You Say You Want A Revolution?
At 8 p.m. on an October night, Sami Almussa was settling in when someone knocked on the door of his Coraopolis apartment. Though dressed only in an undershirt and knee-length shorts, he opened the door to a stranger. "Within a fraction of a second, he showed me his ID and said, 'FBI, can I come in?'" says Almussa, one of the many Saudi Arabians studying at local universities.
State and federal dockets show no record of any criminal charge against Almussa. But in addition to the G-man at the door, another agent stood off to one side. Almussa let them in and asked what he could do for them. "They said, 'We are here from the FBI and we're trying to investigate discrimination. Have you ever faced that? And then we might have other questions we might ask you.'"
Turns out the "other questions" took up most of the two-hour interview. The agents asked about his family, studies and religious beliefs, says Almussa. They asked which banks his tuition payments flow through, and whether he's given money to charities the U.S. accuses of supporting terrorism. They asked whether he supported U.S. policies toward Israel and Iraq, and whether he sympathized with Osama bin Laden. "You're going to laugh," says Almussa. "One of the questions they asked me is whether I was part of a revolution trying to overthrow the government of the United States." He says he's no revolutionary. And if he were, would he tell them?
"I answered everything," says Almussa. "There is nothing in my heart to hide." But the questions made him feel like a suspect. "I was even afraid that if I went and put on clothes, they'd be suspicious."
Since October, the Pittsburgh office of the FBI has interviewed more than 20 individuals from Middle Eastern countries -- some visitors, some citizens -- regarding their finances and religious and political beliefs. The interviews have gone far beyond the "get acquainted" interviews law enforcement held with many Islamic visitors shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. And civil liberties watchdogs say the detailed political questions being asked of Muslims here haven't been mirrored in other cities.
In the post-Sept. 11 world, such inquiries are warranted, argues Larry Likar, a criminal justice and constitutional law teacher at La Roche College and former FBI agent who retired from the Pittsburgh branch in 2001. Told of the questions, Likar says, "They're doing this to obtain information, and they're trying to get to know the community they're dealing with."
Questions on political and religious beliefs are "arguably a First Amendment violation," counters Mike Healey, a Downtown attorney counseling several Muslims who have been asked to submit to interviews. "They're certainly inappropriate." He says the questions reflect stepped-up FBI monitoring of thought and expression. "In this country, we're not used to the national police asking people about their political beliefs."
Kenneth T. McCabe likes to be in the thick of things. "In football, I was the center. The center, or linebacker," McCabe says. "In baseball, I was the catcher. Not the pitcher, not the outfielder who was standing around. I wanted the tougher job."
So when his employer, the FBI, started reorganizing to fight the threat of terror, McCabe sought to head up a field office. In June, he was named special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh office, and he took the post on Sept. 13, 2002. In doing so, McCabe found himself at the center of a delicate dance between the bureau assigned to preventing future acts of terror, and a 10,000-strong Pittsburgh Muslim community that largely has felt unfairly suspect since Sept. 11, 2001.
In the hours after the terrorist attacks, there were attacks on Muslims in some cities, but there was reason to believe everybody here would get along. "On the same day, 9/11, Mayor [Tom] Murphy visited the Islamic Center" in Oakland, says Rahim, a local activist who asked that his real name not be used. "He said he would be willing to help us with anything. ... That gave us a little bit of comfort." A few days later, the Islamic Center hosted a press conference that featured Murphy, Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey, and leaders from a variety of faiths who denounced terrorism and ethnic stereotyping. After that, says Rahim, "We were bombarded with phone calls from societies, churches -- everyone who wanted to help us." The weeks that followed were marked by interfaith prayer vigils and "unity events."
But about a week after Sept. 11, the Muslim community got its first indication that it was under the microscope. FBI agents swarmed the Eat'n Park in Banksville and arrested four Middle Eastern students. It turns out one of the students had known another student who shared the name of United Airlines Flight 175 hijacker Ahmed Alghamdi. Rahim and Mohammed, another local activist, say the students were forced to stand beside Banksville Road for 20 minutes while passing motorists hurled insults. They were taken in for questioning and released after a few hours. The incident -- and particularly the roadside display -- sent a message, says Rahim. "This was a symbol of power [saying], 'We're coming to get you.'"
