Be Seeing You
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.
Adams refused their overtures. "They call it intelligence-gathering," he says. "I call it spying. This is dirty to me."
On September 14, 1997, after an intensive grilling by U.S. Customs agents in Chicago, Joseph and Cindy flew to Kuwait. Six weeks later, Adams pulled over on a busy street to check out a dragging muffler and was surrounded by agents of the Kuwaiti state police, the KSS. He was held incommunicado in a prison cell for the next eight days and was interrogated frequently.
Many of the questions were the same ones the FBI had asked him, but this time the questions were accompanied by blows and slaps: "They told me, 'This is your government. Why don't you want to work with them?'"
Cindy received no official word concerning her husband's sudden disappearance. But Kuwait is a small country, and she soon learned of his arrest through various government connections. Officials at the American embassy told her there was nothing they could do; they suggested that she fly home alone, for her own safety. As the days wore on, she became convinced that the embassy officials not only knew of the arrest but had sanctioned it.
"I knew by the afternoon of the second day that somebody in the American government had done this to him," she says. "He had done nothing wrong, but even a member of the royal family couldn't get him out."
Adams was released and deported as an "undesirable" a few days later. He cannot return to Kuwait to visit his ailing mother, he says, and the financial losses involved in losing his job and moving back to the States were considerable. Cindy says the experience was "absolutely terrifying."
But the terror hasn't stopped.
Over the past four years Adams has had occasional signs that suggest his government hasn't lost interest in him. He has returned from trips out of town to discover traces of surreptitious entry, and his personal effects seemed combed over. He has jotted down the license-plate numbers and snapped pictures of suspicious vans lurking outside his home. He has filed complaints with the local postmaster for the U.S. Postal Service about mail that's already been opened. One time his bank accidentally sent him copies of checks from his account that had apparently been subpoenaed by another party that the bank refused to identify.
Last February, he asked an AT&T telephone repairman to find out why his line crackled with noise and abrupt disconnects. The repairman noted his findings in the work order: "Not our work. Looks like unauthorized party tampered with phone line."
A few weeks ago, Adams notified the police that both his current passport and an expired one, kept in different places, had been stolen. His wife's passport and jewelry were not touched.
As a matter of policy, the FBI declines to comment on ongoing investigations or even to confirm that the bureau isn't investigating someone. "We will not discuss the possible existence of an investigation," says Ann Atanasio, spokeswoman for the Denver office.
Atanasio adds, "We have very stringent guidelines for when we can initiate a surveillance. An agent can't just decide someone is interesting and ought to be looked at. When we do engage in surveillance of a person, it's because we have reason to believe there is a need for it."
"I don't know if it's happening or not," says Ron Aal, who hasn't been involved in the case since his conversations with the FBI four years ago. "But I can tell you that back in 1997, when he told me his apartment had been searched and he was being surveilled, I was skeptical. The only thing that made me believe it was when we had contact with the FBI. They weren't denying that they were doing this stuff, but they wouldn't confirm it, either."
But Joseph and Cindy Adams have no doubt about what's going on. Although some of the license plates they noted are registered to private parties, they say at least one belonged to a federal vehicle. A few months ago, they went outside with cameras -- but, alas, no film -- and flung open the door of one van, revealing a man with headphones and plenty of video and electronic equipment.
"We pretended to take pictures," Cindy says. "The man was covering his face and trying to shut the door on me. I asked him if he was with any police agency. He refused to answer. He locked the door and took off."
Joseph says he's sought assistance from senators and congressional representatives, to no avail. But Aal believes his former client needs to find a political rather than a legal solution to his situation. "You can bring a lawsuit, and if they give you the documents and there's a smoking gun there, fine. But if they don't, how do you prove it happened?"
Last week, the New York Times reported that the FBI spent eighteen months investigating a senior CIA officer for security breaches that turned out to be the work of the bureau's own traitor, Robert Hanssen. The CIA man was subjected to electronic surveillance, break-ins and sting operations set up by his own colleagues before Hanssen was arrested and pleaded guilty to espionage.
But Adams is no career spook, and that makes his claims of ongoing FBI harassment all the more baffling.
"I think they do it to make my life hell," Adams says. "And the worst part is, if they ever stop, how will I know it's over?"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.