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U.S. Moves to Question Mideast Men

Law: Local officials face obstacles in carrying out an order to contact about 5,000 recent visitors.


CHICAGO — Facing a deadline less than a month away, law enforcement agencies across the country are struggling with staffing shortages and legal questions as they attempt to interview about 5,000 foreign men who have entered the country in the last two years.

In Michigan, federal authorities are sending letters "inviting" the men to call and schedule interviews. In Oregon, where Portland police had initially refused to conduct what they deemed unlawful investigations, the state attorney general Tuesday opened the way for the questioning of about 200 people. In Chicago, officials aren't sure where to begin.

The list of names was released to authorities Nov. 9 by U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft as part of the sweeping federal investigation into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. His order called for state and local authorities to complete the interviews by Dec. 21.

Oregon Atty. Gen. Hardy Myers said state law did not forbid his agency, or Oregon State Police, "from conducting such interviews as part of a criminal investigation to identify and apprehend people who have conspired, or are conspiring, to commit crimes."

Myers instructed his office's criminal division, and the state police, to "assist the federal government in the interview process." Local police agencies were still allowed to make their own decisions, however. And while the vast majority were expected to follow suit, it was unclear Tuesday how Portland, a city known for its liberal politics, might proceed.

The list identifies men of Middle Eastern origin ages 18 to 33 holding non-immigrant visas. Two weeks after its release, most jurisdictions nationwide find themselves in a situation similar to that of the Northern District of Illinois.

"Two things: We haven't started, and we're trying to figure out how to go about it," said Randall Samborn of the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago.

Samborn was uncertain exactly how many people on the list live in the district, which covers more than 8 million residents. But, he said, "it's a large number."

A memo from Ashcroft's office laying out the proper procedures and questions for the interviews suggests that they would be not only time-consuming but also relatively broad in investigative terms.

"Since the persons to be interviewed are not suspected of involvement in criminal activity, the interviews will be conducted on a consensual basis, and every interview subject . . . will be free to decline to answer," the instructions to investigators begin.

The guidelines then direct the investigator to ask the subject about his sources of income, his education, his foreign travel, any involvement in armed conflicts, and reaction to and knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.

They go on to direct queries about the subjects' knowledge of terrorism, of the financing and training of terrorists, sympathy for terrorists, knowledge of weapons and scientific education, including any study of biological warfare agents.

"You should explain that the United States needs everyone's help to prevent future terrorism, and you should encourage the individual to contact you if he sees or hears anything suspicious, or if he comes across anyone who has information that would be relevant and useful," the memo instructs agents.

Investigators are also urged to develop interviewees as sources "in the same way that you would recruit any source related to more traditional criminal activity."

Michigan, home to the nation's largest concentration of Arab Americans, has 840 people to question. Authorities began mailing 550 of the please-call letters Tuesday.

"The people being interviewed are not suspected of being involved in terrorist activities," said Robert Cares, assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit. They may, however, have information that can help law enforcement authorities piece together terrorist plots in this country, he said.

Recipients of the letters--who are asked to set up an interview date by Tuesday--are under no legal obligation to respond, and it is unclear what authorities nationwide intend to do about those who either don't reply to law enforcement efforts to interview them or cannot be located.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Cares said.

The list of those wanted for questioning, as well as other recent anti-terrorism efforts by the Bush administration--including the proposal to hold military tribunals rather than civil trials for suspected terrorists--has concerned not only those of Middle Eastern descent residing in the U.S. but also many scholars and civil libertarians.

"How quickly would you run to law enforcement if you [could] be turned over to" the Immigration and Naturalization Service, asked Wendy Wagenheim of the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union. "There are so many ramifications."

In Southern California, FBI agents began interviewing men from the list several days ago, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.

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