Report says Justice Department's antiterror dragnet haphazard

An Egyptian man who ran a Middle Eastern pastry shop was at home in his Paterson, N.J., apartment in late September 2001 when his roommate, a lawful U.S. resident, came home with an agent of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in tow.

The INS agent had run into the roommate on the street and asked for identification. When the roommate brought the agent home to show him his ID, the agent questioned the Egyptian man, too, discovered that his student visa had long since expired, and arrested him. The Egyptian ended up leaving this country voluntarily.

In many ways, the Egyptian is typical of the people now publicly known to have been swept up by the federal government's antiterrorism dragnet after the 9/11 attacks. In the most comprehensive study to date of "the September 11 detainees," a report released June 26 by the Migration Policy Institute profiles 406 of the roughly 894 people arrested and held in custody. The nonpartisan think tank's report casts serious doubt on the value of that Justice Department roundup.

Taken together, the sagas of the 406 detainees depict a largely haphazard approach to rooting out the terrorists in our midst. While the post-9/11 sweep did enhance the enforcement of immigration laws somewhat, it was not the most effective way to marshal the nation's limited terrorist-hunting resources, the report argues.

"The authorities basically picked up people upon whom they stumbled," explains Demetrios G. Papademetriou, a co-director of MPI. "This does not reflect a systematic way of trying to identify individuals who might be of concern to the U.S. and going after them."

A former government official familiar with the inner workings of the post-9/11 detention program agreed: "From my vantage point, there was no organized, thought-out approach. There was an awful lot of catch-as-catch-can." He added, "Going forward, I think the notion that we'd use this technique again if we have another attack is probably pretty ill-advised."

Yet that is exactly what Doris Meissner, who was INS commissioner during the Clinton administration, fears is happening. She says that more-recent Justice Department policies, including special registration requirements for foreign visitors from 26 predominantly Muslim countries, follow what she calls the same flawed, throw-it-up-and-see-what-sticks logic. Meissner is now a senior fellow at MPI and co-authored the report.

Nearly one-third of the detainees in MPI's study were rounded up on the basis of terrorism tips from the public. And those tips, Meissner says, apparently tended to be rooted in fear rather than fact. "There was a real shoddiness in the handling of those tips," she contends.

The MPI report draws on interviews with detainees and their lawyers as well as on media accounts. Although the study does not purport to represent a scientific sampling, it is based on information about 45 percent of the 894 detainees. (Of the 894 detainees, just 15 percent were held on criminal charges. Eighty-five percent were held on immigration charges.) Many of MPI's findings are consistent with those of the Justice Department inspector general, whose report earlier this month focused on 119 detainees.

The MPI report helps flesh out demographic details revealed by the inspector general's report. MPI found that Pakistan ranked first as the detainees' country of origin and was followed by Egypt. Ninety percent of the MPI detainees were from an Arab and/or Muslim country. And at least 91 percent were male.

While the majority of detainees-58 percent-were between 20 and 40 years old, about 4 percent were younger and 15 percent were older. (The ages of the rest are unknown to MPI.)

According to MPI's statistics, 12 percent were lawful permanent U.S. residents or U.S. citizens, and an additional 23 percent were lawful visitors. Predictably, given that many of the detainees were targeted for detention because they were illegal aliens, the largest proportion-at least 46 percent-were here illegally. The status of the others in unknown.

In the MPI report's accounts of various detainees' experiences, stories abound of arrests based on apparently groundless tips. For example, FBI agents visited the store of a lawful permanent U.S. resident from Sudan who sells African goods. The visit was prompted by an anonymous allegation of suspicious activities. The man had been in this country for six years and had been granted political asylum. Questioning him, the agents found a discrepancy between the date of birth on his driver's license and that in his Social Security records. His driver's license had the month and day of his birth transposed. His lawyer apparently made that mistake when filing for asylum.

