behavior, has resorted to stalking citizens out of spite, just like a rejected suitor.
"I don't know why they're doing this," Adams says. "I've become so cautious on the phone now that maybe they think I really am hiding something, just because I say so little."
Born in Iraq, raised in Kuwait, Adams first came to the United States twenty years ago. He married a woman from Des Moines, became a citizen, changed his name (from Emad Hassan Ahmed) and settled into a life in Denver as a computer-science instructor. A devout Muslim, he says his only brush with any political activity resulted from his efforts to help establish a local mosque, which quickly became a hotbed of Islamic political debate.
"I was involved in the mosque for religious reasons," he says. "When it became a political thing, I pulled out."
Four years ago, Adams and his wife, Cindy, were preparing to move overseas. Adams still has relatives in Kuwait, and he'd been offered a computer job with a private company there. But shortly before his departure date, two men came to the door of his apartment with a message: His presence was requested at the FBI office in downtown Denver.
The agents asked him to come alone. Adams thought it best to bring Cindy and his attorney, Ronald Aal. That didn't sit well with the agents, but after some hesitation, the group was introduced to a man named Bill Young. Both Aal and Adams say Young was identified as an assistant director of the FBI, a bigshot who'd flown in from Washington for the meeting. (According to an FBI spokeswoman, Young was actually a special agent out of the Denver office who has since retired.)
Young said he wanted to talk to Adams, outside of the lawyer's presence, about working with the government, but he declined to be more specific. "They were very -- the only word I can use is mysterious," Aal recalls. "They kept using the words 'national security' and telling me I didn't have clearance. I have never had a case like this, before or since."
When Aal refused to leave, Young revealed that the agency had an extensive file on Adams. He rattled off a series of allegations concerning Adams's "fondness" for Hezbollah literature; his supposedly "sham" first marriage, which ended in divorce before Adams obtained U.S. citizenship; his disagreements with the other mosque founders; even his "support of Bosnia." Adams denied any wrongdoing, and none of the information, even if true, struck Aal as evidence of criminal activity. But Young said that the FBI would be required to share these accusations with the government of Kuwait -- unless, of course, Adams was willing to cooperate with the bureau.
To Cindy, it was clear that some of the information stemmed from old employment materials her husband kept in a locked briefcase. "They would throw out a bunch of facts, followed by a bunch of stuff that they thought might be facts," she says. "Then they offered us money for moving expenses. They definitely wanted him to work for them."
Adams says he has no idea why the FBI wanted to recruit him, but he speculates that his command of three languages -- English, Arabic and Farsi -- and his light complexion, which could allow him to pass for European, Arab or Israeli, might have been sufficient qualifications. In subsequent contacts, agents let Adams know that they wanted his help "over a long period of time" and were watching his mail.