Thursday 27 March 2003
Ghassan Hanna served the FBI agents tea, and answered their questions while his 11/2-year-old daughter slept on his shoulder.
Another man was awakened by a loud knock at his door. Still another couldn't believe the casually dressed man and woman were federal agents, and asked for another look at their badges.
Thousands of Iraqi immigrants are being questioned this week by FBI agents, who say they're searching for information about possible terrorists and reassuring Iraqis that the agency won't tolerate hate crimes.
While individual experiences have varied, advocates, lawyers and those interviewed say agents have been mostly polite and --; at times --; even friendly. Still, that doesn't mean all their visits have been welcome. Some have used their interviews to chide agents for singling out Iraqis.
During some sessions, which have lasted from 15 minutes to more than an hour, agents have read from a list of typed questions.
They asked about people's immigration status, their lives in Iraq, why they left, if they attend a mosque, the names of family members and whether they knew of any terrorists in the United States. Men and women, American citizens and recent immigrants, have all been interviewed.
The two men in suits who showed up at Hanna's Union City, Calif., home got an earful after asking what he thought of Saddam's regime. Hanna left Iraq two weeks after Saddam came to power to escape a warrant for his arrest.
"I spent a good deal of time giving them a good history lesson, a good background," said the 45-year-old engineer.
An American citizen, Hanna said the questioning sends a message that "U.S. citizenship is nothing more than a piece of paper," that the government doesn't "trust your loyalty."
Agents have interviewed about 1,000 people a day since the war started, and by the end of this week hope to complete an initial plan of speaking with 11,000 Iraqis in the United States.
Those people were selected from a larger list of about 50,000 because they had recently traveled to Iraq or had ties to the Iraqi military, officials said.
In one case, an agent asked a Miami taxi driver who fled Iraq and a warrant for his arrest there if he could return to recruit intelligence sources, said immigration attorney Tammy Fox-Isicoff, who sat in on the interview. The immigrant declined.
When Mohammed Al-Jaibaji saw two agents, one wearing a ski jacket, walking up to his house last week, he thought they were salespeople. After double-checking their badges, Al-Jaibaji, 43, told them he left Iraq at age 18 to study at the University of Kansas.
"It didn't bother me," said Al-Jaibaji, a certified public accountant who lives in San Mateo, Calif. "They were very cordial and friendly. There was no sense of intimidation or interrogation."
That wasn't the case for Pishdar Mirawadli, who was awakened by a loud knocking at his door one morning last week when he was off from work. When the agents asked him for his immigration documents, Mirawadli, a clothing store quality control inspector, called his lawyer.
"They started cussing at me. They told me, 'Shut up,"' and used an obscenity as his wife and three children looked on, said Mirawadli, 28, a refugee from northern Iraq who settled in Harrisonburg, Va.
Basam Alhussaini said the two agents who visited his home on Monday night were polite, but unwelcome.
"We don't appreciate you coming here asking questions like this," the San Dimas, Calif., engineer told them. "We're being profiled because of our ethnicity and background."
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said the interviews are intended to build relationships with Iraqis "so that there's some solid trust and a foundation." Officials hope Iraqis will "come to us if they have information they should pass along to help with our overall mission in protecting national security," he said.
To Ali Alkoraishi, 53, the agents who sat in his living room seemed jumpy.
"Every time one of us moved, they were a little bit edgy," said Alkoraishi, a Saratoga, Calif., psychiatrist, whose wife and four children sat with him during the interview.
The agents were particularly interested in a picture of Alkoraishi's medical school graduating class in Iraq, asking him for names and whereabouts of schoolmates. They also wanted details about military hospitals in Iraq.
Then, they asked Alkoraishi and his wife what they hoped for the future of Iraq.
"I told them, 'I've been here 25 years. The biggest change in my life was to experience freedom, expression of speech," Alkoraishi said. "We really appreciate the fact you're able to speak your mind here."
Bracing for Bush's War at Home
by Chisun Lee
Thursday 27 March 2003
Ground Laid for Historic Presidential Powers Push
An ugly theory popped up in the nation's capital several weeks ago. The Bush administration would wait until war began, and worry gripped the homeland, to ram a staggering package of domestic security measures through a Congress silenced by fears of seeming unpatriotic. Such measures would radically expand the executive branch powers already inflated by the 2001 USA Patriot Act.
