Transcript

540:

A Front
Transcript

Originally aired 11.21.2014

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/540

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

John Diedrich

Well, so the story starts where I get a call. It's interesting, I remember this very well. I was sitting at my desk.

Ira Glass

This is John Diedrich, a reporter who covers law enforcement for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

John Diedrich

I get a call. And it was from a landlord, a guy named Dave Salkin. And Dave Salkin owns this place that he, unbeknownst to him, rented to the ATF. Didn't know who they were, they were undercover agents. And they had trashed his place, and they were behind on rent. They had threatened him. And I said, where are you, I'm coming right now.

Ira Glass

While they were undercover, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives basically ripped up his place. Salkin said at the time that they owed $15,000 in damages and back rent. Later he said it was more. When he tried to collect, they didn't pay up. In fact, an ATF lawyer warned him that if he kept asking for the money, it could be seen as harassing federal agents.

John Diedrich

So he took me through the place, and he showed me the damage. There were door frames that were broken, holes in the wall, a toilet that had overflowed and ruined some carpeting on the floor-- they grew marijuana plants, which later they got criticism from headquarters being an unauthorized prop-- and a bunch of junk that was left behind in the operation.

Ira Glass

What John had stumbled onto was an ATF operation of such blinding incompetence that it is kind of hard to fathom. The Attorney General later called what happened at this store and others like it very troubling. The ATF had set up a fake business, a front, in this out of the way warehousey space not near other stores. Raquel Rutledge was John's reporting partner on the story.

Raquel Rutledge

It was called Fearless Distributing. And it was kind of a hip hop clothing store, also sold some drug paraphernalia. But the real goal was to actually buy guns and drugs.

Ira Glass

To get the guns off the street and to catch people selling them illegally, also to do drug busts.

John Diedrich

If you looked to be a real customer coming in to buy clothing from the store and so forth, they would try to scare you away, because the idea was they really wanted only sort of shady individuals that were willing to bring them guns and drugs. And so--

Ira Glass

Wow, a weird market to try to cater to.

John Diedrich

Yeah. It's not Retail 101. Their cover story was that they were a motorcycle gang from New York that had stolen all of this stuff off a truck.

Ira Glass

All this stuff, the hip hop clothing, that is. The agents would tell customers that they wanted to buy guns and drugs. And they left conversation starters, like gun brochures and magazines, lying around on the counters.

And they distributed flyers with the store's logo, which was a skull with angel wings made from assault rifles and knives with the words Buy, Sell, Trade, wink, wink. Federal agents actually ripped off the logo from the Sylvester Stallone film, The Expendables, possibly in violation of their copyright. The whole store was set up with secret cameras, so everything that happened was filmed to use as evidence later.

But right from the start, like the most basic thing that you would think that the ATF would get right, the price of guns, even there they had problems. ATF policy was to pay whatever just to get the guns off the street. But that led to complications.

John Diedrich

Right. I mean, when you looked at what the street value of these were, they were paying really beyond, well beyond retail, well beyond mint value in these cases, I mean, to the point that people were able to go and buy guns from stores such as Gander Mountain and bring them right there. There was one gun that they paid $2,100 for, and just the day before the individual had bought it for $700 at a store.

Raquel Rutledge

I mean, it was really spurring folks to go out and steal. And neighbors we talked to around River West said they did also see an uptick in burglaries in their neighborhood.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. I just want to be sure that I've got this right. So they move in, they set up an operation to buy stolen stuff, and what that does is that it increases, it creates an incentive for people to steal. And so they're creating crime.

Raquel Rutledge

That's what we found to happen. Yes.

Ira Glass

Raquel and John found one guy, Brandon Gladney, who had no record of fencing guns before this. But they say he apparently started in the gun business because of the incredibly high prices that ATF was willing to pay for firearms.

But so many other details about this operation seem poorly conceived. Like, for example, if their cover is they're starting a store, why not have a sign or a storefront, like a real store? Why pose as a white biker gang? Would that really fit in in a neighborhood that is mostly black people and hipsters?

John Diedrich

This thing was so suspicious. I mean, OK, so you're on a dead end street. There's no traffic that comes by. We did speak to the UPS guy who was coming through the neighborhood. This was interesting.

And early on, he said, when the ATF agents first opened up, he stopped in on them and said, I'm from UPS. I see you guys, Fearless Distributing. I'm happy to open an account for you. And the agent in charge quickly said, no, we're not going to be receiving or sending anything. And he was like, but your name is Fearless Distributing. And so from the beginning--

Ira Glass

How are you going to do the distributing without ever getting a package?

John Diedrich

[LAUGHS] Yeah, right. Right.

Ira Glass

For supposed criminals they didn't seem too concerned with drawing attention to themselves. They threw barbecues and played loud music behind the building. Neighbors noticed customers walking in with guns and walking out empty-handed.

And they were robbed. These agents whose job it was to get guns out of the hands of criminals had three guns that were stolen out of an agent's car while he was parked at a coffee shop. These included a fully automatic rifle. This is a machine gun, the kind that normally only law enforcement and military can legally have.

Not long after that, the store itself was burglarized of $39,000 in clothes, jewelry, and merch, reportedly, because the ATF had not bothered to do much to secure the store and just did not seem to care. Nobody was minding the store, literally.

John Diedrich

The ATF had no working burglar alarm on their building. So it was sort of, instead of a smash and grab, it was just this sort of like slow burglary. The neighbors report at one point, once they were able to get in-- again, no burglar alarm-- they kept the door propped open with a shoe. And they were just kind of taking stuff out.

And the word sort of spread. Hey, this place is just open. Nobody's there. We can just go get stuff. And at one point they just pulled up a U-Haul. And they were just sort of emptying this. And this is over several days. And then even--

Ira Glass

Renting a U-Haul is such a crazy move, because is it means that somebody had to go and decide, I'm going to rent a truck. That's how slow this burglary is, that you can do a rental.

John Diedrich

Yeah, exactly. And there's no sort of concern that you're going to be busted at that point, and just say, OK, I can only carry so much in my arms. Let's get something bigger. Let's get a U-Haul.