"It was just days after Sept. 11," says McCabe, who was not yet in Pittsburgh at the time. "Some people were seeing shadows." The students weren't connected to the hijacker Alghamdi, he says, but adds, "How do we know that unless we talk to them?"
In November 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered law enforcement agencies, led by the FBI, to interview some 5,000 young men who had recently entered the U.S. from Middle Eastern and South Asian countries. In March, he ordered another 3,000 interviews, though he said that none of the interviewees was the subject of specific suspicions. Upwards of 120 Pittsburgh-area students and workers have reported to their mosques that they were interviewed in the two sweeps, according to Rahim and Mohammed. Everyone approached by the FBI consented to the interviews, and just a handful insisted on having their lawyers present, says Rahim. "We had nothing to hide. We had an open-door policy," he says.
The Islamic Center even hosted FBI recruitment meetings, and in December 2001 it offered the bureau "sensitivity training" to help the agents understand why, for instance, some Muslim women won't open the door to a man if the women are home alone. The FBI accepted, but canceled the night before the scheduled training. McCabe says he doesn't know why his predecessor canceled the session. But Healey, who was involved with the proposed training, suggests, "They didn't want their agents subject to identification."
In August, as McCabe was preparing to take charge, the Tribune-Review published a series of articles suggesting links between a Green Tree mosque and a magazine -- last published in 2000 -- that advocated an Islamic holy war. The articles indicated that the key people involved in the locally published, Arabic-language magazine had left town, mostly for Saudi Arabia, and mostly years ago. But the Trib's work seemed to spur the FBI to a new round of interviews that raise more questions than they likely answered.
When I came to the U.S., the image I had was from Hollywood movies," says Rahim. "Crimes. People shooting each other in the street for no reason." When he first went food shopping, he looked carefully around the supermarket parking lot for armed berserkers before opening his car door. "But when I started interacting with the society, that stereotype was dispelled," he says.
In fact, he's developed some affection for Americans. "What I have found is unique about the American people is that they are very open-minded," Rahim says. "And that is not true in a lot of places in the world."
Rahim says his trust in American equanimity was shaken recently when an FBI agent and an Immigration and Naturalization Service representative came knocking on his door, unannounced. He let them in and says, "I asked them, 'What's going on? Why are you here?'" They mentioned the newspaper articles, he says. "They said, 'We just want to get a feel for what's going on in the community.'"
To Rahim, though, the questions seemed accusatory. "They asked, 'Have you ever been trained by al-Qaida?'" he says. They also asked about his views on the U.S. sanctions against Iraq, on former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Oct. 1 visit to Pittsburgh, and on the former Taliban government of Afghanistan and its American-engineered ouster (see sidebar, "Questions that Raise Questions"). Like Almussa, he didn't want to seem evasive. "I tried to give them my views," says Rahim, who thinks some U.S. policies are counterproductive. Now he's watching the news of detentions of Middle Eastern visitors, and wondering whether the hammer is going to fall on him. "I'm being profiled. I could be detained at any moment," Rahim says. "All they have to do is say, 'He criticized the policies of the United States. He should be detained.'"
McCabe won't confirm or deny that political questions were asked. "I'm not going into it, because of confidentiality," he says. "Just because we talk to people doesn't mean they're under investigation," he adds, noting that no arrests have yet resulted from the interviews. "Sometimes, those questions may help us determine which way they're leaning."
McCabe notes that the government is tracking donations to several prominent Muslim charities, which have been linked to groups the U.S. deems to be terrorists. "We're trying to either prove or disprove," says McCabe. "Sometimes, 9 out of 10 times in our interviews, we are discounting that this guy is a bad guy. We're coming back with the information that, hey, this was an innocent donation. He knew nothing about it. So, in essence, we're helping."
The bureau may interview many people when only one is a source, says McCabe. "We may be talking with a whole neighborhood because a couple of people do want to share information. And they feel safe being able to do that, because they know we've been in this whole neighborhood, we've talked to everybody, and we are going to protect them by not saying that John said that, Pete said this."
