A Disassociated Press Report, Ft. Meyers, FL, January 4, 2004
By Eric Mader
When Ben Laden sold his Harley-Davidson dealership in St. Paul last year and moved to a new home in Ft. Meyers, Florida, he was looking forward to a peaceful retirement with his wife in the state preferred by so many other Midwestern couples. He had no idea what the sunshine state had in store for him.
"It all started after we moved," Laden, 58, said in a recent interview. "Up north there had always been jokes about my name, but there'd never been any actual troubles."
Ben Laden refers of course to the odd similarity between his name and that of the world's most wanted terrorist, Osama Bin Laden.
"Somehow, maybe it was when I applied for a Florida driver's license, my name was picked up by the computers as suspicious," Laden said, shaking his head.
Whatever the reason, Laden's "troubles" began soon after that license application in May, 2003. Laden's wife Joyce started noticing cars parked across the street in front of their new residence, this regardless of the fact that street parking is forbidden in the strict, gated community where they live.
"First I called the head of the community's board to complain," Mrs. Laden says. "I felt there was something strange because he seemed so odd on the phone. He said it was no problem, I shouldn't worry, and then he hung up on me. I haven't talked to him since, even though he's a neighbor of ours."
According to Mr. Laden, none of the neighbors in their community have been willing to fraternize with them since the cars showed up. What's more, it soon became clear to the couple that the parked cars were not simply parked, but were usually occupied by men wearing dark sunglasses.
"They looked like FBI agents," Mr. Laden says. "They looked like cops from B-movies. They even had donuts sometimes."
When the couple tried to complain to the Ft. Meyers police, they got a reply strangely similar to the one they'd gotten from the head of their community's board.
"'It was no problem, they told us. It was for our safety. We should just go on with our daily business."
"I thought perhaps there were mafia people in the neighborhood," Mr. Laden says, "that that was maybe the reason for the spooks in the cars. But that wasn't it. No, that wasn't it at all."
Less than a week after first noticing the cars, the Ladens returned one night from dinner to discover that their house had been broken into, that everything had been turned upside down, and that Mr. Laden's laptop computer was missing.
"The house was a disaster," he said. "They went into everything, even the cereal boxes. And we'd only been gone about an hour. It was amazing what they did. There had to be a dozen of them to cause so much mayhem."
Laden reported the robbery to police, who promised him they'd investigate. Oddly enough, Laden's computer was returned four days later. He woke up one morning to find it sitting on his kitchen counter.
"When I turned it on, I found that all my information was missing. Of course I called the police again."
According to Laden, the police this time told him that they too thought it was strange, that they had no idea how the computer had gotten into his house, but that they would add this new presumed break-in to their file on his case.
Soon after this the problems with email began.
"People would send us email--relatives, our daughter, all the usual people--but we'd get the letters almost a week after they were sent. My email server was somehow working slower than snail mail. Also, I was no longer getting any spam, which I thought was the strangest thing of all."
Checking with his email service, Laden found that there was apparently nothing wrong with the account, and that the problem had to be elsewhere. His internet provider told him the same thing: there was no problem they could identify.
"It was then that I realized we were being spied on," Laden said. "And I guessed it was because of my name."
Against his wife's wishes, Laden decided to approach the men observing his house from across the street.
"'What the hell's going on here?' I asked them. 'What's this about?' But all they could say to my questions was the same thing over and over: 'Security. It's for your own safety. Don't worry about anything.'"
Soon after this came the palmetto bugs.
Palmetto bugs, a variety of cockroach, are a well-known pest in many southern states. The Ladens called exterminators when the insects first appeared in their house, but strangely, according to Mrs. Laden, no company ever showed up to spray.
"I called four different pest control companies," she said. "They'd make an appointment to stop by, but on the day of the appointment they wouldn't show. When I called them back to make a new appointment they'd usually say they were too busy to fit us into their schedule. Or they'd claim they couldn't find our house."
