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Interviews of Foreigners After 9/11 Proved Inconclusive

May 11, 2003|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department's effort to interview some 7,600 foreigners in the United States after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was conducted haphazardly, leading to incomplete, inconclusive results, congressional investigators say.

The hastily created program of voluntary interviews -- meant to identify and disrupt potential terrorist threats -- encountered difficulties because of duplicate names, errors in government systems and problems finding people who had moved or left the country, the General Accounting Office reported Friday.

The GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress, found that as of March about 3,200 people, or about 42% of the government's list, had been interviewed. The still-unfinished project was expected to end in May 2002.

The report was requested by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.). Conyers, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that the Justice Department "cannot provide a shred of evidence" that the interviews were successful.

"I can only hope that this utter failure will cause [Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft] to redirect the resources of his department and the FBI to better protect us from future threats," Conyers said.

Feingold called the program "questionable at best" and urged the Justice Department to thoroughly analyze its effectiveness "before contemplating any future interview programs."

Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock defended the interviews, saying they produced investigative leads on individuals who were attending flight schools and people involved in producing false identity documents, among others.

"We continue to believe the project was a positive step in disrupting potential terrorist activities," Comstock said.

Shortly after the 2001 attacks, Justice Department officials scrambled to head off a feared second wave. They pushed through Congress the USA Patriot Act, which increased government surveillance powers; detained hundreds of people on immigration violations; and made plans to interview thousands more foreigners.

The interviews were intended to check out people in the United States on temporary visas who had characteristics similar to the 19 hijackers involved in the attacks.

The interviews focused on young men who entered the United States after Jan. 1, 2000, and were from one of 15 countries where the Al Qaeda terrorist network was present.

Questions provided by the Justice Department to U.S. attorneys around the country sought information about potential terrorists, plots in the works and the anthrax attacks of October 2001.

The Justice Department insists the interviews provided useful leads but, citing the sensitivity of anti-terrorism efforts, refused to provide any examples to the GAO. Justice officials say "fewer than 20" of those interviewed were arrested, most on immigration violations and none as suspected terrorists.

The GAO said it could not measure the success of the interviews because of the secrecy and because no analysis has been done of the results.

There was also mixed response from the mostly Middle Eastern communities where the interviews were conducted, with some officials saying people felt uncomfortable despite the voluntary nature of the sessions. But the GAO found no instances of abuse or wrongdoing by the FBI or any other agents.

The report urges the Justice Department to conduct a thorough review of how the project was set up so that problems can be avoided in future cases, even if officials must move quickly as they did after Sept. 11.

"National security, as opposed to interview project methodology and oversight, was rightfully paramount in importance," the GAO report said. "We believe that lessons that can assist similar future efforts can be gleaned" if a thorough analysis is done.

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