Ira Glass

The same day the burglary was reported, an ATF ballistic shield, the kind that they would use to raid a house or something, was turned in by a scrapper at a Milwaukee police station. One item that was just left lying around in the store after the robbery for anybody to pick up and read-- it was there when reporter John Diedrich walked through-- was a secret ATF document listing the names of undercover agents, their undercover vehicles from several law enforcement agencies in Milwaukee.

After the burglary, the ATF shut down Fearless Distributing. And what results did they get from their fake storefront hip hop clothing business? How many people were arrested? An ATF spokesman said it was a success, quote, "in many respects." Over 140 guns taken off the street, also 34 people were charged.

But as John and Raquel point out, these were mostly for low-level drug and gun crimes. Median sentence, they calculated, was two years. And nearly half the cases were dropped or resulted in no prison time. And despite having video surveillance, John says the ATF incorrectly identified and arrested three suspects.

John Diedrich

And the alibi for one of them was that he was in prison at the time that they said that he was doing this operation on an ATF charge. So, you know, you would think that they would know they had busted him on an earlier AFT case.

Ira Glass

ATF would not tell the newspaper or us how much the operation cost the government. Things can get tricky pretty fast when you try to pretend to be something that you are not. To set up a fake gun-buying ring there are all kinds of details, like, you know, get an alarm system for your fake, fell-off-a-truck merch.

Today on our radio show stories of people setting up fake operations in three very different settings, including very surprising things happening at other ATF storefronts across the country. Stay with us.

Act One. WTF, ATF?

Ira Glass

Act One, WTF, ATF? So a funny thing happened after John and Raquel wrote a series of stories about the ATF's fake business, Fearless Distributing, in Milwaukee. The United States Congress got involved.

John Diedrich

ATF came and briefed Congress. And they said, this is a legitimate tactic that has worked well in other cities. And it's just a problem in Milwaukee.

B. Todd Jones

I acknowledge, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, that there were deficiencies in our execution and management of some past activities in certain storefronts.

Ira Glass

This is the director of the ATF, B. Todd Jones, talking to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. As recently as April of this year, ATF and Jones were still defending ATF storefront operations across the country. Jones says that there were 37 of them since 2009.

B. Todd Jones

As a result of our storefront operations in Albuquerque, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Pensacola, Portland, and Wichita, over 250 defendants have been convicted and over 1,300 firearms recovered. These convictions and the firearms recoveries undoubtedly made the communities and the people who live there safer.

John Diedrich

And so we said, OK, well, let's test that premise. And that's when we looked around the country.

Raquel Rutledge

And as we started looking, really, truly, we came back to one other-- you're not going to believe this. I mean, we were shocked. I don't think we expected to find this going on. Absolutely not, did we expect to find that it would go on elsewhere, because you can't imagine this would be part of a playbook or an MO of a federal agency. So it was stunning to find. Had they been burglarized? Did they trash the landlord's place?

We found in Portland the lady just said, I am so glad you called. She said, I have not known what to do. She said, they left my place in shambles. She had photos of what they left it like-- I mean, like a college fraternity or something. Just trash everywhere, they tore out some walls and they rewired some stuff and caused a leaky roof. She estimates her damages were probably $20,000 roughly, $20,000, $25,000. So that, you think, how does that happen? Is that, again, part of the playbook?

Ira Glass

Raquel and John looked into ATF storefronts in Wichita, Portland, Oregon, Pensacola, Albuquerque, Atlanta, and Phoenix. Some of the Milwaukee problems they found examples of in those other cities? Agents paying extra high prices for guns, buying stolen goods, criminals committing burglaries in the neighborhoods around the stores and then selling the stuff to the ATF. Raquel and John say that the quality of the convictions from these operations around the country, the kinds of people that the ATF was catching were mostly small fry, just like in Milwaukee. The ATF store in Pensacola was robbed just like the Milwaukee store was, twice.

Once surprising finding? Several storefronts were located near schools and churches. This came up in the trial of an ATF defendant in Lakeland, Florida.

John Diedrich

The very first question from the jury when they were deliberating was, is it legal for federal agents to open up a gun- and drug-buying operation within 1,000 feet of a school, because that seems illegal. That seems like that should not be allowed. That's what federal law is intended to do, is keep those criminals who are bringing guns and drugs in away from the school.

Ira Glass

Yeah, it is illegal for law enforcement to do that. But in Portland, Oregon, John and Raquel found the ATF agent who set up the storefront operation there said that when they rented their place, he entered from the back and didn't notice a school across the street.

John Diedrich

They said, we didn't know the school was there, which is damning to their operational planning. How do you not know a school is across the street from your store? It turned out to be very helpful in their charging decisions later on.

Ira Glass

Helpful because?

John Diedrich

Well, because selling guns or drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, a church, or other protected place is an enhanced penalty. It's also eligible for federal prosecution.

Ira Glass

But probably the most outrageous ATF tactic that John and Raquel uncovered, the tactic that seemed to horrify Congress the most, was something they found in several cities. The ATF hired people at their fake stories who had a low IQs or were developmentally disabled, mentally impaired, and talked them into committing crimes, like a 20-year-old in Wichita named Tony Bruner.

John Diedrich

So he cleaned up the store. He swept. He helped stock the shelves and so forth. And then as they talked to him, they said, hey, can you go get us guns, get us guns, get us guns.

Raquel Rutledge

And he trusted them. And they would buy him McDonald's and tell him he was doing a great job and keep leaning on him to get guns. He was not a gun dealer. This person was not anybody in the gun business. But he ended up being able to find some folks that could bring him some guns. And then they turned around and charged him.

Ira Glass

Charged him on 17 gun and drug counts.

John Diedrich

I mean, even after the arrest Tony Bruner thought that he should call what he thought was his boss, who turns out to be the ATF agents, to help bail him out, because he still doesn't, because of his intellectual capacity-- limited-- he does not understand that they're federal agents, and that he's in a whole lot of trouble.