The Sudanese man was detained for five days and then released without being told why he had been held. His lawyer asked for an explanation, got no reply, and then filed a Freedom of Information Act request. It produced an arrest warrant the Sudanese man's lawyer says he never received. That warrant was dated December 26, 2001-a month after the man's release.

Much has been made of Attorney General John D. Ashcroft's statement that his department makes "no apologies" for its detention policy. Department spokesman Mark Corallo says the public outcry would have been enormous if federal agents had encountered an illegal alien, failed to detain him, and then later discovered he was a terrorist. "We do act in an overabundance of caution," he adds. "We don't have a choice."

Still, there are no solid numbers-at least none publicly available-on how many would-be terrorists were caught by the sweep. According to the Justice Department, only one of the 762 immigration-law violators-Zacarias Moussaoui, who was actually detained three weeks before 9/11-counts as a terrorist. But, Corallo says, "dozens" of the 132 people who faced criminal charges were charged with terrorism-related offenses. MPI's Papademetriou complained that until Justice provides more information about the seriousness of the charges it filed, calculating the worth of the detention program is virtually impossible.

Four detainees MPI profiled eventually had terrorism-related charges brought against them. One has been convicted. Two others were acquitted of having ties to terrorism. Charges against the fourth were dropped. All four of them came to the attention of the authorities as a result of an antiterrorism investigation, not through a wholesale roundup of Arab immigrants.

The government's most recent claims of success in the war on terrorism-the arrests of an Ohio truck driver suspected of plotting to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge and of a Qatari student accused of being an enemy combatant-were likewise the products of traditional criminal investigative work.

Defending its immigration detentions, the Justice Department says that "many" people-Corallo declined to be more specific-suspected of posing a terrorist threat were deported. "Getting and apprehending them and removing them from the country certainly sends a message to the terrorists that we are watching," he says. "We are not going to let the terrorists exploit our free society."

At a June 25 congressional hearing, the FBI Washington field office's acting assistant director, Michael E. Rolince, described the terrorist ties of two detainees originally arrested for breaking immigration laws: One had traveled overnight with two of the 9/11 hijackers; the name of another had been used by Qaeda members in Germany to obtain U.S. visas.

If the daily cost of the post-9/11 detentions was comparable to that of other incarcerations, the sweep probably cost taxpayers about $4 million, not counting the salaries of the more than 7,000 federal agents involved. MPI officials think the government could have gotten more for its money.

Meissner contends that immigration laws are a useful weapon in the war on terrorism only to the extent that immigration officers-from consular officials abroad to inspectors at the borders-have accurate information about whom to keep out. She argues strongly for a focus on improving and merging the multitude of terrorism "watch" lists. "That continues not to get the attention and the urgency that it requires," she says. "Meanwhile, we've had all these big fanfare programs that are snapping up a lot of resources."

Still, watch lists have limitations. As the 9/11 attacks demonstrated, terrorists with "clean" records can easily slip through immigration controls.

The real solution, says former INS Commissioner James Ziglar, who served in the Bush administration until last December, is for federal law enforcement to foster better ties to the Arab and Muslim communities in this country. He says their residents are the best eyes and ears the government could hope for. "The way you're going to be most effective is to have much better human intelligence," Ziglar says, adding that FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III "has shown tremendous leadership in trying to achieve this."

But the FBI appears to have missed significant opportunities to build good relations with Arab communities. On the morning of October 19, 2001, the New York City police banged on the door of a 34-year-old man who is a citizen of Jordan and Russia. They were following up on a tip to an FBI hot line and arrested him on immigration charges. The man, who is married to a U.S. citizen and has two children, came to this country from Canada by car in 1999 and wasn't questioned at the border. After being detained in 2001, he agreed to leave this country. His family is moving with him to Jordan.

A month after the arrest, the man's attorney received a call from an FBI agent who told him, "I can't believe we picked him up.... I wouldn't have done it." The agent added, "He might be useful to us.... He speaks three languages.... He's clean. We checked him out." But now his eyes and ears will no longer be in this country.