Transcript

566:

The Land of Make Believe
Transcript

Originally aired 09.11.2015

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/566

Prologue.

Ira Glass

We were putting together today's radio show, and we came across this idea that totally changed how we saw the stories that you're going to hear today. This idea was in a talk that George RR Martin gave. He's the guy who wrote the series of fantasy books that Game of Thrones was based on, back in the 1930s and '40s.

And he was talking about his job on stage in front of some fans, and specifically he was talking about how JRR Tolkien changed everything for people in his kind of work, for people who write fantasy stories. And when I say "changed everything," I don't mean putting a double R in the middle of your name if you're a fantasy writer. Tolkien, of course, wrote Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

George Rr Martin

And one of the things he did that was extraordinary was create Middle Earth in such detail. If you look at some of the pre-Tolkien fantasy, it's written more in a story of fairy tales. You know, "Once upon a time, there was a king, and the king had a beautiful daughter." But you won't know, like, who was the king's father, or who was his grandfather, how the dynasty came to power, or what the neighboring countries are."

Ira Glass

But Tolkien gave all that, and more. He created whole histories and languages and genealogies. He created stuff that never even appeared in the books.

George Rr Martin

And it seemed as real as England or France or Germany when you read these things.

Ira Glass

Make-believe just has more heft-- it gets to you more, it feels like more-- the more detail there is to make the world in the story feel real. Which when you think about it, of course, is obvious, whether you're telling a story, or you're designing Grand Theft Auto, or you're a spy needing to invent a cover, or you're a cheater or a con man of some kind, making up a scam.

But this idea was interesting to us, because today on our show, we have two stories of make-believe worlds. Act One is about an amazingly successful one. Act Two is about a fantastically unsuccessful one.

And when we heard that quote from George RR Martin, we realized, right. These worlds live or die, their success or their failure depends, on these details, on how believable they are, how precisely chosen. That's at the heart of both these stories.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. How make-believe works. Stay with us.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Act One. Overboard.

Ira Glass

Act One: Overboard. So there are 12 kids in the Steinfels family, and they grew up in the 1980s in a very unusual situation. They all worked on a ship. Their dad, Jim, had been in the Navy, and he oversaw them. They swabbed the decks. They served food in the chow line. They wore uniforms-- white sailor hats, black neckerchiefs. Miki Meek tells more.

Miki Meek

When Joe was in elementary school, his favorite part of working on the ship was night watch. That's when all the rest of the crew was asleep.

Joe

You know, which I loved, you know? I loved it. From midnight to 4:00 in the morning, that was one of my favorite watches, where it's quiet. You're listening to talk radio coming out with their little weather alerts and stuff. And you're sitting there, and every half-hour, you have to get up and walk around and make sure the ship's secure and all that.

Radio Announcer

Colder as the evening and morning hours approach.

Miki Meek

Joe was only six years old, little Navy hat on his head, peering over the side, watching for any incoming threat.

Joe

I remember clearly, you know, there was raccoons one night that were over making noise near the garbage can area.

Miki Meek

Yes. Raccoons. I should clarify. The ship that he worked on, it was not at sea. It was not moving. It was stationed in the driveway of their house in suburban Chicago. But Joe took his job seriously and kept a logbook that he updated almost every half-hour.

Joe

And so I think I annotated something along those lines in the logbook. You know, "2:30 in the morning, raccoons," such and such. So, "Made rounds. All is not secure. Raccoons."

You know, it gave so much officialness to what we were doing. This wasn't just a game. This was-- this was life.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Miki Meek

The idea to build a ship in the driveway came from his sister, Elizabeth. They shared a room, and one day when their parents told them to clean it up, Elizabeth made a deal with Joe. If he'd take care of it, she'd build them a ship. She was five; he was four. The big sister. Joe said yes. So Elizabeth dragged a couple boxes into their backyard and started to pull together materials.

Elizabeth

I think I asked my father if I could have some two-by-fours to make the deck with. And then, of course, he got involved, deciding that he was going to take it up a level. You know, signal flags being done up, and portholes in doors, and hand-painted numbers. And I had a gorgeous wood desk, and I had like my own phone, and landlines were run from the house to the ship.

Miki Meek

What? Like a real phone?

Elizabeth

Yeah. Yeah.

Miki Meek

What?

Elizabeth

I'm telling you, I had a really nice office there.

Miki Meek

And then did the ship have a name?

Elizabeth

It was the USS Elizabeth City.

Miki Meek

As the months went on, the ship grew more and more elaborate. Their dad started using masonite and plywood. He put in a wheelhouse and an engine room. Eventually the ship was about 24 feet long and painted battleship gray.

A lot of the magic was in the accessories. He outfitted the ship with guns that shot ping-pong balls and missiles made from spray-painted deodorant sticks. He picked up life jackets at a Navy surplus store.

He installed an intercom. It was a long, hollow tube that let you talk from the wheelhouse to the engine room in the back.

He attached the motor from a blender to a wall. Its purpose? Engine noise. The kids could hit different buttons speeds on it to make it sound like they were moving faster.

What made their dad so good at make-believe is how real he made it. One of the girls, Marion, liked eating breakfast on the ship's deck. Her dad would bring out an old coffee percolator.

Marion

And put in the smokestack. And then you would just see the steam kind of rising up out of that. And then we had these little Kool-Aid mugs that had been remade into our coffee cups. And he really would let us have coffee. Like we would just sit around, like in our work gear, getting ready for the day and admiring our ship, with the real-looking steam coming up.

Miki Meek

The kids would play on the USS Elizabeth City all summer long, sometimes on 24-hour shifts. Think of what genius parenting that is if you have a dozen kids. When summer comes, you want to keep them busy, engage them. In any given summer, pretty much any kid who wasn't a teenager yet would be on the ship. Again, here's Marion.

Marion

We didn't have many toys. I mean, they were-- at the end of it all, there were 12 of us. But like, then in our backyard, we had the most elaborate and amazing toy any child could ever have, that wasn't just something-- you know, it wasn't like a video game you played for a little bit. It was like years and years and years of playing on, kind of learning on, sleeping outside. It was just such a crazy, like amazing, ya know, experience.