Tony Bruner pled guilty on one charge, was given a three-year sentence. In Milwaukee, at Fearless Distributing, ATF agents hired a man who'd been brain damaged as a baby, Chauncey Wright. Though to say hired implies that they paid him a salary. Like Tony Bruner, Chauncey seemed to be working in violation of all federal and state minimum wage laws. Agents would just give him $20 now and then, cigarettes, clothing from the store, an occasional beer or brat. They'd also hang out together, he says, watch movies, watch The Sopranos. Chauncey was closest to an agent that he knew as Mike.

Chauncey Wright

I called him Mike. Everybody else called him Chino. But he was cool to me. You know, that was my guy. I felt plenty love coming from him, you know.

Ira Glass

Chauncey says that Mike was a biker guy with tattoos. He first met him in the Walmart parking lot. Mike had a black Cadillac and asked Chauncey if he could help at their store. Chauncey would ride his bike all over Milwaukee to give out flyers for the store.

Chauncey Wright

I had a '52 Schwinn, you know, with a basket on the front of it. So I used to load up my basket. And I'd ride from down around the east side all the way up to Mayfield Road, you know what I'm saying, the south side, all by like, what you call it, Target, Walmart, over there, and I'd go to Bayshore. I was just everywhere on that bike just trying to promote the store. That's how much I cared about the store.

Ira Glass

These are, in fact, the far corners of the city.

Chauncey Wright

I really pedaled it out for these people.

Willie Campbell

So Chauncey start passing the flyers out to peoples, and they wanted Chauncey to go out and let peoples know that they buy guns. And so I said, Chauncey, I said, that don't sound good to me.

Ira Glass

This is Chauncey's grandmother, Willie Campbell, who he was living with. She did not like this job from the start.

Willie Campbell

I knew there was something strange about it. Why would these guys set up some mess like that in this neighborhood, you know? It was in a poor black neighborhood and white guys, and what are you doing here?

Ira Glass

When the truth came out, Chauncey was charged with eight federal gun and drug counts. He was in jail for nine months and sentenced to no more than six months of house arrest and four years of probation. The way Chauncey sees it, he says that he was honest with the guys at Fearless Distributing. He was square with them. He put himself out for them. They should have done the same with him. If they couldn't, you know, tell him who they really work for, he thinks that Mike should have just told him to stay away from the store, not get involved.

Chauncey Wright

You know, you could have just said, you fired, anything like that, man. I mean, if I'd had a chance to talk to him, I'd be like, man, you know you could've told me I could get, you know, what's right from wrong, because it's hard for me to understand what is wrong from right, you know what I'm saying?

Willie Campbell

They knew that he didn't know no better. And you a police. Ha-ha. That meant you supposed to be looking out for peoples.

Ira Glass

In response to our questions about this, an ATF spokesman sent a statement saying, quote, "ATF does not target specific people based on their IQ or other mental health status." He said the ATF works with groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness to make sure that agents are properly trained to deal with people they encounter who are mentally disabled or impaired.

In at least one city, the way that ATF betrayed the trust of people who into their store so angered judges that agents were chastised from the bench. This was in Portland, Oregon, the ATF storefront operation near that school. An agent convinced two teenagers to have the name of their fake store, Squid's, which was also the agent's nickname, tattooed to their necks with a picture of a squid smoking a joint, so they'd be like a walking advertisement for the fake store. Again, here's Raquel.

Raquel Rutledge

The judge, in both in state and federal court for these two gentlemen, admonished the ATF and just found it pretty outrageous and ordered the ATF to pay for the removal of those tattoos, and said that is not conduct that they would expect out of federal agents.

Ira Glass

I don't understand. What does the ATF get out of two guys having the logo of their fake store on their neck?

John Diedrich

The more I talk to folks who have done this kind of work, they said really it comes down to a lack of oversight and people just sort of losing perspective as to what you're there for and what you're trying to do.

Ira Glass

The ATF, of course, is the agency that before all this brought us the Fast and Furious operation-- you may remember that-- that allowed about 2,000 guns to be sold to suspected gun smugglers. And then the agency lost track of most of the guns. Reporter John Diedrich says as best as he can tell, ATF started lots of these storefront operations to generate good headlines about the agency in the wake of that scandal.

In its statement to us, the ATF defended the storefront operations but said that when it reviewed what happened at the Milwaukee store, it, quote, "found a number of deficiencies ranging from planning and oversight weaknesses to individual job performance issues. These matters have been fully addressed through a variety of major improvements put in place, including strengthened policy and procedure, increased national oversight, improved training, and revised procedures." They said, quote, "The ATF has made many substantial improvements and strengthened accountability for local operations."

The ATF probably never would have had to make those substantial improvements. They never would have been embarrassed in the press or chastised by Congress and the Attorney General. It might not have shut down all its storefront operations-- which, by the way, it did-- if not for one mistake. It seems so random, this mistake, actually. But I guess if you make as many mistakes as they made in these storefront operations, any one might catch you.

It wasn't the squid tattoos or the low-IQ employees or getting robbed over and over. It wasn't the way they caught and charged suspects. It was that landlord in Milwaukee. If they hadn't trashed his place, or if they had just paid him promptly to repair it instead of fighting him over every penny, apparently, he wouldn't have called the newspaper. John and Raquel say the whole thing might never have come to light.

John Diedrich and Raquel Rutledge's coverage of the ATF, there is lots more than this. It's at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website. If you Google ATF backfire, it'll get you there.

Coming up, if a Border Patrol agent is not actually at the border, do you have to obey him? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two. The Border Between America and America.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Every week on our show, of course, we choose a theme. Today's program, A Front, stories of setting up a business or operation that looks real, but is it as real as a pretends to be? We've arrived at Act Two of our show.

Act Two, the border between America and America. So if you haven't spent much time in the Southwest, you might not know about this. But there are these Border Patrol checkpoints that are just like in the middle of highway interstates and other roads, not at the border, not even near the border. They're as far as 100 miles from the border.

There are dozens of these interior or inland checkpoints across the country. They're mostly in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. But now there are a couple in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Washington state. You know that you're approaching one of these checkpoints, because the speed limit will suddenly drop to 45 miles an hour and then 25. You'll slow down, and you stop, you see these orange cones coming up. And then often there's this big sort of tent-looking structure, like, right in the middle of the highway.

