3,000 newcomers to the U.S. to be sought for interviews

Ashcroft unveils plans to expand program some decry as `racial profiling'

March 21, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Extending a program that critics called racial profiling, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced plans yesterday to seek voluntary interviews with 3,000 foreign nationals in the United States to learn more about the threat of terrorism.

Ashcroft said the effort would be similar to the Justice Department's earlier attempt, begun in November, to interview about 5,000 foreign nationals in this country. The attorney general said those interviews, which targeted mostly young men of Middle Eastern descent, produced "significant" leads and "fostered new trust" with Arab communities.

Groups representing Arabs and other critics heatedly disputed those statements, saying the program is nothing more than racial profiling that so far has produced minimal information.

A report released by Ashcroft yesterday said the interviews possibly disrupted al-Qaida plans for new assaults and produced some new leads into the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But the report gave no indication that information gleaned from the interviews helped root out any terrorists in the United States or thwarted any specific planned act of terror.

Of 2,261 people interviewed - out of the roughly 5,000 who were sought - the report says one interviewee provided information about a person who was in some way connected to one of the 19 suicide hijackers. (The report provided little detail on this or other examples.)

One other interviewee recalled seeing one of the hijackers sometime before the attacks.

Another person who was questioned, the report said, provided information on a terrorist group, and two others said they were acquaintances of people who had taken flight training.

Such information, Ashcroft said, "demonstrates the success of this approach."

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, which spoke with some of the law enforcement officials involved in the interviews, disputed that finding.

"They didn't get anything out of this worth saving," Zogby said. Ashcroft "is misleading the public and misrepresenting what happened."

Zogby said the mere fact that people agreed to interviews should not be read as a sign that they cooperated willingly.

"People are afraid; they are intimidated," he said.

The new interviews, to take place over the next two months, will focus on 3,000 people who have entered the country since January 2001. It is not clear how many will be available for questioning.

Of the 5,000 people sought in November, 1,097 could not be found. About 700 others were believed to have moved to a different area of the country; 681 others were thought to have left the country.

The interviews resulted in no charges related to terrorist activity. Three people were charged with unrelated crimes, and 17 others were taken into custody on civil immigration violations.

Arab groups warn that the immigration charges will make a new round of questioning difficult to conduct.

"It's definitely a deterrence," said Hussein Ibish, spokesman for American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington. "They are locking these people up indefinitely without bond for minor immigration violations.

"As much as we have told people to cooperate," he said, "people would be very foolish to go into these interviews without first consulting a lawyer."

Ibish described the program as "a form of racial profiling," a sentiment echoed by police in Portland, Ore., who refused to cooperate.

Ashcroft said the federal agents and local police officers were given sensitivity training and were told to treat the first group of interviewees as witnesses rather than as suspects. More than 90 percent of those who were found agreed to be interviewed, Ashcroft said.

"We believe that these individuals might either wittingly or unwittingly be in the same circles, communities or social groups as those engaged in terrorist activities," Ashcroft said of the people who will be interviewed next. "The individuals to be interviewed are not suspected of any criminal activity."

Ashcroft said he believed that the Arab communities around Detroit, where many of those interviewed live and where criticism has perhaps been most vocal, "felt good about it."

"These communities want to be understood well by our law enforcement because they know they are good people," he said.

But Rep. John Conyers Jr., whose district includes Detroit, said that is not the case.

"The suggestion that Arab and Muslim Americans appreciate being singled out and interrogated is a prime example of the attorney general's wartime propaganda machine in full swing," said Conyers, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

"The national leadership of Arab and Muslim organizations have expressed to me their outrage over this illegal form of racial profiling."

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