On Friday as the U.S. began suffering combat fatalities, and the terror alert on whitehouse.gov glared orange for "high" Justice Department spokesperson Mark Corallo confirmed to the Voice that such measures were coming soon. Exact details are confined to "internal deliberations," he said, but the proposals "will be filling in the holes" of the Patriot Act, "refining things that will enable us to do our job."
But a new, comprehensive review of Bush's growing presidential power hardly reveals any "holes." Rather using court positions, internal policy changes, and secret decisions as bricks the administration has built the executive branch into a fortress, nearly invulnerable to the checks of the judiciary and Congress. Most alarming, according to the watchdog authors of the 96-page report, "Imbalance of Powers," the complexity of this historic expansion continues to mask its true proportions.
"You have to connect the dots," said Elisa Massimino, Washington, D.C., director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR), a 25-year nonprofit defender of civil liberties and humane policy. LCHR analyzed hundreds of pages of legislation, policy directives, and congressional records, plus a spate of major court cases such as the suit challenging the indefinite detention, without representation, of accused American "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla. The big picture shows an "executive branch amassing so much more power," said Massimino, even in the past six months alone. But since many developments have occurred "under the radar," she said, few members of Congress, let alone of the public, could easily map out such a blueprint on their own.
Briefly, the dots connect like this:
The administration's refusal to release Patriot Act-related records to Congress, the refusal to release the names of detainees and open their court hearings to the public, and the Freedom of Information Act exemptions under the Homeland Security Act add up to a secretive government, acting outside the scrutiny of the public and its representatives.
The development of the Total Information Awareness program, the mining of individuals' shopping and library records, and the melding of spy and arrest functions add up to government invasion of privacy and restriction of expression.
The indefinite detention of U.S. citizens deemed by Bush to be "enemy combatants," the secret detention and deportation of immigrants not charged with a crime, and the tracking and questioning of nationals from particular countries add up to unilateral executive power to deprive people of their physical liberty.
Even with the existing behemoth, Massimino said, a "quantum leap" in executive branch authority is possible. She referred to the recently leaked Justice Department draft bill, the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, commonly known as Patriot Act II. "It would make over 100 changes to existing law," she said. But as recently as March 4, Attorney General John Ashcroft was being coy about it, refusing to discuss any of the 86-page draft at a Senate hearing.
Among the more extreme powers Patriot Act II would grant the executive branch: The ability to strip citizenship from an American who supports a group the feds label as terrorist. Secret arrests the government could avoid revealing the location of, charges against, and evidence on someone it was holding. Far looser checks on search-and-seizure activities of law enforcement. And a DNA database for people deemed to be terrorist suspects.
Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin was among the first constitutional experts to condemn Patriot Act II as "a new assault on our civil liberties." Last week he told the Voice, "What we're really worried about here is something being proposed while all eyes are on Iraq. People are whipped up into a frenzy. The executive will propose what, at a certain time, it thinks it can get away with." That, he said, could be the draft bill "in its most virulent form."
Before the war began, there were signs that Congress might fight future presidential power-hogging and bring more heft to the legislative branch. Some Democrats excoriated Ashcroft for his furtiveness on Patriot Act II. Some Republicans were talking about subpoenaing records that the Justice Department refused to release on its use of Patriot Act I powers.
Yet wartime has traditionally meant deferring to the executive. The entire post-September 11 period may have seemed like one big state of war, with the Justice Department successfully skirting Congress and pushing every constitutional challenge to higher, more administration-friendly courts. But given the actual war in Iraq, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said last week, Americans can expect that "protections [of their individual rights] will be ratcheted right down to the constitutional minimum."
Ashcroft deflected angry Senate queries on Patriot Act II, saying "it would be the height of absurdity" to imagine the administration's hustling through a law without congressional review. Yet on October 25, 2001, 98 out of 99 voting senators hurriedly passed the 342-page Patriot Act I without any public debate and before most of them had read it. The White House made clear their votes would be spun as a test of their patriotism. Votes on Patriot Act II could also be a test of who has the patriotism to right democracy's severely lopsided structure of checks and balances.
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