Miki Meek

There was a whole world their dad created around the USS Elizabeth City-- a history and a mission statement, and a strict set of rules and responsibilities. His wife Joan typed up a pamphlet just like the ones the Navy handed out when their ships were at port. In this case, the port was their neighborhood, Park Ridge. Joan read it for me.

Joan

"The USS Elizabeth City is one of the most modern classes of driveway gunboats. Many of our officers and enlisted personnel make their homes in this community. Our ship's mission is to defend Park Ridge's strategic Continental Divide against surprise naval attack."

Miki Meek

Is that what you guys told the kids? This is your mission?

Joan

Right. Right, definitely, yes. And of course, Park Ridge is totally surrounded by land.

Miki Meek

The last paragraph was a message for the crew, his 12 kids.

Joan

"Elizabeth City is a small ship and we can get along best by looking out for each other. Glad to have you with us. We think you're going to like it here. Welcome aboard."

Miki Meek

Their dad, Jim, had been in the Navy for about a decade. In his 30s, he married Joan. They eventually ran an architecture firm together out of their basement. They didn't make much money. They spent most of their time designing youth centers in low-income neighborhoods throughout Chicago.

But Jim didn't just design these. For more than 40 years, he also helped maintain them, would deal with emergency calls in the middle of the night if a pipe broke. And when he'd go to make repairs, he'd bring the kids to help. He was idealistic, and also incredibly practical.

He died in 2011 and never talked to his wife and kids about what he'd hoped they'd get out of the ship. But they do know that he enjoyed playing in that world just as much as they did. Every kid I spoke to described his incredible imagination-- not just with the ship.

There were the stories he'd make up, the Fisher Price city he built in their basement, a trading post he ran from a window in his office. The kids could get trinkets in exchange for trash they cleaned out of their yard. He printed fake money once, and they played the stock market for three months.

He made stuff fun. They all talked about that. But he also had an intense work ethic and thrived on discipline and teamwork. He wanted his kids to be productive and constantly told them--

Marion

If you have time to lean, you have time to clean. He wanted you to be working.

Miki Meek

Again, this is Marion. She told me her dad assigned each of them a specific job. For example, she was the hospital corpsman, which meant she was responsible for any injuries on the ship.

Marion

I had like a real first aid kit. I had like a little station there. I mean, it was full of, like, my fake shots and stuff. But I had like real alcohol, real Band-Aids, real ACE bandage, you know, stuff like that.

Miki Meek

What's the worst injury you had to treat?

Marion

Like people always got splinters because it was wood. And all my siblings had a service record, or--

Miki Meek

Is it a medical record, or what?

Marion

Real medical records. And that was another job of mine, is that whenever the kids went to real medical appointments with the doctor, my mom would come back with, you know, that you get a sheet from the doctor or whatever if you had a shot and stuff. And my mom would give them, to me, and my job was to hole-punch them and to put them in their proper service jacket. And once in a while, my dad would say, will you check and see if anyone's behind on their appointments or whatever?

And you know, I mean, I took that very seriously. Like I was very proud that I had that job. I had this responsibility to make sure all the kids were going to the doctor on time.

Miki Meek

Other kids on the ship had positions like gunner's mate, radio men, master-at-arms, and culinary specialist. And each of these involve some paperwork, real US Navy paperwork, forms that their dad saved from his time in the service or picked up from local recruitment offices. Elizabeth, who was the chief storekeeper, says she spent many hours putting her signature on supply requisitions.

Elizabeth

If someone was supposed to be doing some sort of job and they needed specific tools, or they were supposed to cook something and needed oatmeal or coriander--

Miki Meek

Or coriander?

Elizabeth

In the kitchen-- yeah. Yeah.

[BOTH LAUGH]

They would have to come to me, maybe with a work order. It was a lot of-- lot of initials. It was just more about routine and paperwork.

Miki Meek

So what made this fun? I think that's the thing I'm trying to figure out. Because it sounds like it's a lot of work.

Elizabeth

Um, I don't know. I don't know that it always was fun. You know, when we were on there, my memory is it was somewhere between work and play. I think I liked that I had a defined character and everything. Grumpy old storekeeper, and you know.

Miki Meek

So did your dad coach you?

Elizabeth

Of course. Of course. It's just like a little snarly, and not enough coffee. No, I'm not going to get you that right now. You're going to have to wait, or fill out the right paperwork. Or you know, I don't know.

Just because that's what my father, he just remembered that every chief storekeeper that he had ever known had always had this, like, little stub of a cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth, as he snarled at you about something. And so he felt that it was very important that I always had this little ashtray on my desk with just a smoldering little cigar on it.

Miki Meek

She was six.

Of course, with so many kids, there were arguments and disagreements on the ship. And so to deal with that, their dad created a chain of command, an entire rank structure. He gave himself one of the lower positions, the boatswain's mate. That way the kids would have to work out problems on their own.

The highest-ranking position, commanding officer, that went to his oldest child, Jane. She was in charge of posting a plan of the day. That included chores, meals, and watch times for her brothers and sisters.

If they all did their jobs, their dad would take them for doughnuts at the end of the week. Any kid who slacked off would ruin it for everyone. And if Jane caught them slacking off at their jobs, as commanding officer she had the power to punish. Like she could make you guard garbage cans as a time-out.

Jane

I was seen as bossy and as always telling them what to do. And, you know, it didn't matter that that was my job, that that was what I had been assigned to do.

Miki Meek

So like, let me give you an example of that.

Jane

If I was in charge and I didn't think your brass belt buckle was shined adequately, that might be a source of tension. But if you're going to wear a uniform, then you better-- you better wear it.

Miki Meek

So I mean, like in some way, it created a little bit of a separation between you and the rest of them.

Jane

I mean, of course. It's only-- it's only natural. I mean, but what's which actually kind of funny is that I was never allowed, not one single time, to play, because that was fraternization.