And then you stop, and you're right in the middle of the highway. And an agent in uniform, an armed agent walks up and asks you questions like, are you an American citizen? Sometimes he asks to look in your trunk. All this so they can catch undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers.

Reporter Debbie Nathan used to go through these checkpoints regularly when she lived in El Paso back in the '80s and '90s. And not long ago she discovered something that made her see these checkpoints in a whole new way. Here's Debbie.

Debbie Nathan

I had to go through the checkpoints a lot on Interstate 10 or I-25. And I dutifully complied. I didn't joke around. I answered their questions. If they asked to look in the trunk, I popped the latch. I treated checkpoints like TSA screening at the airport. And then, about a year ago, I ran across this video on YouTube that made the checkpoints seem less like serious law enforcement and more like the sitcom Reno 911. It started with a guy in a red polo shirt filming himself as he rolls up to a checkpoint on Interstate 8 in California.

Motorist

What's up, man?

Border Patrol Agent

How you doing today, sir?

Motorist

Good.

Border Patrol Agent

Are you a US citizen?

Motorist

That's my business.

Border Patrol Agent

Well, it's our business to ask. Are you a US citizen or not?

Motorist

You can ask. That's fine.

Border Patrol Agent

And you have to answer me, or I'll have to detain you until you can either tell me that you're a US citizen.

Motorist

Well, I don't have to answer you, because I have rights as an American.

Border Patrol Agent

Sir, go ahead and pull over there behind that other vehicle, if you'd do me a favor.

Motorist

Nah, no thanks.

Debbie Nathan

The video was called Top DHS Checkpoint Refusals. DHS, of course, stands for Department of Homeland Security, under which US Customs and Border Protection operates. Refusals means just what it says. I watched as one driver after another approached the border agents, greeted them politely, and then proceeded to be 100% uncooperative.

Motorist

How you doing?

Border Patrol Agent

US citizen, sir?

Motorist

Respectfully, sir, I do not have to answer that question.

Debbie Nathan

All of them refuse to answer questions or comply with commands.

Border Patrol Agent

Can you park your car right up there by those orange cones?

[BACKGROUND LAW ENFORCEMENT RADIO CHATTER]

Motorist

No.

Debbie Nathan

They'll sit in the main lane for traffic while cars back up behind them, refusing to pull off the highway to a secondary inspection area, or secondary, for short.

Motorist

Where's the border at?

Border Patrol Agent

It's about 50 miles that way, sir.

Motorist

50 miles?

Border Patrol Agent

Yes, sir.

Motorist

Did I cross it?

Debbie Nathan

The refuseniks say these stops are illegal, unconstitutional. Many cite the Fourth Amendment, which, just to refresh your memory, prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. And technically, these non-border Border Patrol checkpoints do constitute a seizure. If you're stopped, you have to wait for the agent's permission to continue on your way.

Border Patrol Agent

Do you mind rolling down the window, please?

Motorist

That's as much as I feel like rolling it down, sir.

Border Patrol Agent

Excuse me?

Motorist

That's as much as I'm going to roll it down, sir.

Border Patrol Agent

That's as much as you're going to roll it down to?

Motorist

Yes.

Border Patrol Agent

OK. Can you shut off the vehicle please, ma'am? Can you please shut off the vehicle?

Debbie Nathan

That would be no. But the really crazy thing is that after several minutes of being stonewalled, the agents finally just give up. You can call their bluff, refuse to cooperate, and continue on your way.

Border Patrol Agent

Well, go ahead, go.

Motorist

Go ahead and go where?

Border Patrol Agent

Keep going on the road.

Motorist

OK. See you later.

Debbie Nathan

I have developed a serious obsession with these checkpoint refusal videos. There are thousands of them on the internet now, and more are posted all the time with names like Illegal Checkpoints in America, Because This is America. At least once a week, I sit down and search for the new ones. I've made my husband watch with me and definitely bored some of my friends with them.

I love these videos partly because they're just terrific theater. Each driver has an individual style. Their personalities come out. Some are mellow when they confront the agents.

Motorist

So who are you with?

Border Patrol Agent

The US Border Patrol.

Motorist

What border am I on?

Border Patrol Agent

Um, it's-- you're currently near no border. This is just a border control checkpoint.

Motorist

I'm in the United States, right?

Border Patrol Agent

Yes.

Motorist

So what's going on?

Debbie Nathan

Others get angry in all the different political and psychological flavors of angry you can imagine. Some are Libertarian angry, some are human rights angry, some are Tea Party angry. There are simmering-just-under-the-surface angries and big-bountiful-bombs-bursting-in-air type angries.

Motorist

We will not bow down to the illegal authority of the Border Patrol when we're not at the border. We are not at the border. You're 80 miles inside Texas. You have no authority.

Man

Calm down.

Border Patrol Agent

Are there any weapons in the vehicle, sir?

Man

Calm down.

Debbie Nathan

It's a stunning display of grassroots democracy in action, all these everyday folks with no organization, all questioning, arguing, debating their freedoms on the open road. Then there are folks who simply outwit the border agents. The guy in the red polo shirt, who you heard earlier-- the first one I ever saw-- is actually an evangelical pastor named Steven Anderson. This is how he got through a checkpoint back in 2011. As usual, the agent asks him, US citizen?

Border Patrol Agent

US citizen?

Motorist

Hey, actually, a more important question than that, you know, it's asked one time in the Bible, it's what must I do to be saved. And they said, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved and thy house. So if you've got about 10 minutes, I can walk you through that in the Bible and show you how to be saved.

Border Patrol Agent

I can't right now. I can't right now.

Motorist

You can't. Now is not a good time?

Border Patrol Agent

Nah, not while I'm at work.

Motorist

OK. All right.

Border Patrol Agent

Have a good one, sir. Thank you.

Motorist

Yep. See you later.

