Deals offered to halt terror

U.S. dangles visas for immigrants who provide `useful' tips

A sharp shift in strategy

But some critics say Ashcroft plan holds out false hopes

War On Terrorism

November 30, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Hoping to persuade foreigners to help thwart terrorists, the Justice Department said yesterday that those who provide "useful and reliable" information could be rewarded with long-term visas and a speedier path to American citizenship.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said he hopes the new program will prompt help from noncitizens who might otherwise hesitate to come forward, fearing they could be deported or barred from the United States because of problems with their immigration status.

"People who have information about terrorist activity must make a choice: Either they will come forward to save American lives or they will remain silent against evil," Ashcroft said. "The people who have the courage to make the right choice deserve to be welcomed as guests into our country and, perhaps, one day to become fellow citizens."

Foreigners who cooperate with authorities would not be guaranteed immigration help. And some activists faulted the plan for holding out false hopes. But the idea of dangling incentives to noncitizens marks a sharp strategy shift in the government's anti-terror investigation.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, that investigation has relied heavily on the threat of arrest or deportation for even minor immigration violations. That approach has produced uneven results.

Ashcroft said this week that suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network are among the more than 600 people detained in U.S. jails on immigration violations and other crimes. But no one has been charged directly with helping plan or carry out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

And some Muslims and Arab-Americans have been unwilling to aid the investigation because of what they say are overly aggressive tactics that have unfairly targeted people based on ethnicity.

Egypt asked this week for a fuller accounting of the hundreds of people detained on immigration violations, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that the United States would try to comply.

"I hope that in the very near future, as these investigations continue, and as questions are answered and clarified, we will be able to get the list of detainees down," Powell told reporters.

President Bush, meanwhile, defended the way in which authorities have conducted the investigation. In particular, he expressed his support for federal prosecutors' plans to interview 5,000 men recently arrived in the United States and for the use of secret military tribunals to try foreigners suspected of terrorism.

"We owe it to our citizens, to the families, to be relentless and methodical in tracking down terrorists and bringing each and every one of them to justice," Bush said, telling newly appointed U.S. attorneys that they would be on the "front lines" of the fight against terrorism.

The White House indicated yesterday that military tribunals, which have come under intense scrutiny because of their abridgment of constitutional rights, would be used only in select cases. But Bush said the military courts could play an important role in trying suspected terrorists accused of violence amounting to acts of war.

"Non-U.S. citizens who plan or commit mass murder are more than criminal suspects," Bush said. "They are unlawful combatants who seek to destroy our country and our way of life."

Ashcroft defended the use of secret tribunals, arguing that public trials for suspected terrorists could expose intelligence secrets and put cities where trials are held at risk of terrorist attack.

But the attorney general took a softer approach in appealing to noncitizens, in the United States and abroad, to help with the terror investigation.

"America's greatest asset is the privilege of living in America and enjoying the liberties of America," he said. "It costs us nothing to provide those to responsible individuals who would seek to help us defend this land."

Under a program prompted by the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, noncitizens who risk their lives to provide investigators with critical information can qualify for special long-term visas. Up to 50 of these "S-6" visas can be awarded each year.

In addition, the Immigration and Naturalization Service can defer deportation proceedings indefinitely or allow noncitizens with immigration problems to enter the United States if they cooperate, according to a memo Ashcroft distributed to the INS, the FBI and federal prosecutors.

Each of those steps could lead to permanent residency and then citizenship - though neither is guaranteed. It was unclear yesterday what criteria would be used to award the visas and other immigration help. Ashcroft said investigators would weigh the quality of the tips in deciding whether to lend assistance to informants.

Critics who objected to many of the Justice Department's earlier tactics in the investigation said they welcome the new approach, though some said they are concerned that it promises immigrants more than it can deliver.

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