FBI agents are beginning another round of interviews with Muslims and Arab Americans around the country as part of an effort to root out a possible terrorist attack in the U.S. this summer or fall, civil rights activists and attorneys for some of the people questioned said Saturday.
The interviewing program was announced in late May at a news conference by U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. Officials are concerned that terrorists may seek to disrupt the national political conventions in late July and late August or the general election in November, among other possible targets. But the actual questioning of people has taken weeks to get off the ground.
Muslim advocacy groups and lawyers said that, in recent days, the FBI had begun interviewing dozens of people in Virginia, Florida, New York and California, among other states. The individuals questioned include a U.S. citizen of Iranian descent in Missouri and a Yemeni college student in Arizona. None of the people interviewed so far had been told that he or she was a suspect in a terror investigation.
To many, the interviews are a bewildering case of deja vu. The FBI interviewed thousands of Muslims and Arab Americans after the Sept. 11 attacks and in the walk-up to the war in Iraq last year, fueling accusations of racial profiling by the government. Hundreds of people were jailed or deported for alleged visa and immigration violations after the Sept. 11 roundup.
FBI officials said in announcing the latest set of interviews in May that they would work to ensure that the process would be driven by specific intelligence rather than race or ethnicity. The approach recently was cited by one bureau official as a reason why the interviewing had taken so long to begin.
But Muslim leaders said Saturday that they were concerned that the FBI was repeating mistakes of the past.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, in Washington said his office had received dozens of reports of Muslims being questioned at their workplaces and homes by the FBI. He criticized the operation, saying it inexplicably seemed to target even respected community leaders.
“The way it’s being done stigmatizes the entire community and makes Muslims objects of suspicion to their neighbors and co-workers,” Awad said. “This is not right. This is more politics than security.”
He said he hoped to meet with FBI officials on Monday to express his concerns and appeal to them to more closely cooperate with the community during their investigations.
“Muslims should be enlisted in the war on terror, not blacklisted,” he said.
An FBI spokeswoman, Michelle Palmer, declined comment Saturday about the latest interviews.
Bureau officials have been meeting in recent weeks with Islamic groups, seeking to enlist their support at a time when Ashcroft and other officials have said the chances of a terrorist attack on the U.S. are as high as any time since Sept. 11.
One FBI official in Washington indicated recently that the bulk of the interviewing would not begin until late this month. And although sources said the FBI in Southern California had started conducting narrowly tailored interviews, officials with some Islamic groups in the region were unaware of recent problems -- or even of any questioning having taken place.
Stacy Tolchin, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild in San Francisco, said her group got four calls recently from Muslims and Arab Americans contacted by the FBI or the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Tolchin said she accompanied a Turkish woman to an interview Tuesday in which two agents asked a wide range of questions -- including whether the client engaged in prayer.
Tolchin said she didn’t know why the agents picked her client, a relatively new immigrant of Kurdish descent who was granted asylum based on her fear of returning to Turkey. She said the single woman in her 30s, a professional from Northern California, was unable to help them.
During the interview -- which lasted less than an hour, Tolchin said -- the agents asked whether her client knew people who had traveled to Pakistan, and whether she had information about a school in Syria where some American converts to Islam had studied the Koran.
“They asked if she knew any suspicious people who had come from Mexico and Canada,” Tolchin said. “They asked if she knew people who had licenses to drive commercial trucks or transport firearms.”
Tolchin said her client had no answers to any of these questions.
In response to the question about prayer, Tolchin said, her client told the agents that, although she is a Muslim, she doesn’t pray.
Deedra Abboud, the director of CAIR’s Arizona office, said she met with the FBI in Phoenix on Tuesday after receiving phone calls from people who had been recently approached by the bureau for questioning.
The FBI is “really stressing that these people are not under investigation, and that this is just a friendly chat,” Abboud said. “We tried to get them to understand they are not having friendly chats with non-Muslims.”
Abboud said the FBI told her that it was trying to identify people who may have crossed paths with individuals who could be of use to investigators, including “people who may be six degrees of separation away from somebody who at some point in time may have been under investigation.”
She said officials in Arizona told her they were moving ahead aggressively with interviews in part because a proposed presidential debate is planned for Tempe in October.
James Hacking, a Muslim lawyer in St. Louis, said he thought the FBI was on a fishing expedition.
Hacking said he accompanied an Iranian graduate student to an interview with the FBI in St. Louis on Wednesday. He said the client was asked a variety of general questions, including information about Iranian groups operating in the U.S. and abroad, and whether he had traveled recently to Iran. His client, he said, was unable to provide the investigators with much useful information.
“This kid was born and raised in the Midwest. He is as American as apple pie,” Hacking said. “I think they are just beating the bushes.”
Times staff writer Schmitt reported from Washington and Times correspondent Horowitz from San Rafael. Staff writers Teresa Watanabe, David Pierson and Greg Krikorian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.