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Federal agents' visit was a hoax
Student admits he lied about Mao book
By AARON NICODEMUS, Standard-Times staff writer
NEW BEDFORD -- The UMass Dartmouth student who claimed to have been visited by Homeland Security agents over his request for "The Little Red Book" by Mao Zedong has admitted to making up the entire story.
The 22-year-old student tearfully admitted he made the story up to his history professor, Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, and his parents, after being confronted with the inconsistencies in his account.
Had the student stuck to his original story, it might never have been proved false.
But on Thursday, when the student told his tale in the office of UMass Dartmouth professor Dr. Robert Pontbriand to Dr. Williams, Dr. Pontbriand, university spokesman John Hoey and The Standard-Times, the student added new details.
The agents had returned, the student said, just last night. The two agents, the student, his parents and the student's uncle all signed confidentiality agreements, he claimed, to put an end to the matter.
But when Dr. Williams went to the student's home yesterday and relayed that part of the story to his parents, it was the first time they had heard it. The story began to unravel, and the student, faced with the truth, broke down and cried.
It was a dramatic turnaround from the day before.
For more than an hour on Thursday, he spoke of two visits from Homeland Security over his inter-library loan request for the 1965, Peking Press version of "Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung," which is the book's official title.
His basic tale remained the same: The book was on a government watch list, and his loan request had triggered a visit from an agent who was seeking to "tame" reading of particular books. He said he saw a long list of such books.
In the days after its initial reporting on Dec. 17 in The Standard-Times, the story had become an international phenomenon on the Internet. Media outlets from around the world were requesting interviews with the students, and a number of reporters had been asking UMass Dartmouth students and professors for information.
The story's release came at a perfect storm in the news cycle. Only a day before, The New York Times had reported that President Bush had allowed the National Security Agency to conduct wiretaps on international phone calls from the United States without a warrant. The Patriot Act, created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to allow the government greater authority to monitor for possible terrorism activities, was up for re-authorization in Congress.
There was an increased sense among some Americans that the U.S. government was overstepping its bounds and trampling on civil liberties in order to thwart future attacks of terrorism. The story of a college student being questioned for requesting a 40-year old book on Communism fed right into that atmosphere.
In Thursday's retelling of the story, the student added several new twists, ones that the professors and journalist had not heard before. The biggest new piece of information was an alleged second visit of Homeland Security agents the previous night, where two agents waited in his living room for two hours with his parents and brother while he drove back from a retreat in western Massachusetts. He said he, the agents, his parents and his uncle all signed confidentiality agreements that the story would never be told.
He revealed the agents' names: one was Nicolai Brushaev or Broshaev, and the other was simply Agent Roberts. He said they were dressed in black suits with thin black ties, "just like the guys in Men in Black."
He had dates and times and places, things he had signed and sent back in order to receive the book. The tale involved his twin brother, who allegedly requested the book for him at UMass Amherst; his uncle, a former FBI attorney who took care of all the paperwork; and his parents, who signed those confidentiality agreements.
But by now, the story had too many holes. Every time there was a fact to be had that would verify the story -- providing a copy of the confidentiality agreements the student and agent signed, for example -- there would be a convenient excuse. The uncle took all the documents home to Puerto Rico, he said.
What was the address of the Homeland Security building in Boston where he and his uncle visited the agency and actually received a copy of the book? It was a brick building, he said, but he couldn't remember where it was, or what was around it.
He said he met a former professor at the mysterious Homeland Security building who had requested a book on bomb-making, along with two Ph.D. students and a one pursuing a master's degree who had also been stopped from accessing books. The student couldn't remember their names, but the former professor had appeared on the Bill O'Reilly show on Fox News recently, he said.
The former professor's appearance on The O'Reilly Factor did not check out.
Other proof was sought.
Were there any copies of the inter-library loan request? No.
Did the agents leave their cards, or any paperwork at your home? No.
His brother, a student at Amherst, told Dr. Williams that he had never made the inter-library loan request on behalf of his brother.
While The Standard-Times had tape recorded the entire tale on Thursday, the reporter could not reach the student for comment after he admitted making up the story. Phone calls and a note on the door were not returned.
At the request of the two professors and the university, The Standard-Times has agreed to withhold his name.
During the whole episode, the professors said that while they wanted to protect the student from the media that were flooding their voice mails and e-mail boxes seeking comment and information, they also wanted to know: Was the story true?
"I grew skeptical of this story, as did Bob, considering the ramifications," Dr. Williams said yesterday. "I spent the last five days avoiding work, and the international media, and rest, trying to get names and dates and facts. My investigation eventually took me to his house, where I began to investigate family matters. I eventually found out the whole thing had been invented, and I'm happy to report that it's safe to borrow books."
Dr. Williams said he does not regret bringing the story to light, but that now the issue can be put to rest.
"I wasn't involved in some partisan struggle to embarrass the Bush administration, I just wanted the truth," he said.
Dr. Pontbriand said the entire episode has been "an incredible experience and exposure for something a student had said." He said all along, his only desire had been to "get to the bottom of it and get the truth of the matter."
"When it blew up into an international story, our only desire was to interview this student and get to the truth. We did not want from the outset to declare the student a liar, but we wanted to check out his story," he said. "It was a disastrous thing for him to do. He needs attention, he needs care. I feel for the kid. We have great concern for this student's health and welfare."
Mr. Hoey, the university spokesman, said the university had been unable to substantiate any of the facts of the story since it first was reported in The Standard-Times on Dec. 17.
As to any possible repercussions against the student, Mr. Hoey said, "We consider this to be an issue to be handled faculty member to student. We wouldn't discuss publicly any other action. Student discipline is a private matter."
Dr. Williams said the whole affair has had one bright point: The question of whether it is safe for students to do research has been answered.
"I can now tell my students that it is safe to do research without being monitored," he said. "With that hanging in the air like before, I couldn't say that to them."
The student's motivation remains a mystery, but in the interview on Thursday, he provided a glimpse.
"When I came back, like wow, there's this circus coming on. I saw my cell phone, and I see like, wow, I have something like 75 messages and like something like 87 missed calls," he said. "Wow, I was popular. I usually get one or probably two a week and that's about it, and I usually pick them up."
Contact Aaron Nicodemus at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story appeared on Page A1 of The Standard-Times on December 24, 2005.