Rather than do my official work, I was writing about gun violence and the recent efforts to pin the rap on mental illness when the doorbell rang. As I opened the door, I imagined the two nice people on the porch wanted to sell me something, maybe their version of religion or, this time of year, gutter guard to keep the leaves from clogging the downspout.
When the woman opened a little wallet to show me her badge, and the man flipped up the cover of his photo ID, I thought of the recent warnings in the paper about scammers. “Finally got to our little neighborhood,” I thought. “We’re from the Joint Terrorism Task Force,” she said. “Do you have a minute to talk?” Weird, I thought, that they are doing public education on a door-to-door basis.
I invited them in. There was an awkward pause. “What exactly can I do for you?” I asked. “We got a report that you were taking pictures in Oak Ridge,” said Polly Paul. Now I was curious.
“That wouldn’t be unusual,” I said. “I’ve been out there hundreds of times, and I’ve taken thousands of pictures.”
“When was the last time?”
“The last time I was out there was last night,” I said, telling them about our Sunday vigils. “I often take pictures at the Sunday vigil to put in our newsletter or reflection booklet. I didn’t take any last night. But I usually have my camera there. To my knowledge, I’ve never taken a picture of anything that was classified.”
Sidebar—one Sunday evening, maybe a year ago, the security van that often keeps us under surveillance during our Sunday vigil sprang into motion. The guard came down to inform me that I could not take pictures without permission. “From a public roadway?” I asked. “Are you telling me what I see with my eyes is classified?” I know Y12 has instituted a policy to attempt to control what media can see, and they require advance notification to take pictures of the site. Given the obvious unconstitutionality of their policy, I have generally ignored it, following the advice of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who once opined that citizens who are not breaking any laws should just go about their business. (Note to people of color: do not try this. Different rules for you.) Anyway, having issued his warning, and not having inspected the photos on my camera or confiscated my memory card, the guard that night left us alone.
Back to my living room.
“We have a report you were taking pictures of the Uranium Processing Facility,” Ms. Paul said. The other officer, Kelly Smith, sat quietly. “No,” I said, now confused. “I have never—the Uranium Processing Facility doesn’t exist. It hasn’t been built yet.”
“The place where it is going to be built?” she asked. “That’s inside Y12,” I said, “It’s not accessible to the public. I’ve never been there.”
“Never been in Y12?” “Not in years, probably ten years or more. I used to go on public tours…just a second.” I went into my bedroom/office and got out a schematic map of Y12. As I came back into the living room, I explained that I was the coordinator of OREPA and we did public education and I took pictures for that. “Let me show you this,” I said, “and then I’ll tell you what you are asking about.” I spread the old NNSA map out on the floor and showed them where we gather for the Sunday vigil and where the UPF site is and where the security checkpoint is and noted again that I had not been on site in more than a decade.
She consulted a paper in her hand and asked about Union Valley. “Yes,” I said, pointing on the map. This area here is Union Valley Road, it’s a commercial area (they knew this, of course) with office buildings, Bechtel and others. On the corner here, there was a large sign that said ‘The Nation’s Uranium Processing Facility.’ One of the office buildings housed some work associated with the project. I have taken pictures of that sign and the one on the building. In fact, there is one on our web site, first thing you see there right now. Because a month or so ago I noticed the sign was not there anymore. The brick wall was blank. I took a picture of that, too. I put them side by side on the web site. www.orepa.org.”
She nodded. “And you’re the only paid employee of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance? The director?” I explained that I am the only paid employee, but I’m called the coordinator because that reflects what I do.
I then asked them to give me some information about themselves, and she repeated she was from the Joint Terrorism Task Force. “Can you tell me why you are here? Who filed a complaint? Was it the security contractor or the NNSA?” She said, “We just got a report.” “And that launched an investigation into me as a terrorist?” I asked. “Someone got your tag number and called it in. We just have to follow these up,” she said.
“Can I get a copy of your report when you file it?” “FOIA,” she said. “What agency?” I asked. “FBI.”
We chatted briefly about the guitars in the corner of the room and our kids taking music lessons and they left.
As I watched them walk down the sidewalk, I was struck again by the ludicrous waste of our tax dollars on the silly, futile pursuit of an illusion of security. The pictures on OREPA’s web site were posted one month ago. The photo of the UPF sign with words on it was taken a couple of years ago. The “suspect” has been a nonviolent activist for thirty years. But if any terrorists out there are contemplating doing something in Oak Ridge, be forewarned. If they get wind of it, you only have thirty days or so before they come knocking on your door.