By CORNELIA DEAN
August 22, 2006
On July 25, Jim Bensman of Alton, Ill., attended a public meeting on the
proposed construction of a bypass channel for fish at a dam on the
Mississippi River. Less than a week later, he was under investigation by the
F.B.I. � the victim, depending on how you look at it, of either a comedy of
errors or alarming antiterror zeal.
The meeting was organized by the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains
Mississippi River navigation systems, including the Melvin Price Lock and
Dam in East Alton, Ill., where it is considering construction of a fish
At the meeting, Mr. Bensman, a coordinator with Heartwood, an environmental
organization, suggested the corps simply destroy the dam. It was an idea the
corps itself had considered. In fact, a photograph of an exploding dam was
included in the corps� PowerPoint presentation, explosive demolition being
by far the most common method of dam removal.
Mr. Bensman said he had long criticized the system of locks and dams as
environmentally damaging and an unfair government subsidy benefiting boat
traffic over railroads. "I�ve been fighting these things for decades," he
But news accounts of the hearing did not put it quite like that. One
newspaper said simply that he "would like to see the dam blown up."
On July 31, he said, he got a telephone call from someone who identified
himself as Matt Federhofer, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
There is such a person at the agency�s office in Fairview Heights, Ill., a
St. Louis suburb, but he did not respond to a voice mail message yesterday.
When Mr. Bensman learned what the call was about, "it was just kind of
disbelief," he said. "How could anyone be so utterly stupid as to think that
was a terrorist threat?" For one thing, he said, it would be ridiculous for
a would-be terrorist to announce explosive intentions at a public meeting,
much less a meeting sponsored by an arm of the military.
But when the agent said he wanted to visit him at home, Mr. Bensman became
frightened. "I was thinking, I need to talk to an attorney," Mr. Bensman
recalled. "And he said, �Well, O.K., I will put you down as not
That was when Mr. Bensman got angry. "I know what Bush is doing with all
these secret programs spying on the so-called terrorists, all these
provisions in the Patriot Act that I think crosses the line, being able to
spy on a suspected terrorist without the check and balance of a court or a
judge," he said. "That�s just something that really worries you."
He said he also remembered that the F.B.I. had a history of spying on civil
rights, antiwar and environmental activists. He said one reason he knew his
caller was a genuine agent was that he could cite items in Mr. Bensman�s own
Mr. Bensman said the agent had told him that someone from the corps had
asked the F.B.I. to investigate him. "I was saying, �What in the world?�
There is no way anyone in the corps could reasonably think I was a terrorist
threat. They know me."
Kevin Bluhm, the corps official who moderated the meeting, said he doubted
the call came from the corps. Though he conceded that Mr. Bensman had long
been a thorn in its collective side, "he�s not malicious, oh no," Mr. Bluhm
said. "This was just Jim. He comes to a lot of our meetings, and he is anti
a lot of the stuff that we do."
Mr. Bluhm, who leads the corps� public communication efforts along the
Mississippi, said he could understand why the F.B.I. felt obliged to check
Mr. Bensman out, but "if they would have asked me first, I would have said
no, there�s not that kind of risk there."
Marshall Stone, a spokesman for the Springfield, Ill., office of the F.B.I.,
said, "A lot of things we look into turn out to be things we don�t have to
be concerned about."
Mr. Bensman, who wrote an account of his experience that is circulating on
the Internet, said he had been informed that he is not now suspected of
anything. But he worries that his phone may be tapped and wonders what will
happen if he is pulled over for a traffic violation: "Are the cops going to
think I am a terrorist? You never know what is going to happen nowadays."