Faisal Siddiqui was on the fence about the used Volkswagen Jetta he'd just test-driven, so he balked when the salesman urged him to fill out some financing forms - particularly because he didn't want to give out his Social Security number.
In an era of identity theft, the Columbia resident might be commended for keeping that information to himself. But this is also a time of terror and fear. Siddiqui's reticence brought the FBI to his door.
Siddiqui, 29, is brown-skinned and Muslim. He's also an American, an Air Force captain and a lawyer who is a judge advocate for the 11th Wing at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington.
He has been shaken to find that withholding confidential financial information could make a salesman suspect that he's a terrorist, and he's angry that the government he serves placed him under investigation.
"If there was some crime, some crime, maybe there could be some bleak understanding," he said. "But what I did was the exact opposite. I exercised a right, and for that I am being punished by having the FBI investigate me.
"My question is, what is the minimal threshold at which the bureau will begin investigating someone? And apparently it's very, very low. I mean, this isn't even spitting on the sidewalk."
FBI sources confirmed yesterday that they visited Siddiqui last week after a salesman at Russel Volkswagen in Catonsville reported that he declined to provide his Social Security number and seemed nervous.
Special Agent Peter A. Gulotta, spokesman for the FBI's Baltimore office, said he could not, as a matter of policy, confirm or deny anything related to an investigation.
But Gulotta said this is a challenging time for the bureau as it tries to respond to tips from a public so rattled by the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax incidents that a letter without a return address or a spilled sugar packet is enough to sound alarm bells.
"We're absolutely overwhelmed nationally with all the leads we're getting, and we're going to check out every viable lead that we get," he said. "We're asking the public to provide us with information, and sometimes the information that's suspicious to one person is not necessarily suspicious to another.
"The fact that we would talk to somebody - and I'm speaking generically - the public should not draw any conclusion that someone is a suspect. ... The nature of this investigation is [such that] we would be criticized if we left any stones unturned."
Siddiqui's name found its way to the FBI after he visited Russel Volkswagen a day or two after the attacks Sept. 11. He said he test-drove a used Jetta and wasn't sure he was interested in buying it but wanted to know the price.
"When I got back in, I didn't want to do the whole song and dance, sitting there and having the salesman run back and forth to the manger," he said. "I basically told him, I said, 'It's OK. I'm not jumping at it.' I remember he went back to the manager and said, 'While the manager is working on the numbers, why don't you fill out the financing paperwork?'
Siddiqui said he didn't want to do that for two reasons. First, if he bought the car, he would finance it through the federal credit union. Second, he did not want to provide his Social Security number unnecessarily. He left without reaching an agreement with the salesman, whose name he does not recall.
"Identity theft is almost an epidemic," said Siddiqui, who as a judge advocate sometimes runs legal clinics for military retirees on that topic. "We always advise people, 'Don't give out your Social Security number if you don't have to.'"
If he bought the car, Siddiqui said he told the salesman, he would provide the number. He had freely handed over his driver's license, which the salesman photocopied - a routine practice - before allowing Siddiqui to test-drive the car.
Siddiqui felt that he had nothing to hide. He was living the American dream. Born in Bethesda and raised in Columbia, he is the son of two successful immigrants. His father, from Pakistan, is a microbiologist. His Indian-born mother, Rafia Siddiqui, is the Columbia Association's chief financial officer.
Siddiqui never thought of himself as a first-generation anything, just an ordinary American who got his first taste of the military as a ninth-grader in junior ROTC. The 1990 graduate of Centennial High School in Ellicott City went to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and University of Baltimore Law School.
He joined the Judge Advocate General Corps after passing the bar in 1998 and made captain six months later. A bachelor, he just bought his first home, a townhouse in Columbia where he heard a knock on the door Wednesday, about six weeks after his visit to Russel Volkswagen.
"I opened the door and it is straight out of a movie - you see two guys, well dressed, in suits, holding up badges, saying, 'We're from the FBI and we want to ask you some questions,'" he recalled. "I'm looking around like this is a joke, one of my friends. I'm so shocked out of my mind I don't think I kept my bearings as an attorney."
Siddiqui led the two agents into the kitchen, where they stood around the island because he didn't have a kitchen table. He said the agents asked him questions about his job and the moving boxes that cluttered the house. He said they had a list containing every address where he had lived. He said they also asked him about Faisal R. Siddiqui, a man who used to work for the General Services Administration.
"Apparently, he made some subversive comments supportive of Osama bin Laden," said Siddiqui, whose middle initial is B. He said he does not know the other man, noting that Siddiqui is a common Indian name.
After a few minutes, Siddiqui said, he was able to think clearly enough to ask why the agents were there."'The reason we're here is, we got a call from a Volkswagen dealership ... on Route 40,'" Siddiqui said they told him. "'We had a phone call that you wouldn't give them your Social Security number and you were acting really nervous.'"
Siddiqui said the agents left after about 20 minutes without making clear to him whether he was still under investigation.
Wade Sterry of Russel Automotive said he did not know whether the salesman, who no longer works at the Volkswagen dealership, called the FBI. If he did, Sterry said, he was not acting on behalf of the dealership. Sterry also said suspicions are understandable after the terrorist attacks.
"It was the day after the bombing," Sterry said. Siddiqui "was very evasive. And he left without saying anything to anybody. He had an Arizona license in a pilot's uniform.
"The FBI thought there was enough to it to look into it," he said. "They're the ones who made a decision to talk to the guy, not us."
Siddiqui, who was stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona until December, said he was still using his out-of-state license. He is not a pilot, but he was photographed for the license in his Air Force uniform. He said he did not simply walk out of the dealership.
The day the FBI visited him, Siddiqui visited Dar al-Taqwa mosque in Columbia for prayer and support. He was saddened by the reaction he got from fellow members.
"They said, 'We're in a situation where we can't exercise our rights because it just brings more suspicion on us,'" he said. "'Because we have nothing to hide, just let them in and tell them everything.' And when I said that's not right, they said, 'It's not a matter of right and wrong. It's a matter of protecting yourself at a time when who knows what will happen.'"