FBI Eases Up; Muslims Still Feel Pain
Abdul Munim, owner of an Anaheim medical supply business, was surprised to walk into his home office a few weeks ago and find the embossed business card of an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on his desk with a note asking him to call as soon as possible.
The agent later called Munim, a Libyan American, and set up a meeting at a Denny’s near Munim’s home. He said the agent assured him that it would be a friendly interview and that he was not suspected of a crime.
Munim said the talk was cordial. Two agents asked him about his educational background, his business associates and even an acquaintance at the local Islamic center. After a few minutes, the interview was over and the agents thanked Munim for his time.
It’s an awkward dance that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American Muslims across the country have been doing with FBI agents.
The FBI began the interviews, officials said, to preempt possible terrorist attacks aimed at disrupting last Tuesday’s election. Agents plan to continue them through the presidential inauguration in January.
The sessions began shortly after U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said in June that intelligence revealed that preparations for a suspected summer terrorist attack were 90% complete. No attack occurred.
The meetings are proving delicate for both sides.
Munim and other Muslims said it’s hard not to feel insulted when the FBI comes calling. Munim also was interviewed by the FBI in the weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and feels that he is being singled out for scrutiny. At the same time, he said he wants to do whatever he can to help the government avert another attack.
For their part, federal officials said they are trying to be respectful, mindful that the 2002 roundup of Iranian immigrants turned into a public relations disaster from the point of view of some community groups.
Leaders in the Middle Eastern community acknowledge that the government is doing a better job this time, but they still have reservations.
They say the FBI has been meeting with various community groups and informed them ahead of time about their plan to interview immigrants and others. Many of the interviews are conducted not at government offices but at third-party locations.
Kareem Shora, a lawyer with the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that even with the best of intentions, the government is giving law-abiding immigrants the feeling that they are under a microscope.
“The impression the community gets is just because I am Arab American or my family lives in the Middle East, all of a sudden I’m a source of information on terrorism,” Shora said.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the government demanding information on the number and methodology of the interviews. The San Francisco chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and the Los Angeles chapter of the ACLU have also established a hotline and urged people contacted by the government to seek legal advice.
Steve Gomez, a counterterrorism agent in the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said the agency is trying to be sensitive to the community’s concerns because that is the best way to get good investigative leads.
“We don’t want to taint them or make them feel under suspicion or have any backlash,” he said.
Gomez declined to say how many interviews his office had conducted this month except to say that “a large volume” of people had been contacted and that “ ‘dozens of interviews’ ... might understate it a bit.”
Gomez said the interviews have been helpful but declined to provide specifics.
“There’s clearly been valuable information that has resulted from these interviews,” he said. “I would say that we have found people who would be prospective witnesses [in future prosecutions], and valuable intelligence has been generated.”
Those who have been interviewed by the FBI said they have largely been treated with respect. But they expressed concern about the stigma of being contacted by law enforce- ment.
“It’s not considered good when the FBI shows up,” said one man, who said he didn’t want to be identified for the sake of his reputation. “The FBI usually goes after drug dealers, Mafia criminals and all that. In my opinion, if the FBI contacts you, they always have doubts.”
The man, a Pakistani American Muslim who lives in West Los Angeles, said he was contacted at work.
“They knew my direct line and my name,” the man said. The FBI agent “told me that they were contacting people in the community and that my name came up.”
He said the agent also told him he was not under investigation. Soon after, two agents arrived at his home to interview him. The wide-ranging questions included queries about his educational background, his family history and his recent travels abroad.
“They even asked me: ‘Do you consider yourself a devout Muslim?’ ” the man recalled. “Now how do you answer that question? You don’t want to lie, but you are wondering: If I say yes, are they going to put me in some other bucket? If I say I’m not devout, I am lying.”
FBI agent Gomez insisted that the interviews were not arbitrary but were “intelligence-driven” results of previous interviews or information. And he said agents’ questions also served specific purposes.
“That kind of question may come up based on the intelligence derived from the interview itself or other investigative efforts taking place leading up to the interview,” Gomez said. “Those aren’t questions you just come out and ask unless you have an investigative reason.”
Immigrants’ advocates say that one reason for the improved relations with federal authorities since June is new investigative limits on agents. The rules, established after criticism of some of the interviews conducted immediately after 9/11, require federal officials to process suspected immigration violators within 48 hours, to provide them access to legal counsel and to notify defense lawyers when clients are moved between detention facilities.
Officials said they also use three federal databases to determine whom to interview. One of the databases is the controversial National Security Entry/Exit Registration System. Critics, including Shora, complained that it is suspect because it seems to track Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants almost exclusively.
Munim, the Anaheim man who was recently interviewed by federal agents, said that the latest meeting was his second since the terrorist attack on the U.S. On both occasions, agents questioned him about Muslim associates, one of whom is now working as a minister in the newly formed Iraqi Governing Council.
In the latest interview with investigators, Munim, who has a medical supply business, said he was asked about his university background in immunology.
“I said my work has nothing to do with bioterrorism,” he said.