- Callan Berry
The Joint Terrorism Task Force of Puget Sound, a partnership between the FBI, State Department, and other government agencies, admits that it blundered with its "Faces of Global Terrorism" ad campaign running on Seattle buses. The ads depicted a line-up of Middle Eastern-looking men. Last week, Representative Jim McDermott (WA-7) wrote a scathing letter to the FBI describing the ads as "offensive to Muslims and ethnic minorities" and calling for their removal.
Yesterday, FBI and State Department officials met with Seattle community leaders, including members of the city's Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. "As a result of that meeting, I can confirm that we are going to pull the ads that are currently on the buses," a State Department official, who asked not to be named, told me today.
"And they will be replaced by a new ad," he continued. "That [new ad] will be determined by the Joint Terrorism Task Force."
"We are looking to make some edits to the advertising campaign," confirmed Special Agent Fred Gutt from Seattle's FBI office, reached by phone. Gutt was vague when I asked him what edits they would make. And why make any changes at all? He danced around that question, too, answering, "For the same reason we customized it in the first place. We solicited feedback from the community and incorporated some of it."
Gutt says the Seattle bus ads represent the first time the "Rewards for Justice" program has been used in the United States. He said they chose to pilot the ads in Seattle because "it's an international city."
Despite the backlash against the ads, "The faces won't come down, because these are the people we're seeking," Gutt explained. But by calling it the "faces of global terrorism" and associating those brown faces with Muslim names, the ads imply that Muslim faces are, generally speaking, terrorist faces. That's a blunt, inaccurate generalization for the government to be beaming from the sides of buses all over town.
"I understand that it can be seen as, 'These people look like terrorists,'" Gutt finally admitted. "We realized that the same tagline that has been used for the last thirty years overseas, could be improved upon domestically."
That's putting it mildly.
Jeff Siddiqui, a member of American Muslims of Puget Sound, says the ad campaign "was stunning. It is an extremely fear and hate producing ad. Every Friday, the mosque is full of people who look just like this," he says. "I just took one look and thought, 'Every bigot out there is going to be jumping for joy, saying, look, the FBI is reiterating what we've been saying about Muslims and terrorism.'"
In fact, the FBI's ads looked a lot like right-wing propaganda. Pamela Geller, whose hateful anti-Muslim subway ads in New York City sparked an intense outcry, saw pictures of the Seattle bus ads and wrote, "Hey, this looks like one of my ads!"
Siddiqui says the feds notified Seattle's Muslim community about the ad campaign by e-mail, but at least one Muslim organization responded, "It's a really bad idea. Don't include pictures."
Agent Gutt sounded proud of the program's past achievements. "It's the same program that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein's son in Iraq," he said.
Hey, FBI? Seattle is not Iraq.
UPDATE: Representative McDermott issued a statement late Tuesday commending the government's response to his letter, noting, "'Most Wanted' lists have an important place in the identification and apprehension of terrorists, but the side of a speeding bus is not effective placement."