An FBI investigation into a group of Arab immigrants in the Los Angeles area, aimed at proving that they engaged in terrorist activities, failed to produce enough evidence for a criminal case, so deportation was recommended, government officials said Thursday.
The FBI then terminated its 10-month investigation, turning its information over to immigration authorities late last year with the recommendation that the immigrants be deported through a proceeding where the burden of proof is less than would have been required in federal court.
This explanation of the FBI's role in the Jan. 26 arrests of nine people by the Immigration and Naturalization Service was given to The Times by informed government sources in Washington on the condition that they remain anonymous. It represents the first government comment on how the case evolved against the immigrants, who are accused of being affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a militant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Meanwhile, Justice Department documents obtained by The Times reveal that the formation last May of an Alien Border Control Committee aimed at concentrating the government's "counterterrorism efforts against particular nationalities or groups . . . most probably those citizens of states known to support terrorism."
Commenting on the FBI's decision to transfer the Los Angeles case to the INS, one source said, "It would have taken a while to make a solid criminal case" against the immigrants.
"You have to ask yourself how much time do you want to invest in something like this? It would have taken an awful lot of effort to make a good solid (criminal) case out of it. It was simpler to go the deportation route."
The case has evoked outrage among a number of civil rights groups and leaders in the Arab community in the United States who contend that the government is seeking to deport activists under a McCarthy-era law merely because of their political views in violation of their constitutional rights.
Asked about such criticism, the government official said: "It's fair anytime you find anyone in violation of the immigration laws. I don't care what the circumstances are. It's not only fair, it's our duty to enforce the laws."
Six defendants, who have Jordanian passports and are facing the most serious charges, adamantly deny ever belonging to the Popular Front. They are scheduled for bond and deportation hearings on Feb. 17. A seventh defendant, the Kenyan-born wife of the alleged California leader of the PFLP, faces lesser charges, and two others have had their cases severed.
The government source said the INS accusation that the six engaged in Popular Front activities was "based on the FBI investigation." An FBI agent reportedly rented a Glendale apartment next to the key suspect for several months as part of the bureau's investigation.
On the upcoming deportation hearing, the source added that immigration authorities "have a very solid case under the INS laws" to deport the defendants.
FBI officials have refused to discuss the case.
Dan Stormer, a Los Angeles lawyer leading the legal team assembled to defend the immigrants, said in an interview Thursday that the arrests came in the context of an unpublicized Reagan Administration effort last year to mount a fresh crackdown on suspected terrorist activities.
The Alien Border Control Committee, which met as late as last November and included representatives of the FBI, CIA and State Department, considered a proposal to invalidate visas of some foreign nationals so that a new "registry and processing procedure" could be implemented to better keep track of foreigners living in the United States, according to the documents.
It also called for the CIA, FBI and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies "to immediately provide" immigration authorities "with lists of names, nationalities and other identifying data and evidence relating to alien undesirables and suspected terrorists believed to be in . . . the United States."
One of the documents, a 31-page memo titled, "Alien Terrorists and Undesirables: A Contingency Plan Prepared by the INS," dated last May, suggests the possible use of restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens to foreign countries where the public safety is at stake.
The memo said that this would be justified under the 1952 immigration law known as the McCarran-Walter Act. It also calls for "detention of aliens apprehended as the result of any special projects undertaken by INS" in a Louisiana detention facility if needed.
It is not known if the package of proposals has been implemented, and government officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
But attorney Stormer, asked about the documents, said it's obvious to him that the six defendants were detained in the context of this new policy.
"It's clear from the report that the (Reagan Administration) intends to dramatically alter existing constitutional protections to carry out their own political goals," he said. "This is an exact blueprint for this case. It's a direct attack on constitutional protections."