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No Evidence Found to Back Student's Coercion Claim

Judge sought probe of FBI after charges were dropped in pilot radio case against Egyptian.

November 26, 2002|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The Justice Department has uncovered no evidence to corroborate an Egyptian student's allegations that an FBI polygraph examiner coerced him into confessing that he owned an aviation radio found near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, according to a report released Monday.

At the same time, the judge who ordered the inquiry cast doubt on the polygraph as a valid investigative tool.

Government prosecutors welcomed the Justice Department's finding, and they said no further action is necessary.

Robert S. Dunn, a lawyer representing Abdallah Higazy, subject of the report, labeled the finding "a craftily woven cloth of deceit and deception that was essentially a whitewash."

U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff called for the probe after prosecutors in January dropped charges of lying to investigators against Higazy, 30, a computer science student who was detained as a material witness in connection with the attack on the twin towers.

Higazy was released in January after a pilot notified authorities that he was the true owner of the radio.

A month later, a hotel security guard pleaded guilty to lying when he told the FBI that he found the radio in a locked safe in the room that Higazy, a student at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, occupied during the terrorist attack.

The guard, Ronald Ferry, 48, was sentenced to six months of weekends in a halfway house.

After these events, Rakoff ordered a report on how the FBI had gotten the confession from an innocent man.

Higazy charged that he was pressured into giving false information after the FBI polygraph examiner threatened that the lives of his family in Egypt and his brother in upstate New York would become a "living hell."

Higazy told interviewers from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General that to save his family, he decided to confess falsely to owning the radio found in the Millennium Hilton Hotel.

He said he told the FBI agent administering the test that he gave three different versions of how he obtained the radio.

Higazy said he didn't inform his lawyer, or the government, about the alleged threat the day of the examination or the next day at a court hearing because he was afraid.

In a two-part report to Rakoff, the Justice Department said Higazy did not raise the issue until at least 11 days after he was allegedly threatened.

Government lawyers said assertions that the polygrapher, whose name was deleted from the report, shouted and banged on the table during the examination were belied by the fact that Higazy knew his lawyer was right outside the interview room.

The report said that two FBI agents outside the room did not hear such noises during the polygraph, and that although Higazy was told he could stop the test at any time, he declined to do so.

Even when the polygrapher halted the examination and left the room with the door open to speak with an FBI agent, Higazy made no attempt to confer with his lawyer, who was just outside the room, the report said.

"In sum, Higazy's allegations that his family was threatened during the course of the polygraph, or that the polygrapher coerced Higazy or otherwise engaged in misconduct are contradicted by all of the facts set forth by the other witnesses, including Mr. Dunn," the report concluded.

The document stressed that Dunn had conceded that he perceived no reason to interrupt the examination while he was outside the polygraph room.

"Therefore, after a thorough investigation, there has been no evidence uncovered to corroborate Higazy's allegations," the report added.

In rebuttal, Dunn charged that the examination was not supposed to turn into an interrogation and that the report did not explain the full circumstances of how his client falsely confessed to owning the radio.

In a memorandum, Rakoff said that conflicts remain between Higazy's and the government's accounts of what happened in the polygrapher's office, and that the reports left unanswered a broader question.

That issue, the judge added, was "whether the government's continued reliance on such a doubtful investigatory tool as polygraph testing increases the possibility of false confessions."

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