Debbie Nathan

I just want to point out that most of the challengers you've heard from so far are white men. From what I've seen in the videos, Latinos are hassled a lot more at checkpoints. The questioning is more suspicious. It goes on for longer. I saw one where parents were asked for their kids' birth certificates. And when Latinos are asked their citizenship, they answer, like, yes, I'm here legally. Are we done?

Border Patrol Agent

Where were you born?

Motorist

I was born in Waco.

Border Patrol Agent

OK, so are you a United States citizen, yes or no?

Motorist

Yes, sir, I am.

Debbie Nathan

But the agents want this guy to pull over into secondary, that secondary inspection area off the highway. And that's what Latinos challenge, frequent and prolonged detainments and searches. They think they're being profiled, and they want the agents to admit it.

Border Patrol Agent

Park right there.

Motorist

What's the reason?

Border Patrol Agent

This is an immigration inspection. I'm asking you now--

Motorist

Why am I being inspected, though?

Border Patrol Agent

Park right there.

Motorist

Why am I being inspected?

Border Patrol Agent

Are you a lawyer or what?

Motorist

No. I'm asking why--

Border Patrol Agent

We're asking the questions here. Park over there.

Motorist

Why am I being inspected, though? I had the same trouble last week. I mean, why am I being inspected? Because I don't want--

Border Patrol Agent

We have suspicion of something going on. Park over there. All we need is--

Debbie Nathan

Mostly checkpoint challenge videos are supposed to be gotcha videos. But half the time the agents actually seem calm and reasonable. And very rarely-- in fact, I've seen this exactly once-- an agent congratulates the challengers for exercising their rights. In that video, four kids who are maybe in their teens, chewing gum, roll up to a handsome young agent. He asks them if they're US. citizens. All they say is--

Motorist

We're free to go?

Motorist

Am I free to go?

Border Patrol Agent

Yes. You know what, you guys are awesome for exercising your constitutional rights. I totally respect that.

Motorist

Cool.

Motorist

Thank you.

Border Patrol Agent

A lot of the guys who come through here, they're jerks to us, and, you know, we don't appreciate that. But I totally appreciate you guys who are respectful. You don't want to talk, and we can't force you to do it. You guys have a good day.

Motorist

Thanks, you too.

Motorist

You too, sir.

Debbie Nathan

The friendly agent is right. By law, the Border Patrol can't force you to answer their questions. But there's a lot of confusion about the legal side of this, by both the drivers and the agents, and lots of videos where both sides get it wrong.

So after reading up on case law and talking to four lawyers, here's a quick rundown of your rights. Yes, you have to stop at a checkpoint. But according to the Fifth Amendment, you don't have to say anything, whether you're in the country legally or not. You do have to pull over to secondary when asked, but again, a lot of drivers refuse to go to secondary.

In their arguments with one another, drivers and agents tend to refer to two main documents. One is a Supreme Court case called US versus Martinez-Fuerte. It was decided in 1976, and says many times in many different ways that the checkpoints aren't that intrusive, especially compared to how important they are from a law enforcement standpoint. Justice Lewis Powell gave the opinion announcement back in '76.

Lewis Powell

We hold that stops for brief questioning, routinely conducted at an official checkpoint, are wholly consistent with the Fourth Amendment. The intrusion on privacy and the limitation on freedom of movement in these situations are minimal.

Debbie Nathan

So anyone who says it's illegal, i.e., unconstitutional, to screen for undocumented people at a checkpoint, they're wrong about that and a lot of challengers say it.

Motorist

I don't recognize or legal authority to ask me that question. And not only that, but I think it's unconstitutional.

Debbie Nathan

A lot of the challengers.

Motorist

Read the Constitution.

Border Patrol Agent

Understand-- understand me, sir.

Motorist

Seriously, man.

Border Patrol Agent

Understand this.

Motorist

Read the Constitution.

Debbie Nathan

And if you don't happen to have a copy on hand--

Motorist

Here's a copy of the Constitution of the United States. Here's a copy of the Constitution.

Border Patrol Agent

Of the Constitution?

Debbie Nathan

The other document that gets cited a lot in the checkpoint videos is the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, or the INA. But some agents misinterpret that, too.

Motorist

What right do you have, what cause do you have to suspect me, here, to pull me over?

Border Patrol Agent

Section 287 of the INA says--

Motorist

Says what?

Border Patrol Agent

Says that you must talk--

Motorist

Answer all the questions you ask me? No, it doesn't. It says I have to stop. I'm here stopped, and I'm free to go on my way.

Debbie Nathan

The driver's right. The INA doesn't explicitly say you have to answer their questions. Other fun facts-- if agents ask to search your vehicle beyond just looking through the windows, if they want to look in your trunk, you can refuse, like this driver did.

Motorist

So-- so you're saying that there's probable cause because--

Border Patrol Agent

Not probable. Reasonable suspicion. There's a difference.

Motorist

OK, reasonable suspicion because I refuse a search?

Border Patrol Agent

Right. That's giving me reasonable suspicion that you could be hiding something, or else you'd be, sure, why not?

Motorist

How is that so?

Debbie Nathan

It's not so. For one thing, to justify a search agents need more than reasonable suspicion. They need probable cause, that is, a good reason to believe a crime is being committed. And this is important. Refusing to be searched, saying you can't look through my trunk, that's not probable cause. Neither is looking Latino.

The Supreme Court and the INA only authorize agents to search for undocumented immigrants. These days, they also search for drugs, contraband, and terrorists. Recent case law has allowed for this. It's legal. In terms of whether checkpoints work or not, whether they actually catch undocumented immigrants, here are some numbers.

According to an internal report these checkpoints seize a lot of drugs but don't capture a lot of immigrants. Customs and Border Protection arrested about 7,600 individuals at checkpoints in fiscal year 2012. It doesn't say undocumented immigrants. It just says individuals arrested-- could be for drugs or anything. And only 1,800 of those were sent to US attorneys to be prosecuted. In the same year, 2012, one third of the total pounds of narcotics seizures by Customs and Border Protection happened at these checkpoints. As for what the checkpoints cost each year, those numbers aren't broken out.

