This Line Is Insecured

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For the last two years or so that I have been writing for this website, I have described myself this way:

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.

It isn’t true anymore. I quit my editing job at the Oil Daily, one of a series of oil and gas-related newsletters published by Energy Intelligence, at the end of April to sort through and pack our belongings and get ready for a move to Chicago this summer. I’m starting a Masters of Divinity program this fall at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago with an eye toward eventual ordination as a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

(I’ve thought long and hard on writing about my journalism career and how to describe its stunning and spectacular failure. But that would be a lie — it did not burn up like a wayward satellite sent aloft on an errant rocket and now making its fiery way back to some distant and lonely piece of Earth. Rather, it simply went splat, falling to the ground like a soft wet bag of sand dropped from about waist-high.)

In fact, Jennifer and I would already be there were it not for the fact that, at the very last moment, someone from the seminary’s housing office contacted me and told me that no one was moving in June so could we please come in July instead? No room at the inn, so to speak, and they didn’t want us holing up in some corner of the parking garage — the modern-day equivalent of a manger. So, we hung around Alexandria for the last month, going through more stuff, throwing things out, giving them away, and marveling at just how much space our books take up. It’s amazing just how many boxes a solid collection of books can take up; there’s simply no way Jen and I could get away with renting the tiny little truck U-Haul recommends for studio apartments.

We’ve been living on an IRA I liquidated (part of which will pay for school this fall), part of an insurance payment we received following Jennifer’s accident in January (part went to pay the credit card debt we acquired paying for the plastic surgery needed to put skin back on Jennifer’s right foot) and partly on some part-time editing work I’ve been able to put together — work I should be able to continue doing while I go to school.

A couple of years ago, I was an editor at the Saudi Gazette, the English-language newspaper published by Okaz, possibly Saudi Arabia’s largest circulation newspaper and the kingdom’s scandal-sheet of choice. The gazette was relaunched as a slightly titillating tabloid, and I was one of several American editors brought in to oversee and supervise that change. Mostly, I worked with reporters and rewrote copy, and after about six months of that, decided to come back home.

As Jennifer and I were wondering exactly how we would provide for ourselves during the MDiv program, out of blue, the Jeddah bureau chief — a fearless and talented young woman who had been one of the reporters I had coached while I was there — contacted me and asked if I’d be willing to join the paper again as a part-time editor, working a couple of hours every morning rewriting local copy, six days a week for about $1,000 per month.

It was a no-brainer. I told her yes. So, for the last two months, I’ve been reworking local Gazette copy, everything from interviews with jailed Moroccan prostitutes to government executioners to the daily police blotter to angry municipal council meetings.

Jennifer wondered if there were going to be any problems with getting paid. Specifically, she wondered if getting wire transfers from Saudi Arabia — even a paltry $1,000 — would suddenly put me (okay, us) on some kind of watch list. I think I dismissed her concern at the time, saying the greater concern would simply be getting paid at all, and not the response of the US federal government.

Turns out, however, Jen and I were both right.

It took a long time — about 10 days, longer than I would have liked — for that slightly less-than $1,000 wire transfer to wander from Riyadh Bank to our bank in San Antonio, Texas. When I physically worked at the Gazette, I did once have a problem with a wire transfer getting lost (the Saudi bank sent it to the wrong bank in the US, and it ended up in the special hell where electronic money goes when it gets lost), but most of my wire transfers, done through the Saudi-American Bank’s system, took about 48 hours to get to the United States and show up as happy little digits in the family bank account. Not 10 days.

The progress of an international wire is interesting. I discovered when I was in Saudi Arabia that most US banks (or at least the one I had an account at) do not participate in the Belgium-based SWIFT system, used by much of the world to send money hither and yon and apparently tapped by the Bush administration in the days following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Anyone sending 100 Saudi Riyals from Jeddah to Dakha, Bangladesh, via Western Union needs to know that money first flows through New York — virtually the entire world banking system does — making it possible for the US government to watch just about every electronic financial transaction in the world. That’s what makes US sanctions so effective.

While my cash did not show in my account until Wednesday morning, the folks I had working on the trace said it arrived at in the United States — specifically, at a Federal Reserve Bank — at around 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Sunday.

And by Sunday afternoon, I noticed a regular beeping-clicking sound on my mobile phone every two or three minutes — a sound I’d never heard before and one that whoever I am talking with cannot hear. It could be a problem with the phone, a Sony-Ericsson T68i I bought in Saudi Arabia more than two years ago, but the other SIM I have (and don’t use very often) does not have the same problem. (Oops, sorry, it does now.) It could also be a problem with my Cingular account, too. But I doubt it. I suspect my mobile phone has been tapped. The timing, starting the same day as my first payment from the Saudi Gazette arrived in the US, is just a little too “coincidental.”

Aside from making light of the whole thing — "Hello, this is Charles, and this line is unsecured" — I’m not entirely sure what to do about this. Complaining to Cingular would be pointless. There isn’t anything they could tell me anyway.

Since I started sending e-mail and doing on-line stuff, long ago in 1989, I have always just assumed that someone, somewhere, with a badge and maybe a warrant (but most likely not) was reading or watching or monitoring. Or could whenever they wanted to. Certainly it shouldn’t be that way, but it is. And there isn’t a thing any of us can do to change this any time soon. (Unless, of course, you’re putting your faith in Hillary Clinton’s or John McCain’s future Justice Departments?) This is the unfortunate reality of the world in which we live right now, of governments staffed by those wishing to know and control everything.

That said, we should not let surveillance, or the possibility of surveillance, silence us or shut us down. At least half of being free is thinking and acting like a free human being, whatever the consequences might be. The possibility that all my phone calls are being monitored (I suspect they are being recorded, and then filtered through software for various phrases and subjects) does not keep me from expressing my views on George W. Bush (idiot), the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan (disasters), and that the political and social changes in Saudi Arabia since King Fahd died (nothing short of amazing). If Caesar is going to make thinking about these things or talking about them a crime, then I’ve already presented a fairly convincing case against myself without any recorded phone conversations.

Besides, I’m rather intrigued at the prospect of boring the heck out of whichever FBI or NSA flunky gets to read my conversations. Especially when I start Biblical Greek and Lutheran Confessions in the fall. Sayyed Qutb and revolution it ain’t.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is an itinerant freelance editor who currently lives in Alexandria, Virginia. He and his wife are preparing to start seminary in Chicago in September.

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