Justice Dept. Wants to Query More Foreigners
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 to 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 last November.
In announcing the expansion of the program, Attorney General John Ashcroft acknowledged that the government's failure to find many of the men 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 on 3,000 young foreign men who had entered the United States more recently than 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 an address to the United States attorney's office in Alexandria, Va., outside Washington. "The individuals to be interviewed are not suspected of any criminal activity."
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 interviews.
"While they are more than willing to contribute to the war on terrorism, the national leadership of Arab and Muslim organizations have expressed to 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 to be questioned. "In Oregon, it was only 1 of 69, and in Minnesota, it was 1 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 or abandon their plans altogether," he said, adding that the government's strategy "may well have contributed to the fact that we have not suffered a substantial terrorist attack since Sept. 11."