And McCabe says the bureau is preparing to prevent "any type of sympathetic terrorist acts," should the U.S. go to war against Iraq. In meetings with local Islamic leaders, he says, "I told them, 'There's going to be more [interviews] done, and if we ever go to war, there'll maybe be more.'"
Healey says there are indications that the local FBI is monitoring demonstrations, too. "One of the [interviewees] was asked, 'We know you were at the [anti-]Netanyahu demonstration; what are your views on Netanyahu?'" He says he will be sitting in on upcoming interviews the FBI has requested with several foreign nationals. "If it's a legitimate criminal investigation, that's fine. But if they're trying to catalog people's political beliefs, that raises concerns."
Civil libertarians are worried about both who is being interviewed, and what is being asked. "Asking questions about your political and religious beliefs is always inappropriate," says Vic Walczak, legal director for the Pittsburgh branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The only exception is if there's a very strong link to some alleged misconduct."
"I think it's racial profiling in a sense, and picking on people of a certain ethnic or religious background," says Rev. Phil Wilson, the Peace with Justice Project coordinator for the United Methodist Church of Western Pennsylvania. "We can't start profiling people and choosing whose civil liberties are being kept and whose are being thrown away."
Mohammed says many of the people the FBI is interviewing in Pittsburgh are "dialogue people. They're people who go to churches and schools and talk about Islam. ... Where can you find terrorists who are that open about themselves? Sleeper cells, if they exist anywhere, would despise people like those who were interviewed."
"They're either trying to intimidate people, or they're dumb," Mohammed says. "They're just harassing people who are absolutely against terrorism."
It's Friday night at the Islamic Center, and while a handful of adherents finish their prayers, others set up chairs. It's the Muslim day of prayer, but there's business to attend to. Walczak and immigration attorney Robert Whitehill are here to talk about a process called "special registration," which many of the Saudis, Yemenis, Pakistanis and others in the audience must submit to.
Once upon a time, Walczak tells 100 or so attendees, America "was the land of freedom and opportunity ... where you didn't have to worry about the government snooping into your personal affairs. ... This is a different country now."
That's especially true for male visitors from 18 Islamic countries and North Korea, who must, by law, report to Immigration and Naturalization Service offices for special registration by Feb. 21. The registrants are fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed in an effort to determine whether their activities are in accord with their visas; students must be studying, tourists touring, workers working.
But an INS-produced list of special registration questions obtained by City Paper indicates that the interviews probe much deeper. Registrants can be asked for the names, addresses, phone numbers and birthdates of their parents. They can be asked for a list of classes in which they're enrolled, extracurricular activities in which they're involved, and "campus/social/religious/political groups" with which they're associated.
One Qatari national studying at Pitt, who asked that his name be withheld, says he recently went through the process and was asked to provide bank account and credit card numbers. "I told them I didn't want to, but they said I have to," he says.
The INS interviewers have the option to ask for credit card and bank account numbers, cell phone and fax numbers, e-mail addresses and other personal information, says Department of Justice spokesman Jorge Martinez, whose agency oversees the INS. He says there are no guidelines regarding who should and should not be asked which questions. "We don't comment on what this information is being used for," he adds.
Almussa worries that the information might be used to find tiny inconsistencies that could subject him and others to deportation, or worse. For instance, the FBI asked him whether he ever supported the Global Relief Foundation, a long-respected Islamic charity that the U.S. government shut down in 2002 after alleging links to al-Qaida and to separatists in the Indian province of Kashmir. Almussa said he wasn't sure. As a Muslim, he's required to give a portion of his savings to charity annually, and as a noncitizen he has no tax return to attach receipts to. "I don't record all the money I pay," he says. "If I go to a mosque and see people who are supporting people who are dying because of sanctions or in Somalia or Chechnya, I'll give something, but I won't always write it down." Now Almussa has to go through the INS process. "They'll know everything about me," he says. "So I assume that they [will be] checking to see if I was telling the truth."
Any inconsistencies could mean trouble, says Walczak. He says a misstatement or an omission means "they've lied to a federal agent. You can get jail time for that."
