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Iraqis being voluntarily questioned

FBI asks 397 here to submit as part of national effort to gather information

Thursday, March 20, 2003

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

FBI agents today will begin questioning 397 Iraqis in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia about conditions in Iraq and fellow countrymen here, part of a nationwide effort to gather information about the country and potential terrorists in the United States.

On Tuesday, the special agent in charge, Kenneth T. McCabe, and others from the local FBI office met with members of the Islamic Council of Greater Pittsburgh to discuss their plans.

The FBI said it will ask U.S. citizens and non-citizens of Iraqi descent to submit to voluntary questioning. Agents also will step up efforts to protect Muslims, particularly Iraqis, against possible hate crimes in the wake of armed conflict in Iraq.

The Islamic Council held a community meeting last night in Oakland to relay the information. It also sent an e-mail message to its members.

The interviews will be conducted by two-member teams of at least one FBI agent and a member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which is made up of local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies.

The purpose of the interviews, McCabe said, is "to solicit any type of information that may help our armed forces in hostilities with Iraq and [on] any possible type of terrorist activity here and to let them know that we're here to help them."

Agents will ask about conditions in Iraq that might help U.S. troops, as well as the identities of people who might try to retaliate against the United States, possibly by attacking local targets.

The people to be interviewed include all citizens and non-citizens of Iraqi descent that the Pittsburgh FBI office has identified in its jurisdiction, which includes Western Pennsylvania and the entire state of West Virginia.

McCabe said agents will knock on doors and leave business cards if people are not home. He said that in his meeting with leaders of the Islamic community, he urged them to get the word out so people wouldn't be surprised when agents showed up at their doors.

McCabe said he was aware that a knock on the door from agents of a national security agency could be frightening to people from a country not known for its protection of civil rights.

"We tried to dispel those fears that we would be secret police coming to take people away," McCabe said. "We're not the secret police, the bogeyman. There's always a concern that civil rights may be violated.

"We tried to assure them that we are the agency that's supposed to investigate civil rights violations. I told them I wouldn't stand for any agent violating civil rights. I've put out to my people that these are voluntary interviews, they are to be low-key, respectful, non-confrontational."

On the other hand, McCabe said, the interviews could ultimately result in arrests.

"I told them up front that if they're wanted, if they're illegal aliens, we have to do our job."

FBI officials promised they would be on guard against possible hate crimes or harassment of people of Middle Eastern descent, particularly Iraqis. The office has established a hot line for people to call if such crimes occur, FBI officials said.

Recipients of the Islamic Council's e-mail message were told that they could refuse to talk to the agents. They also were told they have a right to have a lawyer present during the interviews, and McCabe said he had instructed his agents to respect that right.

Nationally, the FBI is questioning as many as 50,000 Iraqis living in the United States in a search for potential terrorist cells, spies or people who might provide information helpful to a U.S. war effort.

Agents have fanned out across the country to interview Iraqis in their homes and where they work, study and worship.

The interviews come in the wake of an expansion of FBI authority that allows agents and U.S. marshals to arrest people on immigration violations.

That order, signed by Attorney General John Ashcroft, took effect Feb. 28, the last day that the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its enforcement laws fell under Justice Department jurisdiction. The INS ceased to exist the next day, when it was folded into the Homeland Security Department.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the Ashcroft order will further the impression among many U.S. Muslims and Arab-Americans that the government is singling them out.

But law enforcement officials described the move as crucial in the fight against terrorism. Immigration charges frequently are used to initially detain suspected terrorists or sympathizers while other charges are developed.

Justice Department officials maintained that the FBI's new powers would not be brought to bear on the voluntary interviews or Muslim outreach programs.

Pittsburgh's McCabe said each division of the FBI was being asked to identify and interview all Iraqis in its area, but he added he had received no list or indication of overall numbers.

The ACLU issued a statement yesterday criticizing the interviewing.

"The government's latest plan to question thousands of Iraqi nationals is yet another example of ethnic and religious profiling that may hamper rather than help efforts to apprehend terrorists," the release said.

But the president of the Islamic Council, as well as the local ACLU and immigration attorneys, said the FBI has been respectful of civil rights and attentive to community concerns in the Pittsburgh area.

"The meeting with the FBI was very positive," said council President Clifton Omar Slater.

Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pittsburgh ACLU, and immigration lawyer Robert Whitehill also attended the meeting and agreed that it seemed to set the groundwork for good communication.

"I thought that [McCabe] and his team really tried to listen and to empathize with the concerns of the community," said Whitehill, who has helped organize attorneys to voluntarily assist men from 25 predominantly Muslim countries who are being required to register with immigration authorities.

In a time of war, with many Muslims already feeling vulnerable, all efforts to build bridges are important, said Whitehill.

"Even the most polite questioning by an FBI agent, questioning that is sensitive to all of one's civil liberties, even that can be frightening to someone born outside the United States -- or inside the United States."

Other immigration attorneys said they didn't hear about the plan until this week. They are getting in touch with clients who might be contacted and letting them know that volunteer lawyers will be available to be with them during the interviews.

Attorney Gina Godfrey of the Pittsburgh Regional Immigrant Assistance Center said that if a client asks her whether he should agree to be interviewed, she would ask whether he had any information he would be uncomfortable divulging.

If not, she would advise him to go ahead. She said that because most Iraqis here are refugees who fled the regime of Saddam Hussein, they would probably share anything they knew that might help defeat him.

Some people might fear for family members still in Iraq, however, and if that were the case, she said she would make that clear to the FBI interviewer.

Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566.

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