Miki Meek

What?

Jane

I was an officer. They were enlisted. I was not allowed to have that relationship with them, that I could sit around the table with them and play cards.

Miki Meek

When you came back in the house, were you allowed to play together?

Jane

Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. No, it was just-- it was just on the ship. You know, that was kind of the cost I paid for the role that I had.

Miki Meek

I asked them all, why did they keep playing along with this? So many rules. So much cleaning.

They said, you're a little kid, so it is fun. Like a treehouse and a fort and dress-up, all rolled into one. And they said when you're a little kid, you want to do with the older kids are doing, whatever it is. And then you had your dad there, always adding these extra details to keep them excited, like sudden deployment orders.

The USS Elizabeth City was on wheels and went on trips. Joe remembers being called on a mission to a church parking lot down the street.

Joe

And we would push this 24-foot-long ship out into a relatively busy street, Cumberland Avenue, and we would make corners. And one of us would be in the wheelhouse, actually steering the wheel of the ship. And we'd do drills. We'd do target practice, if you will, with a little submarine.

This is back in the '80s. The Cold War was a threat. So we'd have a little Soviet-era submarine that would be out there, moving around. And we'd have "man overboard" drills, and everyone would throw on their life preservers. And I mean, even though I can clearly see asphalt sitting there, somewhere in my mind, you know, it seemed like it was real.

Miki Meek

They lived so fully in the world of the ship, their lives were so devoted to it, that the kids never really stopped to think about how someone from the outside world might view it. Marion says she was eight before she first invited a friend aboard the USS Elizabeth City.

Marion

I was out there with my other brothers and sisters, and she just kept kind of rolling her eyes, being like, what are we doing? And she wanted to go inside and play Barbies, and this was kind of like weird. I think that was when I first realized, like, not everyone had ships in their backyards.

Miki Meek

And so I mean, did you just not acknowledge that you had a ship in your backyard after that?

Marion

Yeah, I think for the rest of grammar school, I just-- it was like, they just need to know. Its on a need-to-know basis.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Miki Meek

All the Steinfels kids, they eventually reached an age-- usually around middle school-- when they started wanting to spend more time off the ship than on it. And their dad, he created a system to deal with that, too. Here's David, the 11th of the Steinfels' 12 kids.

David

If you wanted to take liberty, you'd have to fill out a yellow slip and then put where you were going. You had to put the time and date of when you were leaving and when you're coming back. And then you had to put who you're going to see, what you're doing, a number to reach you at, like, your Social Security number. And then you'd have to get it signed off by the supervisor of the day. And then--

Miki Meek

So you mean an older sibling, or what?

David

So the supervisor would be whoever was appointed. Then it would get posted. And I don't think my father really ever had to step in, or-- I think that's one of the beauties of the system, is like, use the other siblings to keep everything in order.

Miki Meek

As the kids got older, they just stopped showing up on the ship to play. Only one kid I spoke with formally requested a discharge. She was 12.

Marion

I went to my dad and, you know, acting very seriously, told him that I'd thought about it, and I had decided that it just wasn't for me anymore.

Miki Meek

This is Marion.

Marion

He was just like, OK, that's interesting. And I remember getting in the mail, not too long after that, a big manila envelope, you know, to Hospital Corpsman Third Class Marion Kate. And inside, there was a letter that said, unfortunately, because we had just entered the first Gulf War, that the President had said that no one can leave right now, that everyone's automatically re-enlisted.

Miki Meek

This was an actual real order that came down for actual sailors during Operation Desert Storm. Probably not intended for middle school kids in Illinois.

Marion

And so I wasn't going to be able to leave then. And I mean, I was just like, you know, kind of like, OK, he got me, I guess. I mean, there's just no getting out of it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Miki Meek

Jane, the oldest, is 41 now. The youngest, Samuel, is 20. And you can't help but notice how much the Steinfels kids' lives seem to be shaped by their time on the ship.

Elizabeth, the master chief storekeeper, she now runs her own clothing store. John, the culinary specialist, he manages the kitchen at a Chicago restaurant. Samuel's training to be an officer at the Naval Academy right now. Jane went there, too.

Four of the other boys, they ended up in the Marine Corps. David enlisted right after high school. He's been deployed to Asia and Yemen.

David

I think the ship was a very big part. Because the one thing that I was good at, and I knew it because we did it as a child, was the military. And when I went there, it was pretty easy for me. I mean, all these other people were struggling, especially Marine boot camp. It's a-- it's a legendary zone of horror and pain and whatnot, but I was pretty used to it. I mean, it wasn't obviously as intense at home as it was there. But a lot of the rules and everything, like organization, attention to detail, it was all pretty much mirrored.

Miki Meek

When you actually got on a real ship, how similar was it to your play ship?

David

[CHUCKLES] A lot of it was surprisingly the same. I mean, I could still, from my bed, reach out and touch three different people. And you could hear people breathing in their beds.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Miki Meek

Jim Steinfels was 71 when he died from cancer four years ago. He wanted his kids to be competent and industrious and serve something bigger than themselves, lessons they say they learned on the ship. Right after he died, Marion said they couldn't stop thinking about how he would have hated anyone wasting a good day of work.

Marion

My mom, one thing that she kind of struggled with was having his funeral during the day. She thought that he would be mortified that people had stopped working to go to his funeral. So she thought about having it in the evening.

And my dad actually built his own coffin. I mean, he always made-- you know, I mean, he made the ship. He was really good at making things.

I just miss being on the ship. I mean, and I think that we all wouldn't have the relationships we have. I mean, I really think it was kind of the basis for our closeness and our kind of like camaraderie.

Miki Meek

The ship their dad build is still around. It's in the garage at their mom's house. And every once in a while, when the kids are home visiting, they'll pull it back into their yard. Sometimes they'll climb back on it, though it's tough to get through the portholes and doors now. And then they'll stand on the deck and watch their own children play on it.

Child

At the bridge, Mom. [INAUDIBLE].