You don't have to watch too many of these videos before you notice the checkpoint challengers tend to employ identical phrases when defying the border agents, as though they all went to the same disobedience school.

Motorist

Am I being detained?

Debbie Nathan

This is the one you hear over and over again.

Motorist

Am I being detained, sir? Am I free to go?

Motorist

Are you detaining me? Am I free to go?

Motorist

I want to go free on my way. Am I being detained here? Are you detaining me here? Is this a detention?

Debbie Nathan

Am I being detained is something lots of people say to cops they think are stopping them for no good reason. But if you listen closely to one of the videos, there's a clue to how that language made its way to the checkpoints.

Border Patrol Agent

Did you get this idea from CheckpointUSA.org, sir?

Motorist

What are you asking me?

Debbie Nathan

It's kind of hard to hear. The agent says, "Did you get this idea from CheckpointUSA.org, sir?" CheckpointUSA.org is an online storehouse of information about inland checkpoints and the laws and regulations that govern them. It was created by Terry Bressi, the second most prolific poster of these YouTube videos. I'll tell you about the most prolific poster in a minute.

From all I can gather, Terry started posting checkpoint challenge videos before anyone else, certainly before YouTube existed. And watching him work, it's like listening to the original version of a hit song that's been covered over and over again.

Terry Bressi

Who do you work for?

Border Patrol Agent

US Border Patrol.

Terry Bressi

Am I being detained?

Border Patrol Agent

No. I'm asking you a simple question.

Terry Bressi

Am I free to go?

Border Patrol Agent

I'm asking you a question. You need to answer my question.

Terry Bressi

Am I being detained?

Border Patrol Agent

You need to answer my question, sir.

Terry Bressi

Am I being detained?

Border Patrol Agent

Sir, you need to answer my question.

Terry Bressi

Am I being detained?

Border Patrol Agent

I'm asking you what country are you a citizen of?

Debbie Nathan

It's almost hypnotic when Terry does it.

Terry Bressi

Am I being detained?

Border Patrol Agent

I'm asking you, are you being-- uh, what country--

Terry Bressi

Am I free to go?

Debbie Nathan

And he's very confrontational, cold and unrelenting. In regular life, Terry's a real introvert. He's chief engineer for an astronomical research lab and spends half his time working alone with telescopes at a remote observatory on a mountain in Arizona. That's why he passes through the checkpoints so often, to get to and from this job.

Terry Bressi

You know, I'm just trying to get home. Do you have a reason, you know, to stop me and interfere with my life? I don't care if you're wasting just three seconds of my life or three hours. It's my life. And unless I choose to interact with you, I shouldn't have to.

Am I free to go, Agent D. Gilmore? Why aren't you allowing me to go on my way, Agent D. Gilmore?

Border Patrol Agent

Park over there--

Debbie Nathan

This particular interaction lasts a minute and a half before Agent Gilmore says, you can put this on YouTube, I know who you are. Which begs the question, well, then why is he keeping Terry there? He knows he's a citizen. At the same time, after they tell Terry he can leave, he sometimes just stays and argues some more.

Border Patrol Agent

You may go, sir.

Terry Bressi

I'm free to go? Why were these agents unlawfully detaining me?

Border Patrol Agent

You may go, sir.

Terry Bressi

Why was these agents unlawfully detaining me?

Border Patrol Agent

Have a nice life.

Debbie Nathan

The most prolific poster of these videos also produces the most dramatic ones that I've seen. Not because they're full of angry back-and-forth with the agents or disputes over the law, but just because they are truly, totally weird and often very funny. You know a movement has really arrived when it gets its own comedian.

His name is Robert Trudell, and he lives in Arizona. In some ways he's the exact opposite of the refuseniks. In a lot of his videos, instead of jawing on and on at a checkpoint, he says nothing at all. He'll just stare at the agent, often gently smiling, bringing new meaning to the right to remain silent.

Border Patrol Agent

Do you speak English? Huh? Hablas Espanol? [SPANISH] Are you a United States citizen, sir? Huh?

Debbie Nathan

Robert Trudell is capable of the nuttiest shenanigans at a checkpoint. He's outfitted his Chevy Spark with anywhere from 8 to 13 little video cameras, capturing his stops from all different angles. Sometimes he'll sing to the agents--

Robert Trudell

[SINGING] I'm a man, man, man. I'm a--

Debbie Nathan

Or speak German to them.

Robert Trudell

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

Debbie Nathan

He comes through the checkpoints in different costumes-- an Afro wig and Janis Joplin sunglasses. He's driven through and ordered four hamburgers. One time he pulled up with his backseat stuffed with Mylar balloons. In that video, every question he answers, he sucks in a hit of helium first. Like when the agent asks, are you the only one in the vehicle--

Robert Trudell

I'm not saying.

Debbie Nathan

The agent says, "Fair enough. Any drugs in the vehicle?"

Robert Trudell

That wouldn't be wise to reveal.

Debbie Nathan

They let them through. Other checkpoint refuseniks next act brave. Robert Trudell is brave. One time he approached a checkpoint with his 12-year-old son in the backseat covered entirely with a sheet and an Afro wig on top of the sheet. For the last year or so-- since that video with his son, actually-- Robert prefers not to roll his windows down when he comes to a checkpoint.

Robert Trudell

But I actually compromised when I ran into a situation that made it worthwhile to actually roll my windows down. I had run into a pack of jackasses along the highway. I don't know if you had seen that video, probably.

Debbie Nathan

Literal jackasses, donkeys. He was late for a community theatre audition, but he drove by a herd of five sleepy-eyed jackasses shambling near the road. He pulled over his car and opened his window and started shooting a video in which he talked to them like they're Border Patrol officials.

Robert Trudell

Yes, I'm a US citizen. Under whose authority are you making this stop?

Debbie Nathan

The animals stick their muzzles inside the window. Again, these are actual four-legged donkeys sniffing him.

Robert Trudell

Am I free to go? Am I free to go?

Then I try to act like these other checkpoint challengers, and I mimic the way they're talking after I drive off. I'm kind of ranting on.

