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Just a few questions

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The Attorney General wants 5,000 Arabs here to come in for a chat. Is this the way to fight terrorism?

John Ashcroft isn't the smoothest guy in Washington. A more Reaganesque man might have been able to expand the FBI's Rolodex in the Sept. 11 investigation with greater finesse and quiet. After all, a poll shows that 67% of Americans approve of his ongoing policy of interviewing about 5,000 people, ages 18 to 33, within the Arab-American and Islamic communities who have arrived here on visas since 2000. Unable to conduct all the interviews using the FBI, the Attorney General enlisted local law enforcement to request interviews. But by asking local officials to do some of the work for him, he managed to divide the country's police communities. Some cops, scarred by accusations of racial profiling and eager to maintain tenuous relations with nervous Arab communities, are finding reasons not to comply with his request.

The police department of Portland, Ore., was the first to refuse to cooperate, arguing that its state laws do not allow officers to ask about anything other than a person's knowledge of criminal activities; the Justice Department memo requested interviewees to give their families' phone numbers, their reaction to terrorism and their travel history. Police departments in several other Oregon cities also refused to participate, and those in most cities in California's Bay Area say they probably won't cooperate if asked. "We would not do INS interviews or roundups given the facts we have now," says San Jose police chief William Lansdowne. "We're here for the long term." Rather than arguing with local cops, overburdened FBI agents are flying out to many towns to do the work themselves.

No matter who's doing the asking, a lot of the interviewees are talking to lawyers. Though few have had interviews yet, Arabs here on visas are being told by the A.C.L.U. or the administration of the college they attend to be careful when answering broad questions. The University of Michigan is providing professors to accompany students to interviews as well as sessions with immigration specialists, and interpreters for students who need them.

A postdoctoral student from Lebanon who wants to be identified only as Mohammed has received his invitation and plans to RSVP in the affirmative. Still, he isn't telling any of his friends. "It's embarrassing. No matter how nicely they put it, it's still an interrogation by the FBI," he says. "But I guess they'll probably come to your door if you ignore it." He has been instructed to avoid answering very broad questions, like the one in section W of the Nov. 9 memo "Guidelines for the Interviews Regarding International Terrorism," sent to all U.S. Attorneys: "You should remember to ask the catch-all question whether the individual is aware of any criminal activity whatsoever, whether related to terrorism or not." Since lying to a federal officer can get a person with a visa deported, and since drinking under age 21, for instance, is illegal, this could technically be used to send an interviewee back to Beirut. With such stakes, Mohammed, for one, isn't telling his parents about this until it's over. "My mother would totally, absolutely freak out," he says. "She'd have a heart attack."

A Stanford student who had her two-hour meeting with the FBI on campus after an agent called her cell phone to set up a date told the Stanford Daily that the interview was oddly detailed. "They asked me various questions ranging from my religious beliefs to my sentiments about poverty-stricken nations to my future marriage plans," she said.

Many FBI agents feel that asking young women about their love life or students about their major isn't the most effective way to thwart global terrorism. A similar strategy was attempted during the Gulf War; it failed to yield any significant leads, but it did arouse some ill-will in the Arab-American community. Former FBI and CIA director William Webster worries about Ashcroft's prevention-first policy, warning that nothing will be gained if preemptive arrests are made before all the players in a terrorist conspiracy are identified and located. Those who escape the net will regroup--and plug the leaks that led to the arrests by killing suspected informants.

Responding to the criticism and police refusals, Ashcroft offered last Thursday to give three-year S visas (known by immigration lawyers as "snitch visas") as a reward for useful information provided by interviewees or anybody else, here or abroad, who knows anything about terrorist plots. At least he knows that when you're not good at sweet talk, a real sweetener always works.


Cover Date: December 10, 2001


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