[FOGHORN BLARES]

Battle station.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Ira Glass

Miki Meek is one of producers of our show. If you're curious, pictures of the USS Elizabeth City are at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

[MUSIC - BOB DYLAN, "WHEN THE SHIP COMES IN"]

Coming up, pretending to be a normal person can be the most difficult make-believe of all. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two. The Lyin' Kings.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme.

Today's show, "Land of Make-Believe," we have stories of people constructing worlds that are not real, some more convincingly and charmingly than others. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, The Lyin' Kings.

So this next story is about a whole bunch of people who are building an elaborate world of make-believe for their jobs, and they fail. They totally fail. This is not a spoiler. They don't come close to getting this right. I'm telling you up front. Jonathan Menjivar explains what happened.

A warning, if you're listening to the podcast or online version of our program-- there's cursing in the story that we beeped out on the radio. But on the internet we have unbeeped it. If you're listening with kids or you just prefer a beeped show, as always, you can find that at our website. OK, here's Jonathan.

Jonathan Menjivar

This story starts with a lie between friends. One of those friends was a young woman named Lyric R. Cabral. She lived in Harlem and had this neighbor, a guy in his 50s named Saeed Torres.

Lyric's apartment was on the third floor of a brownstone. Saeed lived on the first. And they hung out together all the time. They're both black and Muslim.

And Lyric found Saeed intriguing, in part because he was an actual Black Panther. Lyric had grown up interested in the Black Panther Party but had never actually met a member before. She was a student at the time, learning to do documentary work.

Saeed had told Lyric that he was going to be moving to the Bronx soon. And then one day she came home from school.

Lyric R. Cabral

I usually stopped in his apartment to say hello, just because it was before I went upstairs, I would pass his apartment. And when I looked in the apartment, all of his things were gone. There was no furniture. There was no indication that anyone had ever lived there.

And I assumed that he had probably just moved to the Bronx. But I thought it weird, because I was like, you know, it was too hasty. He would have told me.

And while I'm staring at the empty apartment, I get a call from him. He sounds incredibly frantic. I had never heard that tone in his voice. He sounded like almost someone was on the other end of the phone with a gun to his head.

And he said, if anyone comes looking for me, if anyone asks you any information about me, don't give it to them. And you find out who they are for me.

And I said, well-- you know, I was pretty petrified based on the way he sounded. He sounded incredibly nervous. And so I said, well, where are you? What's wrong?

And he's like, well, I can't really tell you, but I'm in South Carolina right now. I have something to tell you. You should come down here and visit.

Jonathan Menjivar

Which she did. And Saeed told her that all these years she'd known him, all these years she'd seen him getting dressed in nice suits and going to work, that was all a cover. Because Saeed was actually an informant for the FBI.

She says, at the time, she didn't know much about how FBI investigations work.

Lyric R. Cabral

So it was a very naive back-and-forth, but it was very braggadocious on his part. He outlined all that he had done, sort of, for the FBI. And when I asked him, why are you telling me this? He goes, well, because you don't have to fact-check me. You were there.

Jonathan Menjivar

"There" in that first floor apartment in Harlem. Saeed told Lyric that the FBI had paid his rent while he investigated a man named Tariq Shah. And Lyric knew exactly who that was, because Saeed had introduced her to Tariq. He'd come to Saeed's apartment several times when she was there. Saeed also told Lyric that his whole apartment was wired.

Lyric R. Cabral

I was pissed. You know, I mean definitely, this was not like-- I didn't receive this information with a smile. I definitely felt betrayed. Because to me, that meant that I had an FBI file.

I mean, and that was a question I had for him. I was like, well, since I was in the apartment with Tariq, I was on camera, correct? And to date, I have not gotten a good answer, both from the FBI-- sort of FOIA'd that material. That FBI has told me they do not have anything in their possession.

And Saeed himself says, oh, no, I would never record you. I would never press Play when you were there. I would never press Record. But I'm not quite too confident in that.

Jonathan Menjivar

Lyric says that there in South Carolina, Saeed handed her a folder full of newspaper articles about cases he'd worked on. He'd actually highlighted the parts in the articles that talked about his role, places where he's identified just as "government informant."

And Lyric believed him, believed that he'd been an informant, that he'd fled to South Carolina because he was afraid for his safety after the FBI arrested Tariq Shah.

Lyric didn't know exactly why Saeed was telling her all of this, but he mentioned he'd seen other people turning the work they'd done with the FBI into bestselling books. Why couldn't he do something similar? And that's where things stood, for nearly a decade.

Lyric kept in touch with Saeed and started pursuing a career as a documentary filmmaker. She met another filmmaker named David Felix Sutcliffe. And David told her that he'd been fantasizing about making a film that would follow an FBI informant.

David Felix Sutcliffe

And she said, funny you should say, because I-- I know one.

Jonathan Menjivar

That's David, by the way. He and Lyric reached out to Saeed, and he told them that he was just starting to work on a new case in Pittsburgh.

David Felix Sutcliffe

And, you know, for reasons that weren't totally clear to us at the time, he said, yeah, sure, let's do this. Let's-- you guys can film me.

Saeed Torres

So what's going on? You didn't come down here with no cameras and all that. I asked you that earlier.

Lyric R. Cabral

No, you did not--

Jonathan Menjivar

Sure, they could film. But Saeed often got annoyed when they showed up. It was unpredictable when he'd be OK with it.

Saeed Torres

I said don't come down here with no goddamn cameras and stuff. Hello? I told you I didn't want my face in this shit. You'd be surprised who knows me. Everybody in Brooklyn know me.

Lyric R. Cabral

But they don't know where you are.

Saeed Torres

And they know me in Harlem, too. They know my face.

Lyric R. Cabral

But they don't know where you are.

Saeed Torres

I might not even make no fucking independent film, motherfuckers come after me.

Jonathan Menjivar

That clip is from the documentary Lyric and David ended up making. It's called (T)ERROR. It follows Saeed as he's working this investigation in Pittsburgh.

