When Alex passed through the double set of locked doors that lead to his Bloomfield apartment-house on Jan. 26 and saw the note wrapped around his apartment's door handle, he wasn't concerned at first.
"Alex, please call Bill Parks," read the half sheet of notebook paper. It offered a local phone number, concluding, "Thanks, Bill."
"That was all it said on it," Alex says, reading from the note he's still carrying around. "I thought it was a landlord thing, or maybe it was a repairman."
On the other hand, Alex adds: "We've kind of been expecting them to visit someone at some time."
Them is local law enforcement. Alex, who asked that his last name not be used, is an unpaid intern at the Thomas Merton Center, the Garfield social justice group that organizes local anti-war marches and politically left clubs concerned with just about every issue imaginable. Alex has been out front at many local protests and was arrested with other Merton Center members twice in the last two years. He lives with one of the Center's three employees, Marie Skoczylas, editor of the group's monthly newspaper, The New People. They moved to the apartment nine months ago.
"I called the number and it's just a generic voice mailbox," Alex says. He didn't leave a message. Instead, he dialed up the first of two William Parkses in the Pittsburgh phone book. A woman put Parks on the phone.
Which is when Alex found out Parks was a local FBI agent.
Parks, reached at the number he left for Alex, referred all questions to FBI spokesperson Bill Crowley. Crowley confirmed Parks was a special agent but said he couldn't answer other questions. "We talk to a lot of different people on a lot of different matters -- that's our job," Crowley says.
"It's nothing you did," Alex says Parks told him. "It's not about who you know but people you may have run into lately." According to Alex, Parks concluded: "If I was trying to hassle you, I would have tried to call you last week."
"That was obviously a reference to the fact that we'd all gone to the [presidential] Inauguration protest" on Jan. 20, Alex says.
Lawyer Mike Healey would get back to Parks, Alex told him.
"Can we meet?" Parks reportedly asked one more time.
"I told him I don't see that happening," Alex says.
But he believes members of the Thomas Merton Center and other groups who have participated in protests have already met FBI agents or members of other law enforcement agencies, including the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. "Just looking at the pattern of what is going on in other cities in groups that do less ... or are involved with less radical groups," Alex says, "we're pretty much 100 percent positive that we had some sort of undercover person trying to volunteer here."
Alex points to the July visit by Task Force agents to the Denver home of an intern with the peace-group American Friends Service Committee, as reported in the Rocky Mountain News. The intern believed the visit was designed to keep her and her housemates from protesting at the upcoming political conventions, as they had protested before. The ACLU of Colorado is suing to obtain Task Force documents to determine the extent of such pre-emptive moves. It documents a series of such moves in Colorado and elsewhere over the past several years at www.aclu-co.org/spyfiles/fbifiles.htm.
Although he is a well-known activist, Alex isn't at all certain why the FBI would want to quiz him. He hasn't been involved in any issues with local Muslims or Arabs who may have come under FBI surveillance after 9/11, he says. His most active campaign these days is against Sky Bank. In December 2003, the union janitors in Centre City Tower Downtown (which houses the offices of City Paper) were let go. In the next month, Sky loaned money to the non-union cleaning contractor who replaced these workers, and both the building's ownership and Sky Bank are still being picketed.
Lawyer Mike Healey, a member of the National Lawyers Guild who often represents protesters locally, says the FBI would tell him nothing except that "They wanted to ask Alex about someone he had run across." Healey can only speculate what it might have been about, but he doesn't think it was anyone local. "If it was [local], I think more people would have been questioned."
Should Pittsburgh worry about some sort of terrorist in our midst?
"Terrorism is our number-one priority," the FBI's Crowley would only say.
Healey dismisses the attempt to quiz a single local activist as minor:
"I worry more about what we don't know they're doing."