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Secrecy a Tool in Post-9/11 Case

The U.S. fights release of a Saudi living in San Diego County, citing old misdemeanors and shielded information.

June 18, 2004|H.G. Reza and Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writers

To understand how far the federal government will go to justify targeting individuals in its war on terror, look no further than the case of Hasan Saddiq Faseh Alddin.

A 34-year-old Saudi national, Alddin was questioned by the FBI shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The FBI would not discuss the interview, but Alddin's attorney said his client and Alddin's Wisconsin-born wife answered questions, separately, for about two hours at their home in Vista, a hilly suburb of Oceanside.

The agents, Alddin's attorney said, wanted to know about some of Alddin's acquaintances, particularly a former roommate who later shared a San Diego apartment with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Alddin, according to his attorney, gave the FBI photos of his former roommate and told the agents he had last seen the man in 1999 when, Alddin believed, the man had left the country.

Alddin never heard back from the FBI and, according to several counterterrorism sources, there was not much interest in him after that interview. But that all changed the morning of May 27 this year, when Alddin was mysteriously plucked from obscurity.

Arrested outside the home of an elderly woman he takes care of, he was publicly linked in a press release from the Department of Homeland Security to the two San Diego hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar -- albeit one step removed. In its release, the department said Alddin was believed to have roomed with a close friend of the hijackers. Department officials did not call Alddin a terrorist, but their largest investigative arm, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said it had been investigating Alddin ever since Sept. 11 and wanted him out of the U.S., citing two misdemeanor convictions for spousal battery in 1998 and 2000 as grounds for deportation.

Now targeted for deportation, the married father of two is an example of how the government is unapologetically using whatever tools it can to deport foreigners it contends are a threat. And it is doing so without revealing what it says is secret evidence, citing minor crimes that would have gone unnoticed by federal officials before Sept. 11.

At a bond hearing last week, what began as a simple deportation case took on the trappings of a much more significant prosecution. Appearing before Immigration Judge Anthony Attenaid in San Diego, federal prosecutor Kerri Harlin submitted sealed evidence to the judge and invoked national security to urge that the judge not release Alddin on bond.

While Alddin's wife, Pamela, is supporting her husband's efforts to fight deportation, Harlin said Alddin's spousal battery convictions also made him a threat to the community. A continuation of the bond hearing is scheduled for today.

"They're not saying he's a terrorist," said Lauren Mack, ICE spokeswoman in San Diego. "They're just saying they can't say publicly why [the case] is a national security concern. It could be a concern because the sealed evidence could involve investigative reports, secret sources ... [and] we want the judge to read this and take this information into consideration before he rules on whether Alddin can be released."

Randy Hamud, Alddin's attorney, accused the government of double-speak for suggesting that his client is not a terrorist but is a danger to the U.S.

"It's outrageous, but the government's actions don't surprise me," said Hamud. "It's their often-used method of demonizing a person."

David Leopold, a Cincinnati immigration attorney and national board member of the American Immigration Lawyers' Assn., said the federal government's current focus is to deport people with less-than-perfect records to build statistics that "look good on paper."

"But what drives me absolutely crazy as an immigration lawyer is that, day after day, they are locking up and throwing away the keys on people who are absolutely harmless," Leopold said.

Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement dispute the criticism that they are unfairly raising the specter of terrorism to increase arrests or deportations. "ICE is simply enforcing the law, as it is obligated to do," said spokesman Dean Boyd in Washington. He added that "finding and apprehending aliens in the U.S. who have been convicted of crimes is a priority for ICE." Since the attacks of 2001, about 120 people who were subjects of terrorism-related investigations, including five from the San Diego area, have been deported, Boyd said. Mack, the ICE spokeswoman in San Diego, said Alddin's case is one of eight terrorism-related investigations still winding their way through immigration court. In six of the cases, including Alddin's, the foreign nationals remain in custody.

As records and interviews make clear, federal authorities had obvious reasons for wanting to question Alddin after the attacks of September 2001.

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