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Sharing Ordered for Terror Suspects' List

April 12, 2002|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft directed the Justice Department on Thursday to share the names of suspected terrorists to help prevent them from sneaking into the United States, prompting concerns from civil rights advocates that it could lead to police harassment of innocent people.

Ashcroft's order covers all Justice Department agencies, including the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

They will provide the names to be included in a State Department computer database used to screen visa applicants and in a U.S. Customs database that checks travelers at ports of entry across the United States. Thousands of the most detailed examples will also go into the National Crime Information Center, a database used by 650,000 state and local law enforcement agencies, Ashcroft said.

"Information is the best friend of prevention," Ashcroft said. Law enforcement officials at all levels "must work together, coordinating information and leveraging resources in the joint effort to prevent and disrupt terrorist activity."

Ashcroft also directed the Justice Department agencies to seek similar information from foreign governments and to add those names too.

A senior Justice Department official who asked not to be identified said the list of names could grow to as many as 100,000 people tied in some way to terrorism.

The system was quietly put in place on a limited basis several months ago, when the FBI entered some names of suspected terrorists into the crime information center, the official said. He would not say whether anyone had been detained or questioned as a result.

Such improved data-sharing is essential in stopping terrorists from coming into the United States and from operating within the nation's borders if they somehow managed to sneak in, Ashcroft said.

The Justice Department official said many terrorists had been able to sneak into the United States from Canada and Mexico and to operate freely within the U.S. Such an enhanced data-sharing system, he said, may help identify them. It could also alert authorities to people who entered the country legally but were later determined to have suspected connections to terrorist activity.

"This will be our first line of defense," the official said. "If the U.S. government thinks this person is a terrorist, we ought to let our law enforcement people know."

The official noted that Maryland state police had stopped one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Ziad Samir Jarrah, for speeding just days before the attacks but let him go because he was not "wanted" for any crimes or for suspected terrorist activity. If the new system had been in place, and information had been forwarded by foreign governments about his alleged terrorist ties, Jarrah's name could have registered as a "hit,", giving authorities the ability to monitor or detain him, said the official.

"It would have been a signal to the U.S. government that there was a terrorist in our midst," the official said. "Our borders are too porous. We need to do something inside the United States."

State and local authorities will be given only a minimal amount of information about suspected terrorists, none of it classified or based on intelligence data, the official said.

In most cases, if a person's name shows up on the database and an arrest warrant has not been issued, local police will be told only to contact the FBI.

Elisa Massimino, Washington director for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said she believes that federal agencies need to do a better job of sharing information about suspected terrorists.

But she said that Ashcroft's directive appears to be so broad that it could cause police to question people whose names are similar to those on the list or who may be suspected of terrorist activity based on inadequate or inaccurate information.

Massimino also said foreign governments could unfairly label dissenters or political or human rights activists as terrorists.

"There is likely to be a serious problem unless there is extensive and serious training and oversight of state and local law enforcement," Massimino said. "This is essentially an invitation to ethnic profiling."

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