And in case this isn't clear, I want to point out how incredibly rare this footage is. Because normally when you hear a story about an FBI counterterrorism investigation, it's pieced together after the fact, using court records and whatever interviews reporters can get with people who will talk.

Here, Lyric and David were following someone who usually doesn't talk in the first place, an FBI informant. They were following him in real time, while he was actively working a case. So they didn't have to rely on Saeed's memory to document what happened. They were there.

They hung out with him in his FBI safe house. He showed them pictures he'd pinned on the wall of targets he said the FBI was interested in. As best as anyone can tell, the FBI never agreed to this. And apparently they never noticed that Lyric and David were filming all this time. I mean, why would they have let the investigation continue, if they knew?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Saeed's primary target, the POI-- Person of Interest-- in Pittsburgh was a man Khalifa Ali al-Akili. Khalifa's a white guy, a convert to Islam. Here's a video he posted to YouTube. He's got a beard, a white turban.

Khalifa Al-akili

My name is Khalifa al-Akili, and I am from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the United States of America. [SPEAKING ARABIC]. The belly of the beast. La ilaha illallah Muhammadur Rasulallah.

Lyric R. Cabral

He would engage in sort of-- not inflammatory, but I would say controversial First Amendment-protected speech.

Jonathan Menjivar

Lyric says Khalifa did a lot of this on Facebook.

Lyric R. Cabral

He would post things such as, you know, 2,000 people died on 9/11. However, X number of Muslims have been killed in the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. You know, who is the real enemy here? Things like this.

He would also post videos like, here's Osama bin Laden reading the Quran. There's many Quran recitations you could post on your public Facebook profile after 9/11. You know, he also had another post that said the Taliban are the perfect wearers of the turban.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Jonathan Menjivar

Saeed's job was to get close to Khalifa, see if he was doing more than just talking. And the FBI gave him a cover. They told him to say he was working for the Red Cross.

They set him up in a safe house, in an apartment one block from Khalifa, and he went by a different name. And just so this doesn't get confusing, from this point on in the story, we're going to refer to Saeed by that name. That name was Sharif.

So Sharif-- again, that's Saeed undercover-- he started going to the same mosque as Khalifa. And then he actually met him. Sharif bumped into Khalifa on the street one day and introduced himself. Here's how he described Khalifa in the film.

Sharif

The way I see him running around here now, it would make any motherfucker suspicious. He's walking around looking like a Taliban.

Jonathan Menjivar

Khalifa had grown up Protestant and converted to Islam when he was 14. In 2001, he went to prison for selling drugs. It was a felony. Over the years, Khalifa had other charges, for having a gun without a license, and assault.

And Khalifa was public about his conversion. He'd proselytize. Neighbors in his apartment building say that he'd slip Islamic brochures under their doors and take down Christmas cards they'd hung up.

Khalifa married a Somali woman. They had a kid. And they were getting by on welfare and money Khalifa made selling books. Some of them were books on Islam that he got from a sheik in South Africa. And he'd even started some kind of religious school. In 2006, he started holding classes in his apartment for local Somali children. Again, here's David.

David Felix Sutcliffe

And they called it al-Shabaab, which in Arabic means, "the youth." But it's also the name of the al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization in Somalia. He wasn't aware of that at the time when he named the school.

Jonathan Menjivar

He was not?

David Felix Sutcliffe

But-- he was not. He did not know that that was the name of a terrorist organization. People mentioned it to him pretty quickly afterwards and said, you know, that's probably not the best name for your school, and it's probably not a great idea to have, like, business cards that say Khalifa al-Akili, Al-Shabaab.

But he was kind of defiant and said, well, it means what it means. And if they misinterpret it or they think it means something else, then that's their problem.

Jonathan Menjivar

Yeah, he wasn't trying to hide anything.

Lyric R. Cabral

No. I mean, he drove around town in a car that said Al-Shabaab Islamic Institute. Like, he picked up students in this vehicle.

Jonathan Menjivar

Like on the side? What do you mean, it said it on the car?

Lyric R. Cabral

Oh, we'll send you a Myspace picture. He literally-- like there's a picture of him posing by the vehicle with a child inside, and it says Al-Shabaab.

David Felix Sutcliffe

Like a big magnetic sign that he'd kind of gotten made and slapped on the side of a minivan.

Jonathan Menjivar

The way like a real estate agent does.

David Felix Sutcliffe

Mhm.

Lyric R. Cabral

Yes.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Jonathan Menjivar

Over the seven months David and Lyric were following Sharif through his investigation of Khalifa, they'd check in with him every other day or so, filming whenever they could-- in his safe house, on the street, while he was on the phone with his FBI handlers.

Sharif

Yeah, what's up, Todd Exactly. I don't have bay'ah to this masjid, and I don't have bay'ah to the imam here, either. And most people, you have bay'ah to the imam. That way you can move around with them. I don't have it.

Jonathan Menjivar

It's such an intimate view of an informant's job. And what we see is how much of a counterterrorism investigation-- at least this case-- is really just someone trying very hard to make friends with a total stranger. So Sharif goes to the mosque, hoping to bump into Khalifa. He asks Khalifa out for coffee, offers him rides.

And most of the time, Khalifa just ignores him. Sharif's over-eagerness in all of this is a little hard to watch. He's like the Ned Flanders of FBI stings.

He's constantly texting Khalifa. For example, months into the investigation, Sharif sent Khalifa this text. "As-salaam alaikum, Brother K. What's up? Can you assist me in setting up laptops/Facebook? Inshallah." Here's Lyric.

Lyric R. Cabral

You know, he's not supposed to know how to use Facebook at his age, and I think it was a-- the FBI made that suggestion for Sharif to ask Khalifa to help him set up his Facebook page as a way for Sharif to endear himself to Khalifa, in the sense of like, oh, I'm not knowledgeable in this area. Brother, can you please help me?

Jonathan Menjivar

Khalifa did not help his Muslim brother. In fact, after Sharif tried to friend Khalifa several times over months, Khalifa blocked him. Sharif then sent Khalifa a text that said, "Why didn't you answer my request? Since you blocked me, you have to request it from me." Khalifa texted back, "It's not that serious, bro. LOL."