Then one day she found a dead bug in the kitchen sink.
"I looked at it closely," she said. "It had something on its head, just near where the antennas come out."
Using a magnifying glass, Mrs. Laden discovered that the tiny black cube on the insect's head was a microphone. The insect had a tiny microphone glued to its head.
The couple has since found four similar insects in their house.
"They were using bugs to bug our house!" Mr. Laden complains. "It was absurd!"
Mr. Laden also claims to have caught a robotic dragonfly flying about in their screen-enclosed patio.
"This one wasn't even a real bug," he said. "It was a kind of remote controlled flying microphone. It had four wings and was shaped like a dragonfly. It was pretty ingenious, but I wasn't amused."
It was then that the Ladens decided to contact the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The ACLU has decided to raise my case in Florida courts," he said. "I'm grateful for their help so far. I've given them the dragonfly and three of the four palmetto bugs as evidence, and they've helped me get video of the spooks parked outside. They say it is a clear case of government harassment."
Laden believes he has run afoul of the law only because of his name.
"My name is German," he says. "I have absolutely no connection to the Bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia. I don't even look like them."
He insists he has never had any involvement with any criminal organization and has never been involved in any radical political organization.
"We believe it's the CIA," he says. "Who else has such technology?"
But why would the CIA waste such resources on a couple so obviously irrelevant to the war on terrorism?
A clearer understanding of Laden's case may be gotten from the CIA, which has shown itself uncharacteristically willing to talk to reporters about Ben Laden of Ft. Meyers.
"You can never be too careful with terrorism," Michael Stutts, director of the CIA's Florida branch office said. "The man's name is Laden. There's maybe something there."
Another agent from the same office presents a different picture, however. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he described Ben Laden as follows: "Ben Laden is a good mark. Of course he's not a terrorist. We know he's not. But we need to practice our technologies and keep in shape for the real terrorists. We have all these gadgets and methods and no good opportunities to use them. So Ben and his wife are useful to us. They keep us sharp, they keep us busy. Besides which their domestic life is more interesting than the Ozzie show. Really. If I could get the tapes out of our office I'd play some for you. The Ladens are first class entertainment."
Theresa Gehl of the ACLU says that such an attitude represents a serious breakdown of civil liberties in America.
"This is sadly characteristic of the kind of thing we're seeing since 9/11," she says. "There is no respect for privacy, anyone can become the target of random searches and information gathering. The Bill of Rights is not being respected."
Stutts in his Tallahassee office will have none of this, however.
"Civil liberties are a thing of the past," he says. "We need to think security in this country. Security security security: remember that word. People like the Ladens should realize they're helping to protect America. Only if America is completely free of terrorists will it be a good place to live."
Ben Laden of Fr. Meyers begs to differ.
"We're seriously considering moving to Europe," he says. "We've had it with this. I voted for George W. Bush in the last election because I thought he'd be good for the economy and I thought he knew what America was about. I've learned the hard way that he's slowly creating a police state in the land of the free."
The Ladens recently tried to get to Europe to look into possible places to move, but couldn't make it. After being held at the Ft. Meyers airport for fourteen hours and then later at the JFK Airport in New York for nearly as long, the Ladens willingly gave up their plan to leave the U.S. by plane and were returned to Ft. Meyers in a van under police escort.
"For fourteen hours I was in that room with those idiots," he says. "Both my wife and I were questioned over and over and strip searched and X-rayed and on my wife they even did a cavity search, putting their hands inside her body. It's a crime, I'd say. I got my cavity search at JFK. Why they didn't get me in Florida I'm not sure. But whether it was Ft. Meyers or New York, I didn't enjoy their cold fingers up my ass one bit, let me tell you. It's a crime what's they've done."
Laden says he plans to contact recent Cuban immigrants to Florida about the chances of getting out of the U.S. by raft.
"I'm not sure if it's a good plan," he says. "Probably the Coast Guard will get us. Anyhow we have to try."
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