Listen, I was surrounded by these jackasses once again! Held me up from my audition. This isn't going to make a good impression.

Debbie Nathan

This is what I like about Robert Trudell. He makes fun of the whole checkpoint challenge mishegas. And he's just trying to come up with fun stuff for his viewers to watch. In a way, he's like an eight-year-old kid with a chemistry set. He just wants to see what'll happen, what will explode when he mixes things up.

Robert says he makes about $8,000 a year from the videos, from ads on YouTube. His most popular video, the one that's gotten almost a million views, is not funny. In fact, it's kind of chilling. He's not wearing any costumes, not saying anything strange. All he's doing is sitting in his car at a checkpoint near Pine Valley, California, taking photographs of the agents and a local sheriff, all of whom are trying to get him to roll his window down.

They pull him over to secondary and try to talk to him through the glass. Finally they give up, but they don't let him go this time. Instead an agent approaches with a little tool balled up in his fist and swings his arm back.

Robert Trudell

So he--

[GLASS SHATTERING]

--you know, smashes the window open, and--

Hm?

Border Patrol Agent

Get out of the vehicle.

Debbie Nathan

Violence like this doesn't happen a lot in these videos, but it does happen. Agents also broke the window of that pastor I mentioned earlier, Steven Anderson. They tased him and bloodied his face.

In Robert's case, he says the agents seized his cameras, put him in handcuffs, drove him far away to a holding cell, and detained him for hours. Then they drove them even farther away to El Cajon, California, let him out late at night at a bus station, and drove off.

Robert plans to file a claim for damages and lost income. But he says the one thing the bothers him about the whole experience is that he didn't have cameras outside the car to get better video of the whole thing. And it hasn't deterred him from making lots more videos.

Sean Cole

And can you just spell out again, like, why, just why?

Robert Trudell

To test, kind of do a test to the system, to see how things operate.

Sean Cole

But to test the system why, exactly?

Robert Trudell

To understand it better.

Debbie Nathan

Well, why do you want to understand it better? Why this system?

Robert Trudell

Because I'm close to it, I'm surrounded by it. I can't go anywhere without going through this system. And the people in the community I'm in are trapped in it.

Sean Cole

All right, so we're coming up on a Border Patrol checkpoint here. Where are we now?

Debbie Nathan

Gila Bend.

Sean Cole

Gila Bend, Arizona.

Debbie Nathan

On our way back from interviewing Robert Trudell, my producer, Sean, and I went through a checkpoint, not to do a challenge. We just had to get to the airport. And Border Patrol was set up on that road. We were about 65 miles from the border. Sean pulled out his recorder to see if we could get a comment from the agents about the videos.

Sean Cole

Hi.

Border Patrol Agent

Hello, sir, How are you?

Debbie Nathan

No surprise, they said they couldn't talk to us and referred us to the main Customs and Border Protection office in Tucson. I requested an interview about the checkpoint videos. They sent back a long written statement that said nothing about the videos.

Here's part of what it said instead. Quote, "Checkpoints restrict smugglers from access to transportation hubs, roadways, highways, and different routes of egress. It is not unusual for Border Patrol agents manning these checkpoints to engage in conversations with the public regarding their travels. Brief questions to dispel any concerns are intended to complete the encounter with minimum disruption to traffic."

We also requested an interview with the headquarters of Customs and Border Protection in DC and asked them for statistics on how successful the checkpoints are at catching undocumented people and drug smugglers. After going back and forth with them for a week, in the end they answered none of our questions.

I did talk to a former Border Patrol agent named Ephraim Cruz, who said something interesting about the checkpoints and how they work. Cruz is famous in Border Patrol circles. He was a whistle-blower, and after that was brought up on charges of transporting an undocumented person into the States. He was acquitted. Sean and I asked him if he ever caught any undocumented immigrants himself. He said he did, but in the flanks, the area around the checkpoint as far as three miles out.

Sean Cole

In the flanks?

Ephraim Cruz

In the flanks of the checkpoint.

Sean Cole

Not at the checkpoint itself.

Ephraim Cruz

No. Not that I recall, no.

Debbie Nathan

You never found an undocumented person at the checkpoint?

Ephraim Cruz

Not that I recall.

Debbie Nathan

This is the thing I didn't understand until talking to Ephraim. The checkpoints have the effect of squeezing undocumented immigrant traffic out to the sides, out to the brush and desert, where some get caught, many get lost, some die. The Border Patrol has reported that more than 6,000 migrants were found dead on the US side of the border between 1998 and 2013. That's not the intention of the checkpoint, of course. But Ephraim says patrolling the flanks has become part of the overall checkpoint strategy.

Ephraim Cruz

It's effective in the sense that people who know the checkpoint is there and have intentions on smuggling a human load through will circumvent the checkpoint, and roving patrols will actually intercept those loads. And from my experience, the checkpoint gives some of the public a sense of the Border Patrol doing something.

Debbie Nathan

Not long ago I ran across a phrase that experts and analysts use, "security theater," meaning security measures that are mostly for show. If Ephraim Cruz is right, the checkpoints are a kind of security theater, brightly lit stages in the middle of the highway that send undocumented people elsewhere to get caught. The checkpoint challengers are unwilling actors in that drama, unpaid extras. And so they turned things around and started telling a different story, casting the border agents in absurdist productions that they're directing and filming themselves.

Ira Glass

Debbie Nathan in New York.

Act Three. Ellis Island.

Ayelet Waldman

I've tried a lot of different ways to get inside my father's head, but he has no interest in self-revelation. Ask about the history of the kibbutz movement or Stalin's five-year plans for the Soviet economy, and he'll deliver a classroom-ready lecture complete with footnotes.

But ask him how he feels about something? He'll pretend his hearing aids aren't working. I've tried to combat his reticence in all sorts of ways, including sneaking personal queries into discussions of the topics that actually do interest him. You have no idea of how difficult it is to shoehorn a question about your father's first divorce into a conversation about the schisms between the Ihud and Meuhad kibbutz factions.