[MUSIC PLAYING]

It's hard to see how the FBI thought this was ever supposed to work. Sharif was a lot older than Khalifa. His days as a revolutionary with the Black Panthers were decades ago, and not exactly relevant to a much younger white convert.

Sharif smoked pot, dressed in street clothes. Khalifa proselytized and wore traditional Islamic garb. Lyric and David say Sharif was angry that the FBI hadn't done enough to make him seem believable.

David Felix Sutcliffe

He was really frustrated that the FBI didn't have a cover for him. You know, he said, if I had been a businessman, I could have used that as an entryway and say, oh, Khalifa, you want to set up a shop. And Khalifa did want to set up a shop, I think, a breakfast cafe for people to go to after morning prayer.

And Sharif would say, like, if I had a businessman cover, you know, I could use that as a way to kind of like to keep the conversation going and eventually get to a point where we're talking about money, and you know, what are you going to do for money? If I do this for you, what would you do for me?

There just wasn't like a specific foothold. There wasn't like anything specifically related to Sharif's cover that would initiate an organic conversation about these issues. From what I can tell, it seems to come out of left field every single time.

Jonathan Menjivar

For example, one day, as Sharif explains in the film, he was talking with Khalifa, and the classic holy war conversation-starter, camping, came up.

Sharif

That was my key opening right there. The door opened up for me to make a suggestion now. I said, oh, that's cool, man. We could all go camping. I said, you know, why don't we just go a little further? We could train, man, like we do in the military.

I said, brother-- 'cause he wanted to go and fight for the Muslim State. He said, I gotta consult my sheikh. I said, see, that's what's wrong with you, brother. You brothers always talk that jihad stuff, but when somebody gives you the opportunity to make a move to fight for the Islam, y'all are not gonna fight for the Islam. Y'all talk that talk, but you won't walk the walk.

Jonathan Menjivar

Sharif was supposed to gather evidence, record his conversations for FBI analysis. But when he did manage to speak to Khalifa, he couldn't get Khalifa to say anything that Khalifa hadn't already revealed himself on his Facebook page. So he tried other methods that are familiar, if you've ever followed these kinds of cases.

He asked Khalifa to buy him a gun. Sharif said that he needed protection from neighborhood kids who were selling drugs in front of his house. Khalifa didn't bite on that, either.

But the FBI wanted Sharif to keep going. He would text the FBI to tell them what he was up to. "Heading to Friday prayer at al-Noor Mosque. No word from POI."

The FBI would text back, "POI just walked in. Turn recorder on before you go in. Talk to him a little. Get a feel."

President George W. Bush

Terrorists who commit these acts and those who harbor them.

Jonathan Menjivar

One Sunday night, three months into the investigation, something happened that shows just how hard it is to appear authentic in a situation that's completely fake.

Woman On Tv

She wants out. She asked for--

Jonathan Menjivar

Lyric and David were filming Sharif in his apartment, watching TV, and Sharif sent this text. "ASA." That's short for As-salaam alaikum. "ASA, Brother K. Check this movie on channel 370, Showtime." And then in parentheses, Sharif adds, "Homeland."

Khalifa texts back, "Hm, on Netflix?" Sharif responds, "No, Showtime. It's called Homeland. Taliban Warrior." A 63-year-old former Black Panther with decades of experience as a government informant, and the thing he does is text his target about Homeland.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

By late January 2012, four months into Sharif's involvement in the investigation, Khalifa still hadn't said or done anything that the FBI could use to charge him. No support for terrorism, no plans to engage in any illegal activity.

And then one day, Lyric and David saw something on Khalifa's Facebook page that made it clear that this whole game was make-believe. This idea that Sharif was some kind of terrorist recruiter was crumbling.

Lyric R. Cabral

Um, I believe his first sort of public inkling that something was wrong, he wrote, "The Feds must think I'm Willie Lump Lump. They think they can send anyone to me." And we knew that that was an indirect reference to Sharif on the ground in Pittsburgh.

Jonathan Menjivar

And then on March 9, 2012, Khalifa posted the following, which he also sent out via email to a bunch of reporters. Quote, "Sometime in September or October of 2011, I met Saeed S. Torres, who introduced himself to me as Sharif."

Lyric R. Cabral

And from there, he goes on to make a detailed discovery that Saeed Sharif Torres is in fact an FBI informant. And the last line of his sort of lengthy discovery is, "And I encourage journalists to come and speak to me about these issues, because I would like to sue the FBI for their harassment of me."

All right, you ready?

Khalifa Al-akili

Yeah. My name is Khalifa al-Akili from Pittsburgh. In 1991, I accepted Islam, took shahada.

Jonathan Menjivar

So David and Lyric took him up on his offer. They went to his apartment, set up their cameras, and never mentioned that they'd been filming Sharif for months, even as Khalifa went on and on about him.

Khalifa Al-akili

He was always talking about the cause, the cause, the cause, you know? And some guys pray, other guys fight.

Jonathan Menjivar

Khalifa tells them about the first time he met Sharif. He shows them texts on his phone.

Khalifa Al-akili

Trying to see if there's anything of relevance. Oh. Wow, [ARABIC]. On December 18-- now, dig this. Now look. On December 18, "ASA," which means As-salaam alaikum. "Brother K, check this movie on channel 370, Showtime. It's a series called Homeland." About terrorists, right? Which I actually did, and I actually enjoyed it.

Lyric R. Cabral

I do, too. [LAUGHS]

Khalifa Al-akili

So but, yeah, he-- it was like, it was to help him talk about that topic. Then-- then like the next-- like he kept talking about this, even on-- this was on the 18th. On the 20th-- now who talks about a show that much? On the 20th, he says, "As-salaam alaikum, Brother K, how you doing? How did you like the show Homeland? I'll talk tomorrow." [ARABIC].

