'Little Red Book,' Big Fat Lie

December 28, 2005

A student at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth has admitted that he fabricated his claims of being interrogated by Department of Homeland Security officials for checking out Mao’s Little Red Book from the university’s interlibrary loan system.

The 22-year-old student’s lies were uncovered by The Standard-Times of New Bedford, Mass., which first broke details of his story on December 17.

Before recanting his tale, the student told the local newspaper that he had been visited a second time by officials from the Department of Homeland Security, “where two agents waited in his living room for two hours with his parents and brother while he drove back from a retreat in western Massachusetts. He said [that] he, the agents, his parents and his uncle all signed confidentiality agreements that the story would never be told.”

None of his new allegations were able to be confirmed, and he eventually told both his parents and at least one professor at the university that he had lied about the whole situation. The incident had prompted significant discussion among faculty members around the country, coming as it did amid revelations about domestic spying by the Bush administration. (It also prompted an article in Inside Higher Ed, which the editors have pulled from the site’s archives in the wake of the student’s recantation to avoid the further spreading of inaccurate information. A PDF version of the original article and the comments responding to it is available here.)

Even before the new fabrications surfaced, the student’s claims had raised suspicions among administrators at UMass-Dartmouth. A spokesman, John Hoey, told Inside Higher Ed in an interview last week that officials had grown increasingly skeptical of the student’s original story, which involved federal agents visiting his parents’ home to discuss a book “watch list.” Hoey and others at the institution said that due to privacy issues, they would not release the student’s name.

Last week, too, the Department of Homeland Security adamantly denied that any of its officials had interrogated the senior.

“We investigate violations of the law, not individuals’ reading habits,” Jamie Zuieback, a spokeswoman for the department, said in an interview. She indicated that department officials had “serious questions about the veracity of the claims” made by the student and that the department “has no such thing as a book watch list.”

Still, faculty members at the university, including Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of history who was the most vocal supporter of the student, continued to believe the allegations, saying that the senior had provided credible evidence to back up his claims. Williams could not be reached for comment this weekend to discuss the student’s recantation.

Williams told Inside Higher Ed last week that he had “absolutely no reason” to disbelieve the student but that, due to the strong denials by the Department of Homeland Security, he was determined to clarify the allegations. Ultimately, it was Williams’s persistent investigation of the matter — which included going to the student’s home and speaking to his parents — that led to the truth.

“My investigation eventually took me to his house, where I began to investigate family matters,” Williams told The Standard-Times. “I eventually found out the whole thing had been invented, and I’m happy to report that it’s safe to borrow books.”

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