U.S. attorneys, police to interview young foreign men

Justice Department acts on new anti-terror focus

War On Terrorism : The Nation

November 14, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Working with local police, federal prosecutors in Maryland and around the nation are under orders to locate and interview hundreds of young foreign men as part of the Justice Department's new focus on counterterrorism.

More than 5,000 names were sent to U.S. attorneys across the country. Prosecutors were instructed to question the men in the next 30 days and then cull from those interviews any valuable intelligence information.

"We recognize that this will be a time-consuming and complicated task, but it is critical that we expand our knowledge of terrorist networks operating within the United States," Attorney General John Ashcroft told federal prosecutors meeting here yesterday.

The order to interview thousands of foreigners living in the United States is one of the first directives to front-line federal prosecutors under a "wartime reorganization" plan Ashcroft announced last week that makes counterterrorism the Justice Department's overriding priority.

Civil rights groups have accused federal investigators of unfairly targeting people based on ethnicity in the sweeping investigation of the Sept. 11 hijacking attacks on New York and Washington. Justice officials took care yesterday to say that the interviews would be voluntary and that the men are not suspects.

In his written order to U.S. attorneys, Ashcroft said all of the men interviewed should be treated with courtesy and respect.

"These individuals were not selected in order to single out a particular ethnic or religious group, or to suggest that one ethnic or religious group is more prone to terrorism than another," he said.

Thomas M. DiBiagio, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said yesterday that his office had received the directive, dated Friday, and would promptly comply.

The interview list distributed to prosecutors includes names of foreign men who entered the United States from countries where terrorists would be likely to plot attacks, according to U.S. intelligence information.

The countries of interest are not necessarily the individuals' native countries, but are places that known al-Qaida operatives were last in before entering the United States, said Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker.

All of the men are between the ages of 18 and 33 and came to the United States on student, tourist or business visas since January 2000, Justice officials said. The list was compiled from records kept by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department.

As Ashcroft called on federal prosecutors to work with local police in compiling more intelligence information from noncitizens living in the United States, he said that federal investigators must undergo a fundamental shift from solving crimes to preventing attacks.

"In the changed world in which we now live, a seemingly routine prosecution of an immigration violation may be much more important than a million-dollar fraud case," Ashcroft told government lawyers who are heading up counterterrorism task forces across the country.

Prosecution of immigration violations or minor identity theft cases, the attorney general said, "may remove a terrorist operative from our community."

To better position front-line federal prosecutors in that effort, Ashcroft said the Justice Department would spend $9.3 million across the country - about $100,000 in each U.S. attorney's office, including in Baltimore - to cover costs such as the hiring of local intelligence analysts.

DiBiagio noted that the interview effort was the first direct call by the attorney general for help from local law enforcement after complaints by some police officials that their forces could be doing more to help federal authorities combat terrorism.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who has publicly questioned why federal authorities were not doing more to involve local police in counterterrorism measures, could not be reached yesterday for comment.

In testimony yesterday morning before a House government reform panel, Norris suggested that members of the city Police Department's intelligence unit could be deputized to help the FBI and immigration officials track down a growing backlog of leads.

"These units existed long before Sept. 11, and they work to develop information about gangs, terrorists and criminal organizations," Norris said in his written testimony. With proper authority, he said, they could help check tips and track down illegal immigrants inside the United States.

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