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January 2003 Vol. 18, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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New Diving Heroes

from the January, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The FBI developed an interest in scuba divers shortly before Memorial Day, when officials received information from Afghan war detainees that suggested an interest in underwater attacks. So it set out to identify every person who had taken diving lessons in the previous three years. Hundreds of dive shops and organizations gladly turned over their records, giving agents contact information for several million people. "It certainly made sense to help them out," said Alison Matherly, marketing manager for the National Association of Underwater Instructors worldwide. "We're all in this together."

But just as the effort was wrapping up in July, the FBI ran into a two-man revolt. The owners of the Reef Seekers Dive Company in Beverly Hills, Calif., balked at turning over the records of their clients, who include Tom Cruise and Tommy Lee Jones, even when officials came back with a subpoena asking for "any and all documents and other records relating to all noncertified divers and referrals from July 1, 1999, through July 16, 2002."

Faced with defending the request before a judge, the prosecutor handling the matter notified Reef Seekers' lawyer that he was withdrawing the subpoena. The company's records stayed put. "We're just a small business trying to make a living, and I do not relish the idea of standing up against the FBI," said Ken Kurtis, one of the owners of Reef Seekers. "But I think somebody's got to do it."

In this case, the government took a tiny step back. But across the country, sometimes to the dismay of civil libertarians, law enforcement officials are maneuvering to seize the information-gathering weapons they say they desperately need to thwart terrorist attacks. From New York City to Seattle, police officials are looking to do away with rules that block them from spying on people and groups without evidence that a crime has been committed.

Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represented Reef Seekers said, "If we are going to decide as a country that because of our worry about terrorism that we are willing to give up our basic privacy, we need an open and full debate on whether we want to make such a fundamental change."

The owners of Reef Seekers say they had lots of reasons to turn down the FBI The name-gathering made little sense to begin with, they say, because terrorists would need training far beyond recreational scuba lessons. They also worried that the new law would allow the FBI to pass its client records to other agencies.

When word of their revolt got around, said Bill Wright, one of the owners, one man called Reef Seekers to applaud it, saying, "My 15-year-old daughter has taken diving lessons, and I don't want her records going to the FBI." He was in a distinct minority, Mr. Wright said. Several other callers said they hoped the shop would be the next target of a terrorist bombing.

Excerpted from The New York Times, December 10, 2002

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