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Philly dad behind NSA lawsuit: 'Every day, you feel sad'

After his Navy SEAL son died, Charles Strange sued over the government's data-collection program.

Michael and Charles Strange in Hawaii.
Michael and Charles Strange in Hawaii.Read more

ONE DAY in October 2011, Charles Strange - a former union laborer and casino dealer - was sitting in his home in the Torresdale section of Philadelphia when he got a couple of strange text messages.

Strange, 50, was still emotionally raw and full of questions after his son Michael - a member of the Navy's elite SEAL Team Six - had died in a helicopter shoot-down over Afghanistan just two months earlier.

The texts were blank and came from strange phone numbers - one began with 001, the other with 000, he said - so he tried to find out where they came from.

"I called Verizon and they said '001' is our country and '000' is international," Strange recalled yesterday in a phone interview. "But when I asked who sent them, they said, 'There is no record on your phone.' "

The weird texts were a turning point in an odyssey - from grieving military parent to citizen taking on the world's most secretive spy agency - that one might call Kafkaesque, except that even the author Franz Kafka might not have believed it.

From the narrow streets of the Lower Northeast, Strange's crusade made international headlines this week, when a federal judge ruled that the National Security Administration's bulk collection of phone data from Verizon and other carriers probably violated the U.S. Constitution.

The ruling in Washington by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon - who called the NSA data-collection program "almost Orwellian" and ordered a halt that surely will be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court - is a landmark in the battle over how much the government can legally spy on its own citizens.

But although Strange said it "felt great" to learn of the judge's ruling in the suit he brought with well-known gadfly lawyer Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch, the NSA case isn't answering a question that still burns inside him:

Exactly how and why was his son killed when the Chinook military helicopter carrying 30 U.S. servicemen and eight others was shot down west of Kabul on Aug. 6, 2011?

"Every day, you think about it," Strange said. "Every day, your heart drops. Every day, you feel sad."

Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Strange was a 2004 Northeast Catholic High School grad and triathlete who became a codebreaker and elite SEAL after joining the Navy. He'd bought a home in Virginia and told his family he was engaged to be married shortly before the Taliban apparently shot down the chopper, headed to reinforce an Army Ranger unit during a fierce battle.

Three days after the attack, Charles Strange said he confronted President Obama when he met the commander in chief at Dover Air Force Base as the bodies arrived home.

"He put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Mr. Strange, Michael changed the way that America lives,' " he recalled. "I grabbed the president's shoulders and started shaking them and said, 'I don't need to know what my son did . . . I need to know what happened to my son, Mr. President.' "

In the weeks that followed, Strange - who speaks in gruff tones laden with Northeast Philly attytood - learned a number of things that made him question the official account.

He said he was told that his son's body was too badly burned for a proper Catholic burial, but he and his wife Mary Ann, Michael's stepmom, later saw a photo in which his corpse appeared intact.

Strange claims that the government report he was given was unreadable and that officials told him there was a problem with ink toner. He also insists that although officers told him the Chinook's flight recorder was washed away in a flood, weather reports show dry conditions. He is seeking a congressional probe.

Since his increased activism, Strange said, he believes that his computer was tampered with and that his wife has been photographed through the monitor - but his belief that the government is spying on him won't deter his mission.

"There's a reason I'm doing this," he said. "So it doesn't happen again."