Attorney Larry Hildes and Weekly Photographer Clash, Sort of, With FBI in a Photo Shootout

Like those two dark-skin men who took pictures aboard a Seattle ferry in 2007, leading to a global manhunt, you should be careful where you snap photos in terror-wary Seattle. That goes double at Third and Spring, home to the FBI Seattle Field Office. A Seattle Weekly photographer and attorney Larry Hildes arrived for a sidewalk photo shoot for this week's SW cover story on government spying, and then the fun began.

Hildes, a civil rights attorney and activist, was merely going to pose in front of the Abraham Lincoln Building that is also home to the Washington Fusion Center, the state's law enforcement intelligence center that is linked to spying on some of Hildes' anti-war clients. The fusion center is also, as the cover story notes, the agency that collaborated with the FBI in seeking those suspicious ferry-boat picture-takers who turned out to be European businessmen on vacation.

As SW photog Steven Miller began clicking off shots, a building security guard suddenly stepped out onto the public sidewalk, where it is legal for anyone to take pictures. He asked what they were doing.

Steven Miller
Hildes and security guard requesting backup

"We told him," says Hildes, "we're taking pictures on a public sidewalk. He asked that we not include the building. We said that was the point. He asked if we knew who was in the building. I answered, 'The FBI and Washington Fusion Center.' He asked what I had against the Washington Fusion Center. I declined to answer. He asked my name. I declined to answer that as well."

The guard made a call and, says Hildes, "A few minutes later a man dressed in a designer camo shirt - ID around his neck but tucked into his shirt pocket - introduced himself as an FBI agent and asked what we were doing and why. He asked for my ID repeatedly. I declined and we kept on shooting. He asked for my ID again. I said he didn't have a right to it. He insisted he had a right to ask for my ID. I noted that I had a right to refuse. He said it again, and I told him I had a right to tell him to go jump in Elliott Bay, and pointed out the location for him.

"By this point there were three more FBI agents all demanding to know who I was and what we were doing."

Says Miller: "It became pretty stressful - they weren't interfering with the shoot by blocking us, but they kept asking us questions and at a certain point I said 'Well, I feel pretty intimidated, I think we're done here.' We then walked to the corner where Larry stepped into the street. I pulled him back because he was about to cross against the light and I didn't want to give them any reason to detain us."

As they were leaving, adds Hildes, "I asked the original FBI agent for his card. He demanded mine instead. I said we're done here."

FBI agent and bureau spokesperson Fred Gutt says "We request people not take pictures. It's a voluntary thing. People have the right to do so, but we do like to ask why as part of our security concerns." As for the ID check. "I guess they wanted to know who they were."

Gutt says the FBI may eventually have to move to a more secure - likely new - building since the Lincoln tower does not meet setback requirements for such federal offices; it hugs the street corner as opposed to, say, the new Seattle federal courthouse that has a well-protected security plaza out front.

Not that the current building isn't well-protected with guards, agents and banks of spy cameras.

"The whole scenario was pretty intimidating," says a relieved Miller, wondering how many pictures the FBI got of him.

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