Brandon Mayfield is the Justice Department’s worst nightmare. Not because he’s done anything illegal or dangerous to American security but because he hasn’t.
That simple reality, now repeatedly admitted and apologized for, is likely to give both the Justice Department and the Patriot Act their most pointed courtroom challenge since the act was passed. This summer in Portland saw the first hearing on three lawsuits–featuring a media superstar lawyer, more government lawyers than could fit at the defense table, the Fourth Amendment, a claim for major damages and repeated concerns expressed by US senators–taking on the post-9/11 operations of the Justice Department.
The case began in March 2004 after the terrorist bombings in Madrid, when the Spanish government found a partial fingerprint in a bag containing detonators. Spanish officials sent a digital copy of the partial print to the FBI, which ran it through its 40 million fingerprints and came up with a match for Mayfield, in the system because of a teenage arrest.
Checking him out, the FBI found that Mayfield was a Muslim convert who attended the Bilal Mosque, a suburban temple also attended by some members of the Portland 7–convicted for trying to go to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban against the United States. In fact, Mayfield, an attorney, had represented one of the Portland 7 in a child custody case. The FBI became extremely interested. But by April the Spanish were saying that the Mayfield match was “conclusively negative.” The FBI then sent a team to Spain–although reportedly never asking to see the original print–which reportedly returned saying the Spanish were satisfied, although the Spanish kept saying that they weren’t.
By late April the FBI picked up a rumor that the European media were about to go public with the Mayfield story, and decided to move. Telling Federal Judge Robert Jones that the fingerprint was a “100 percent match,” the FBI got a warrant to arrest Mayfield as a “material witness.” (This June the ACLU reported that in a sharp increase in the practice, seventy people have been detained as material witnesses since 9/11–all but one of them Muslim.) On May 6, 2004, Mayfield was taken to federal prison, where he spent the first week in lockdown.
As an attorney, he knew that the lack of actual charges against him was not reassuring. Mayfield asked his federal public defender three questions–Could he be sent to Spain? Could he be tried for the bombing? Could he be executed if convicted?–and was told that the answer to all three was yes. Except, as he kept telling people, it wasn’t his fingerprint. After he’d spent two weeks in custody, when the Spanish told the FBI they had now matched the fingerprint to an Algerian, the FBI finally agreed, released Mayfield and apologized.
A month later Mayfield was telling the Portland City Club, “We need to be safe and secure in our homes, not just from the bad guys but the government as well.” And he didn’t even know then just how much he needed such protection.