by Philip Shenon, The New York Times
WASHINGTON - The Justice Department announced today that it was
expanding its program of interviewing young, mostly Muslim foreign men
visiting the United States, saying it would try to track down and speak
an additional 3,000 of them for information about terrorism.
The announcement was immediately criticized by civil liberties and
Arab-American groups, and it came as the department disclosed that it had
been able to locate and interview fewer than half of some 4,800 young men
with whom it wanted to speak in the first round of interviews, which began
In announcing the expansion of the program, Attorney General John
Ashcroft acknowledged that the government's failure to find many of the
on the original list demonstrated "serious flaws" in its ability to keep
track of visitors to the United States. Those flaws were underscored last
week with the disclosure that the Immigration and Naturalization Service
recently mailed visa extension notices to a flight school for two of the
Sept. 11 hijackers.
The original pool selected for interviews was drawn from lists of
visitors who, like the hijackers, were 18 to 33 years old, entered the
United States after January 2000 on nonimmigrant visas and held passports
from or had lived in countries where Al Qaeda had a presence.
The Justice Department said the second round of interviews would focus
3,000 young foreign men who had entered the United States more recently
those on the first list.
"As in the first round of interviews, these visitors to our country have
been selected for interviews because they fit the criteria of persons who
might have knowledge of foreign-based terrorists," Mr. Ashcroft said in
address to the United States attorney's office in Alexandria, Va., outside
Washington. "The individuals to be interviewed are not suspected of any
Mr. Ashcroft said the interview program had generated "a significant
number of leads for investigators looking into the Sept. 11 attacks and
other potential terrorist activities." Department officials declined to
discuss the leads in detail, saying that to do so would compromise
counterterrorism investigations. But they acknowledged that the interviews
had not resulted in any arrests connected to Sept. 11.
The department said that of 2,261 young men interviewed, about 20 had
been arrested, most for immigration violations and none on charges involving
terrorism. The interviewed men are separate from the hundreds of other young
Arab and Muslim men who have been detained, mostly on immigration charges,
as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The interview program, focusing almost exclusively on Arabs and Muslims,
has been denounced by some civil liberties and Arab-American groups as
tantamount to racial profiling. Those groups and their Congressional
supporters stepped up the criticism with today's announcement of additional
"While they are more than willing to contribute to the war on terrorism,
the national leadership of Arab and Muslim organizations have expressed
me their outrage over this illegal form of racial profiling," said
Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the
House Judiciary Committee.
James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said the new
round of interviews meant that the Justice Department was "compounding its
first error with another one." Mr. Zogby also said Mr. Ashcroft was "being
misleading when he suggests that the first round produced valuable
information, and built trust" in Arab and Muslim communities in the United
States, as the attorney general maintained.
In a report made public today, parts of it first disclosed this morning
in The Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department said that of the 4,793
foreigners it had sought to question in the first round of interviews, 681
were determined to have left the United States, while 1,097 could not be
located at all. The report showed that the department was continuing to
search for most of an additional 785 men, who were found to have moved
within the United States from their last known address.
The department said that of the men it had tracked down, only a small
percentage - it did not say exactly how small, nationwide - had refused
be questioned. "In Oregon, it was only 1 of 69, and in Minnesota, it was
out of 59," the department said. "Those numbers are representative of the
experience of districts around the country."
Mr. Ashcroft said the interview program had ensured that "potential
terrorists hiding in our communities knew that law enforcement was on the
job in their neighborhoods."
"Such a climate could cause would-be terrorists to scale back, delay
abandon their plans altogether," he said, adding that the government's
strategy "may well have contributed to the fact that we have not suffered
substantial terrorist attack since Sept. 11."