So he, like, kept wanting to talk to me, even like when we got together or whatever. He wanted to-- so how did you like it? What do you think about it? What do you think about, you know, blowing this up? And just talking crazy.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Jonathan Menjivar

Let's take a moment here and just count up all the lies that are being told. Lyric and David are lying to Khalifa, pretending they've never met Sharif. But now they're also lying to Sharif, because they don't tell him that they're interviewing Khalifa.

And of course, this whole story began with a lie. Sharif heard from Lyric that he was working for the FBI. And he hid from the FBI that he'd let Lyric and David film the investigation. And Sharif lied to Khalifa about who he really was. It's turned into this giant knot of lies.

Once Lyric and David had done their interviews with Khalifa, and gotten away without him figuring out who they really were, they had to keep the lies up. Because lawyers had told them when they started making this film that they had to be careful to never do anything that got in the way of the investigation. If they did, they could be charged with tampering with an active investigation.

Lyric R. Cabral

And tampering would include actions such as telling Sharif that we were in contact with Khalifa, and telling Khalifa that we had been filming with Sharif. The FBI could say, but for the presence of these filmmakers, our case would have been successful. But for the presence of these filmmakers, we would've secured this counterterrorism arrest.

Jonathan Menjivar

In the end, what messed up the investigation wasn't the filmmakers or Sharif. It was a mistake the FBI made, a mistake that proved to Khalifa without a doubt that the FBI was spying on him. While Sharif was floundering with Khalifa, the FBI sent in this other informant, Muhammad, to be the closer. Here's a section of the film that explains all this. It alternates between Sharif and Khalifa telling what happened with Muhammad. Here's Sharif.

Sharif

All I was supposed to do was introduce him to Khalifa. Just let him know, yo, I have an individual Muslim's coming in. He's a recruiter for the Taliban, or he's a recruiter for the al-Qaeda. You know, he's a good brother. You know, maybe y'all should meet. Short and simple.

Before I could even introduce the fucking dude to the fucking POI, the motherfucker was jumping out my car already, just to meet him. I'm like, what the fuck?

Khalifa Al-akili

The guy got out, and he came up to me, gave me the greeting of as-salaam alaikum, kissed me on both cheeks. And I swear to you, when I walked away from that situation, I walked away feeling like I'd just played a part in some Hollywood terrorist movie, that I just met, like, the leader of some terrorist organization.

Actually, right there on the spot, he wanted to go have some coffee or sit down with me. And I told him no, I still have to go visit my mother, and I'm actually on my way there. I'm getting ready to catch a bus to go there. You know, I walked away. He got back in the truck.

It was so clear that I didn't want to meet these guys. Like, seriously. I literally made up excuse after excuse after excuse.

Jonathan Menjivar

The next morning, this guy, Muhammad, he was back in Khalifa's neighborhood. And he wanted to know if Khalifa would go to McDonald's with him, have a cup of coffee. Khalifa took the filmmakers to that McDonald's.

Khalifa Al-akili

The morning that we all came in here, we actually sat at this first booth right here, and that's whenever he began to talk about his people being involved in jihad and whatnot, and fighting. And this was the location that we sat down and had the coffee with him. So we exchanged numbers, and actually, that morning he drove me home. After that, I didn't hear anything from him.

Jonathan Menjivar

But now Khalifa had Muhammad's phone number. Again, David and Lyric.

David Felix Sutcliffe

It was written on a receipt, and he kind of tossed it in a drawer or in a closet, and didn't kind of think about it until a few weeks later, when he, I guess, was cleaning his house, and saw the receipt and the number, and was like, oh, yeah, let me follow up on this.

Lyric R. Cabral

It began with area code 518, which is associated with Albany, New York. And he googled the number, and what came back to him, I believe the first result was a court transcript. When he clicked on that court transcript, it said FBI informant, right next to the number. And that number was listed in the US Southern District court transcript from a terrorism trial that happened in 2010, and Khalifa googled this number in 2012. And so he's looking at a two-year-old transcript that is part of the public record that lists this telephone number from Muhammad as belonging to FBI informant Shahed Hussain.

Jonathan Menjivar

Once Khalifa figured out that Muhammad was an informant, he started looking for proof that Sharif was, too. And he found it, as he explains in the film.

Khalifa Al-akili

Yeah, very, very easy. He left me alone in his truck one time. He went into the store. And I'm getting ready to show you the picture. And when he did that, there was a letter sitting on the dashboard from the welfare office. So I picked it up and I snapped a picture of it. Because I know he was FBI. And that's-- that's him right there, with his real name and his address. Because I was-- you know, I was trying to cross my T's and dot my I's, wanting to know who this guy was. And his real name is a Saeed S. Torres.

Jonathan Menjivar

After Lyric and David filmed Khalifa telling this story, they had to go back to Sharif-- or was he back to being Saeed now? Whatever the case, they couldn't tell him what they knew.

Lyric R. Cabral

You know, we could not say anything about Khalifa to Saeed. When sort of Saeed would make these theories about him and say things about his personality, often, you know, we couldn't respond, even though we knew. And Sharif often asked us-- which is information that we knew-- how Khalifa found out his identity. Because Sharif was not checking Khalifa's Facebook, he was not privy to this whole discovery. The FBI did not tell them.

Jonathan Menjivar

The FBI did not tell him that--

Lyric R. Cabral

No.

Jonathan Menjivar

That Khalifa had posted this?

Lyric R. Cabral

No. They did not.

David Felix Sutcliffe

Not at first.

Lyric R. Cabral

They just told-- the FBI, in response to Khalifa's discovery, the FBI told Sharif, you need to get out of town now. They did not tell him why.

Sharif

You all exposed me. You all put me on the goddamn line and left me out there hanging to dry.

Jonathan Menjivar

This is Sharif, who's now clearly been outed as an informant, talking on the phone with one of his FBI handlers. He's just found out that Muhammad blew their cover. He's not happy about it.

Sharif

Initially, when I did this contact with y'all, if I didn't feel right about something, I wouldn't go through it. But yet y'all forced my hand to go through it.

Jonathan Menjivar

Sharif complained to the filmmakers. He said he was fed up with the FBI and this entire investigation.

