SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 26 OCTOBER 2003


A bridge too far



THE Chesapeake Bay bridge on the Virginian coast in the United States is a sight to behold. And more.

It is the world's largest bridge-tunnel. An 18 mile, four lane testament to wondrous engineering. A year after it opened in 1964, it was named one of the 'Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World'. If I was 12 years old again, the Bay Bridge would fit the bill for a school project. I wouldn't be alone.

John McLean had the same idea at the start of term in the Boys' Latin school in Maryland last month. His class was given two projects to research. One on a famous structure and the second on a famous person.

The bridge chose itself but the second project had the hallmark of a father's influence. Bruce McLean is a Boys' Latin alumni of 1975 and loves baseball. He coaches children and prefers to use a more traditional style. "I put the kids through a pretty good regimen. I go back to the old Oriole Way", he told Michael Olesker of The Baltimore Sun [1].

The Oriole Way emphasises solid defence, discipline and the supremacy of team over individual. From the mid-1960s the Baltimore Oriole's had a 20-season run during which they won seven division titles, six pennants, and three World Series.

Since then, though, the Oriole's have been in serious decline and like countless others, the one thing that keeps a team's supporters going is an unshakeable sense of humour.

So his son picked a baseball legend called Abner Doubleday as his famous person project. And they don't come any more legendary than Doubleday.

But it was the bridge that would put the McLean's sense of humour to the test. John used the web and email to get his questions answered, but he was the one who would end up being questioned.

When his headmaster Rick Brocato turned up at the school one morning, he was met by Jim Drotar of the FBI's Joint Terrorist Task Force. "We need verification", Drotar said. "About someone who claims he's a student here. It's about Chesapeake Bay Bridge".

Brocato later recalled the visit: "Somewhere in his questioning, John had mentioned Boys' Latin. And the FBI guy said 'all I need to know is, is he a student here?' He said terrorists can impersonate people to get information. I assured him John McLean was a student, and he was doing a paper on the bridge. He said 'you need to know, students need to identify themselves'. They're very sensitive about bridges and tunnels". Not just bridges and tunnels.

Last March the same FBI division initiated a search for a female Pakistani national, believed to have travelled through the Baltimore area in the months previously. [2]

In December 2002, the same FBI units were involved in a search in forestry in Maryland believed to be associated with anthrax attacks. [3]

Earlier in 2002 some local community organisations accused the FBI of attempting to infiltrate their groups. Ryan Harvey, who organised an anti-fur protest attended by 52 people, said he was asked by detectives about his ideological views and whether he favoured the war in Afghanistan. Phil Andrews also had objections: "I think these surveillance tactics will lead to everybody using it as an open door. It has affected our work.

"When people come in to volunteer, we wonder is he for real. Why should a group that fights for the rights of low-income people have to start worrying about something like police infiltration?". [4] This was the backdrop young John McLean stumbled innocently into. And how was he noticed?

According to FBI spokesman Barry Maddox, it was the Transportation Authority which tipped off the FBI. Maddox hammered the issue home: "...we don't sit around monitoring emails. This was based on a referral from the Transportation Authority.

"They're the ones who red flagged it, based on the questions they were getting. We followed up. We have enough work without checking emails". (He means it, for this is the same FBI agent who was spokesman for the investigation into the trading fraud at AIB's Baltimore subsidiary Allfirst.)

With the FBI satisfied as to John McLean's bone fides, his father looks back on the incident with that humour of his. "We were laughing about the whole thing. In fact, I said to John, 'I have to talk to you'. He said 'what did I do wrong?' I said 'I want you to be perfectly honest with me son. Do you know where Osama bin Laden is?' We made it a whole joke. Because you have to laugh at it". John's second project on baseball legend Abner Doubleday should be an easy ride. Albeit one with a twist.

Doubleday was the first person to be officially recognised as the creator of baseball, apparently in a cow pasture in New York in 1839. [5]

He didn't and never claimed he did. He got credited with intentions he never had.

Just like John McLean.

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Sources and info

[1] SOURCE: quote (and others) from 'Boy's Internet research snags him in FBI web', a column written by Michael Olesker in The Baltimore Sun published on 21 October 2003.

[2] SOURCE: Gazette.net, Maryland dated March 2003.

[3] SOURCE: Global Security Newswire of December 2002.

[4] SOURCE: quotes from Baltimore City Paper online edition of June 2002.

[5] More information at BallbaseballLibrary.com