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Ashcroft says U.S. to question thousands of visitors

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As part of the search for information about terrorists, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has ordered law enforcement officials to question more than 5,000 young men who entered the United States in the past two years.

In a speech Tuesday to federal prosecutors meeting in Washington, Ashcroft said the initiative was necessary to "expand our knowledge of terrorist networks operating within the United States."

Justice Department officials said they started last week to send lists of interviewees to the 94 U.S. Attorney's Offices throughout the country. The lists are of males between ages 18 and 33 with known addresses who entered the United States legally on nonimmigrant visas from particular countries after January 1, 2000.

"It is the countries from which they entered the U.S., not their nations of origin," a Justice Department official said, explaining the initiative.

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The official said federal authorities have determined which countries terrorists used to enter the United States in previous incidents, but the official would not identify those countries. Officials insisted not all of those on the list are of Arabic or Middle East origin.

Justice Department officials also said the interviews are voluntary. The nonimmigrant visa holders may be in the United States as tourists on business or as students.

Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker emphasized the men targeted for questioning are not suspects. She said the State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service compiled the lists solely using the criteria of age, gender, time of arrival and country of travel to the United States.

Ashcroft said that the interviews target "individuals who we believe may have information helpful to our investigative or prevention efforts."

Ashcroft told the audience of about 150 federal members of the counterterrorism task force that he expects them to coordinate the interviews but that state and local police agencies will conduct most of the questioning.

"We recognize that this will be a time-consuming and complicated task," Ashcroft said, "but it is critical that we expand our knowledge of terrorist networks operating within the United States."

Officials said the questions to be asked would not include interviewees' religious beliefs. They said they soon would likely make public the types of questions that they plan to ask.


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