That's why it was downright astonishing when a while back, he handed me a stack of old mini cassette tapes. They were recordings of his psychotherapy sessions from 30 years before. He said, you're the writer in the family. Maybe you can do something with these.

Here's what I hoped for. My father would bare his soul to a psychologist. He would confess all of his fears and anxieties. He'd tell the truth about his feelings for his wife. He'd describe his disappointments with his children. I'd finally understand why he and my mom have stayed married for 50 years when they can barely tolerate being in the same room for 50 seconds. Maybe he'd cry. Maybe he'd talk about me. This is what I actually heard.

Father

Well, the whole idea of the kibbutz is that it's based on a premise of truth and honesty between people and cooperation and not taking advantage of others and all this crap.

Ayelet Waldman

Yes. The history of the kibbutz movement. And here's my dad's therapist chiming in with Communism.

Albert Ellis

And look what Lenin wrongly said, that the [BLEEP] state would wither away.

Father

But instead of withering away--

Albert Ellis

You have a dictatorship of the proletariat, which he really meant over the proletariat, because we know it ain't of the proletariat.

Ayelet Waldman

My father's psychologist, Albert Ellis, was actually a pretty big deal. One of the inventors of cognitive behavioral therapy, he died in 2007. He's widely considered to be among the most important psychotherapists in history. The three 40-minute psychotherapy sessions I listened to were exactly like every conversation I've ever had with my dad, except with one major difference. Ellis cares as much about this crap as my dad does. He's totally engaged.

Albert Ellis

I've had lots of opportunities, incidentally, to join the immoral majority, the money-making majority, and sell my soul to the Ladies' Home Journal and McCall's magazine. I can write slop for them, you know.

Ayelet Waldman

He doesn't even sound like a psychologist. He sounds like my dad, like a crotchety old man with a huge chip on his shoulder. Again, here's Ellis.

Albert Ellis

Too damn bad that we've got a [BLEEP] world where if you really want to make money, you lick the ass of the Reader's Digest. That's how to make money in this world. And they never published a single thing of mine. And I never got a [BLEEP] thing in McCall's or the Ladies' Home Journal. Best I could do is Cosmopolitan or something like that, who kept some of my stuff.

Ayelet Waldman

The very rare moments where Ellis and my dad actually talk about my dad's life and his emotions last for maybe five minutes at a stretch at most. Like here's my dad explaining the resentment he had for the wealthy people he dealt with at his fundraising job.

Father

Well, I've got to learn how to accept these people for what they are. If I go on resenting them, I won't be able to work in any [BLEEP].

Albert Ellis

Exactly right.

Father

But it's true. I have this, you know-- and when somebody is, well, you have this resentment. Where the hell does this come from?

Albert Ellis

You know, I think it largely, partly comes from your own feelings of inadequacy that I'm not making a million bucks and being an idealist, too.

Ayelet Waldman

Now we're getting somewhere, right? But as soon as they start digging in, it's like they both panic at the prospect of actually talking about something real. And they scramble away to a safely neutral subject, like how many books Dale Carnegie sold.

Albert Ellis

He sold about 10 million copies, and still sells very well. Yeah. Still sells.

Ayelet Waldman

Among the other topics my dad and Albert Ellis limned with great thoroughness when they were supposed to be getting to the root of my dad's anger issues, or whatever the hell it was that he went to therapy to talk about? Ralph Nader.

Albert Ellis

Now, Ralph Nader doesn't sell his soul at all, because he's willing to do what he does and supported with his own effort.

Ayelet Waldman

The Teamsters' alleged crime connections.

Father

But obviously some people in the Teamsters are simply closely linked to the mafia.

Ayelet Waldman

This is when we learn more fun facts about Ellis.

Albert Ellis

I'm a member of the union, AFRA.

Ayelet Waldman

The insights into my parents' marriage I was hoping for, the feelings he has never been able to express, none of that is in there. My four brothers, my sister, me, he doesn't even mention our names. My mom? The woman he spent hours of every day fighting with? She comes up exactly once. If you spent your evenings and weekends yelling at and being yelled at by your wife, wouldn't you talk about it in therapy? So I had a few questions for my dad.

Father

Hello?

Ayelet Waldman

Hi, Dad, how are you?

Father

Good.

Ayelet Waldman

My dad's an energetic 89-year-old. He spends his days reading three or four books at a time, flies overseas by himself. He's lived on a diet of Keebler fudge-stripe cookies for so long-- he's up to a pack a day-- that my kids say he's turning into an elf. I asked him why it was that he never talked about our family in therapy. Why is it that we don't even come up?

Father

What I was trying to do is get my head together. And one of the things that we were supposed to discuss-- and this is why we went to Ellis-- was that my marriage was suffering.

Ayelet Waldman

But you know, Daddy, you never talk about your marriage almost at all.

Father

Well, yeah. That's too personal, really. Yeah. So.

Ayelet Waldman

Talking about his marriage is too personal for therapy.

Ayelet Waldman

So you didn't talk about it.

Father

No. I wouldn't talk about my marriage, even not to Ellis.

Ayelet Waldman

Why didn't you talk about it to him?

Father

Oh, we got sidetracked on all kinds of things.

Ayelet Waldman

I had all these questions, questions about our relationship, and questions about how much you and mom were fighting. And then you gave me the tapes. And I thought, [GASP] he's giving me the tapes because he wants me to know. And then--

Father

Then I didn't disclose anything.

Ayelet Waldman

Yes, exactly. You didn't disclose anything.

For years, I thought if I just found the right way to talk to my dad, he would finally open up. But eventually I just gave up. And then he gave me those tapes. And even though I know my dad, and I should've known exactly what I was going to hear, I was stunned all over again. It's crazy that even when we're grown, even when we know from long experience that someone is who they are, we still keep hoping that they might be different.

Ira Glass

Ayelet Waldman, she's the author of Love and Treasure and many other books. Her story was produced with Alix Lambert, whose film, Mentor, comes out on video on demand and DVD next month.

Credits.

Raquel Rutledge

They left my place in shambles, I mean like a college fraternity or something, just trash everywhere. They tore out some walls and they rewired some stuff and caused a leaky roof.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.