FBI moving slowly after summer terror alert

Despite warning in May, interviewing yet to begin

July 06, 2004|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - More than a month ago, the FBI announced it would launch a wave of interviews across the country as part of an urgent effort to root out a suspected terror attack planned for the United States this summer.

Preparations for the attack were 90 percent complete, Attorney General John Ashcroft warned at the time.

Preparations for the interviews are another story. It's already July, and the FBI is still weeks away from launching the initiative, law enforcement officials confirmed.

The interviews were included in a series of measures that the Justice Department and FBI announced at a May 26 news conference, calling attention to what Ashcroft said was "credible intelligence from multiple sources" that terrorists planned to hit the United States "hard" this summer.

An FBI official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the delay shows that agents are being meticulous in deciding who they want to interview. A similar effort that focused on Muslim neighborhoods before the war in Iraq last year drew complaints of racial profiling.

But the delay also is bolstering a perception that Ashcroft's warning - which included poster-sized photos of terror suspects, most of whom had been previously identified - was a public relations exercise that sent mixed signals to citizens, including the Arab-American community.

Ashcroft "has attempted to use scare tactics to promote his agenda, and I think it has been a real failure," said James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. "He has done this before. Each time he has done it, people keep asking afterward: `What was this all about?' "

The warning was not accompanied by any increase in the national terror threat level, which is separately administered by the Homeland Security Department. Others complained that the assessment was based on intelligence that, while serious and real, had been known to federal agents for months.

And there was speculation from critics that the news conference was a calculated effort by the Bush administration to divert attention from its woes in Iraq. The episode fits a pattern, they said, and shows how Ashcroft's aggressive style can paradoxically undermine the message he is trying to convey.

"The entire thrust of the counterterrorism effort in terms of law enforcement and intelligence-gathering has been a series of glamorous press announcements or political speeches," said Michael Greenberger, a former Justice Department official in the Clinton administration and the current director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland. "It is a miasma of confusion."

A Justice Department spokesman, Mark Corallo, defended the alert, saying the attorney general believes that the threat of a terrorist attack in the United States this summer is "as serious as we have ever seen."

Corallo said he was unaware that the interviews had not begun but said they represented just one part of a multifaceted anti-terror program the department is aggressively implementing.

"It is a serious threat that we are working around the clock to mitigate," he said. "This is an ongoing operation. We are doing lots of things. The interviews will take place. There are other operations that are going on right now that the public does not know about."

Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III unveiled the interview program in May as part of a package of measures they were taking to counter concerns that terrorists would attempt to exploit several high-profile events over the coming weeks and months, including the national political conventions.

One of the targets of concern - the annual meeting of the Group of 8 industrial countries - took place last month on an island off the state of Georgia.

"We ask for your cooperation as we launch a nationwide series of interviews to gather information and intelligence on these potential threats and on these individuals," Mueller said at the time.

He said agents would be seeking "information about persons that may have moved into the community recently, persons who seem to be in a community without any roots, persons that could be either facilitators or those who are willing to undertake an attack."

The announcement raised immediate concern among immigrant and civil-rights groups.

The FBI interviewed thousands of Muslims after Sept. 11 attacks, and thousands more Iraqi political refugees in the run-up to the war last year, stirring allegations that the government was engaged in racial profiling.

Hundreds were jailed for lengthy periods in the post-Sept. 11 roundups, and many were deported for immigration violations.

The FBI official who requested anonymity said the delay shows that the bureau is being sensitive to such concerns and that the interviews will be "driven by intelligence," rather than by singling out whole groups based on ethnicity or nationality.

Agents are currently reviewing older intelligence in light of new threat information to pinpoint people it might want to question, the official said. He said an FBI task force is overseeing the effort, although the size of the unit is classified.

"You have got to build a foundation," the official said. "There is something very specific we are looking for. You do not want to go out willy-nilly."

He said the interview process would be up and running sometime in mid- to late July.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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