Sharif

And I told them, I said, I'm not here to entrap nobody. They trying to make me force this dude into saying something to support terrorism. I said, the dude is not a fucking terrorist, man. He's not even a pseudo-terrorist. He's nothing but an oxymoron.

I said, what you all been doing for the last three years? Y'all ain't seen nothing? If you all ain't seen nothing, what y'all expect me to see?

Jonathan Menjivar

Still, the FBI continued to tell Sharif to keep up the ruse.

Woman

First saved message, received March 9 at 4:50 PM.

Jay

Hey, it's Jay.

Jonathan Menjivar

"Hey, it's Jay." This is one of Sharif's FBI handlers. He wants Sharif to send one last text, and here's what he wants it to say.

Jay

I don't know who you've been talking to or exactly what you've been saying about me, what got around. People came to my work today and talked to me, and I can't have that.

Jonathan Menjivar

He tells him not to mention the Feds or the police.

Jay

Then something like, you know, inshallah. I'll see you around. And, um, change your number. That's what we want. All right, man? Call me if you got any questions.

Sharif

But you see what I'm saying? I'm heading home. And you see what they still asking me?

Jonathan Menjivar

In other words, their target had figured out that Muhammad and Sharif were both fake identities, both working for the FBI. But Sharif was still being asked by the FBI to pretend like nothing had gone wrong.

Sharif told Lyric that he's no longer an FBI informant, that they don't respond to his calls or texts. They've gone completely silent.

And Khalifa? Well, Khalifa had planned to go public with everything-- everything he'd written in that Facebook post, everything he'd told David and Lyric. And he'd been in touch with lawyers at an advocacy group called Project Salaam that provides legal help for Muslims. Khalifa was going to go down to DC and be part of a press conference where he'd lay out the whole story. The day before the press conference, David was supposed to meet him early to film him going to morning prayer.

David Felix Sutcliffe

And I showed up outside of his house. I pull around the corner, I notice all these black SUVs out front. And you know, it's probably about 5:30 in the morning, and I knew exactly what was going on.

Khalifa Al-akili

I haven't done anything to anybody.

Man

--And get that squared away.

Khalifa Al-akili

The Prophet Muhammad, salla ilahu, he said, "Beware of the supplication of the person who is unjustly treated." This is wrong. I haven't done anything to anyone.

Jonathan Menjivar

Khalifa was in handcuffs, being arrested by the FBI.

David Felix Sutcliffe

Khalifa had met with his lawyer a few days earlier, who had said, you know, if they're going to come for you, it's going to be either late at night or early in the morning. And so fortunately, I had the camera set up. I just grabbed it and jumped out of the car.

Khalifa Al-akili

Can you please try to get ahold of someone to help my wife, please? Please, man.

Jonathan Menjivar

The FBI arrested Khalifa not for terrorism charges, but on a gun charge. Khalifa, remember, was a felon. He'd done time for a narcotics charge. So he wasn't legally supposed to possess a firearm. But one day, years before, he went to a public firing range, borrowed a friend's gun, and shot at a target. His friend took a seven-second video and emailed it to Khalifa.

Lyric R. Cabral

And basically, that friend was called in to the grand jury, and basically, the friend had to admit, yes, I emailed this photo to Khalifa. Yes, this photo was taken at a shooting range, wherein Khalifa was holding a gun. And that's all the information they needed, in combination with that photo, led to confirmation that Khalifa was indeed a felon in possession of a firearm. And he received a sentence of eight years.

David Felix Sutcliffe

And yet his public defender, who said she's handled thousands of gun cases throughout her career, she said she has never once seen someone being prosecuted based on a photograph of them at a gun range. You know, the vast majority of the time, it's someone who's caught in criminal activity.

Jonathan Menjivar

Khalifa had gone to the gun range in 2010, and he hadn't tried to hide it. For a while, a picture of him holding the gun had been his Facebook profile picture. Which means the FBI could've made this arrest almost two years earlier, long before they dragged Sharif into their investigation.

The FBI did not comment for Lyric and David's film. And when we approached them, they provided this statement. "The FBI's use of undercover operations and informants across all criminal and national security programs is done in accordance with strict guidelines and in close coordination with the Department of Justice and the United States Attorney's offices."

The person I really wanted to talk to about this whole experience is Sharif, see what he thinks now that he's seen Lyric and David's film and he knows the truth from all sides. And it seemed like he'd be game to talk.

But at the last minute, he turned me down. Lyric says it's because I called him an informant in an email. He considers himself to be a civilian operative, Lyric told me. He knows that some people look down on informants, and he was offended that I used the word.

Lyric says that when Sharif finally had a chance to watch the movie, he had one critique. "I look fucking depressed all the time," he said.

For 23 years, Saeed Sharif Torres had been doing informant work, coming up with a new version of himself each time for each new target. He's a shell of what he once was, Lyric told me. Lying to people for a living can take a toll on you. Now he could finally see it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Ira Glass

Jonathan Menjivar is one of the producers of our program. The documentary (T)ERROR will be released in theaters on October 7. You can find out more at terrordocumentary.org.

[MUSIC - GEORGE JACKSON, "WILLIE LUMP LUMP"]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Brian Reed with Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our editor is Joel Lovell. Julie Snyder is our editorial consultant. Production help from Lily Sullivan.

Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our business operations manager. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show. Kimberly Henderson is our office coordinator.

Research help today from Michelle Harris and Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

George RR Martin's talk that you heard a little bit of at the top of the program took place at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. They have a video of that online.

Special thanks today to Christopher St. John, to Charlotte Street Films, to Trevor Aaronson, and Brad Torgersen, and Craig Zobel.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who this week took over management of Rhode Island Public Radio in Providence. No kidding. They are lucky to have them. I really, truly wanted to make a big deal out it here at the end of the program and congratulate him, but he would not let me.

Jonathan Menjivar

"It's not that serious, bro. LOL."

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - GEORGE JACKSON, "WILLIE LUMP LUMP"]