After coincidentally searching for information online about pressure cookers and backpacks from their home, a New York couple received a visit from an apparent "joint terrorism task force" demanding an explanation for their search history, The Guardian reports.
Michele Catalano, of Long Island, searched for information on pressure cookers around the same time her husband had been searching for backpacks and her son was researching the Boston Marathon bombings. These coincidental searches were too conveniently timed for the authorities who descended upon the house on Wednesday.
UPDATE: The Suffolk County Police Department released a statement clarifying why the home was searched and Catalano's husband was interrogated. The web searches were conducted on a company laptop that a nearby "computer company" had issued to "a previously released employee," the statement says. The company contacted police after deeming the search history suspicious, and the police followed through with the investigation after interviewing the people at the company who made the initial report.
So, in this case, it turns out that civilians are just as concerned about seemingly suspicious online behavior as the government is. This, however, still doesn't explain the claim by the police that "100" of these investigations are conducted every week, as was relayed in Catalano's account.
(The irony that this story has likely led to a dramatic increase in the amount of searches for "pressure cooker bombs" on company-issued laptops, particularly mine as I've covered this story, should at least get a mention somewhere in this post.)
Catalano, a professional writer, described the scene in a post on Medium:
What happened was this: At about 9:00 am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. He looked out the window and saw three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving.
Six gentleman in casual clothes emerged from the vehicles and spread out as they walked toward the house, two toward the backyard on one side, two on the other side, two toward the front door.
A million things went through my husband’s head. None of which were right. He walked outside and the men greeted him by flashing badges. He could see they all had guns holstered in their waistbands.
“Are you [name redacted]?” one asked while glancing at a clipboard. He affirmed that was indeed him, and was asked if they could come in. Sure, he said.
They asked if they could search the house, though it turned out to be just a cursory search. They walked around the living room, studied the books on the shelf (nope, no bomb making books, no Anarchist Cookbook), looked at all our pictures, glanced into our bedroom, pet our dogs. They asked if they could go in my son’s bedroom but when my husband said my son was sleeping in there, they let it be.
Meanwhile, they were peppering my husband with questions. Where is he from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked.
After the police asked Catalano's husband if he had ever looked up instructions on how to build a pressure cooker bomb, which is the kind of bomb the Tsarnaev brothers set off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in April, he turned the question back on them, asking if they had looked it up themselves just out of curiosity after the Boston Marathon bombings. Two of the officers admitted that they had, Catalano wrote.
From there, the interrogation apparently cooled off, but also revealed a particularly scary bit of information about the authorities who showed up at her home:
They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week. And that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing. I don’t know what happens on the other 1% of visits and I’m not sure I want to know what my neighbors are up to.
The specifics about the "joint terrorism task force" are still unclear. A spokesman for the FBI denied that its agents were involved in the interrogation in a statement to The Guardian, claiming that Catalano's husband was questioned by members of the Nassau County police department who worked "in conjunction with the Suffolk County police department."
In a follow-up question, the Atlantic Wire asked FBI spokesman Peter Donald if the FBI had provided information to the task force. Donald reportedly said he didn't know and that he couldn't answer the question.
Donald also said that no members of the "joint terrorism task force" visited Catalano's home, contradicting her initial claim.