McCabe says the FBI can get INS information, but only seeks that which is pertinent to an investigation.
Just 18 months ago, there was little reason to fear that federal agencies would share notes. In fact, it has been widely reported that the failure of the FBI, CIA and INS to communicate opened the door for the Sept. 11 hijackers. But since then, legislation and changes in internal policies have made information sharing much easier. The Defense Department has even launched a project, called the Total Information Awareness System, that aims to probe commercial and government databases for red flags that might hint at a terrorist plot. That project is headed up by retired Admiral John Poindexter, a key figure in the late-'80s Iran-contra scandal whose conviction for lying to Congress was overturned when a court ruled that his testimony was subject to an immunity-from-prosecution agreement.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government has already imprisoned some 1,200 visitors from Middle Eastern countries. Most waited weeks or months to be charged with any civil or criminal violation, and were then slapped with minor immigration code violations. Just one -- Zacharias Moussaoui -- was charged with involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. Nearly all have been released. Then in December, the INS held some 400 men -- mostly Iranian citizens -- who reported to its Los Angeles office for the special registration interviews. All but 23 were released within days, says Martinez.
Some fear the government is drifting toward a mass internment similar to the detention of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. The special registration process "is a detention opportunity," says Saleh Waziruddin, a civil rights activist and chemical engineer. Though he's a Canadian citizen, Waziruddin is also a Pakistani national, and therefore required to go through special registration. "They're not asking me [questions] because I'm suspected of being a criminal. They're asking me because of their fears and fantasies regarding race."
Mohammed is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Born in Egypt, he has been in the U.S. for seven years, and has chosen Pittsburgh to pursue his career and start a family. He's a well-regarded liaison between the Islamic community and civic leaders. Maybe that's why the FBI called before showing up at his door.
His wife answered and told the agent her husband was sleeping. When Mohammed awoke, he called the agent back. "The next thing I know, he was telling me he was one minute from my home," Mohammed says. He didn't have much time for the interview. "I basically told him, if there's any suspicious activity, I will report this on my own," says Mohammed. "Because terrorism ... hurts Muslims first."
The agent returned on another day -- without calling -- when Mohammed wasn't home, and left a card. Mohammed then did something most interviewees have been afraid to do, for fear of arousing suspicion: "I called him back and said, 'I'm sorry, I can't meet with you,'" he says. The FBI never got a chance to ask Mohammed about his political beliefs. "I would not have been happy to be asked those questions, because it's really misguided to even ask those questions."
If the government is responding to a perceived threat by cataloguing peoples' political views, it isn't the first time. In 1919 and 1920, communists and anarchists, including immigrants from the newly formed Soviet Union, sent mail bombs to several U.S. government and business officials, including Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. A string of suicide bombing efforts followed, including one that ended outside Palmer's Washington home. On Sept. 16, 1920, a bomb went off in a Manhattan office, killing 33 and injuring 400. Using laws passed to prevent sedition during World War I, Palmer ordered the freshly minted FBI to infiltrate socialist groups and other dissident organizations. Palmer identified 60,000 individuals he termed "organized agitators" and issued warrants for the arrest and deportation of 6,000. In the end, other officials got cold feet, and fewer than 1,000 people -- including a handful of U.S. citizens -- were deported.
In the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee shared political blacklisting duties. Tom Kerr, who was then head of the Pennsylvania ACLU, remembers when the committee met in Pittsburgh. "What happened was an unfortunate attempt by some companies to get rid of their labor union leaders," Kerr says. The lone congressman in attendance called labor leaders to testify, and asked them whether they'd ever been members of the American Communist Party. Some said no, and others invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Some were subsequently fired by their companies, either for refusing to testify or for allegedly lying. The unions sued, and some leaders were reinstated; others weren't.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, the FBI's counterintelligence program -- called COINTELPRO -- investigated civil rights organizations and groups opposed to the Vietnam War. Kerr was repeatedly interviewed, and remembers seeing agents taking down license plate numbers outside of anti-war meetings. He later requested and got his FBI file, which, he says, reveals that his phone was tapped. He was never charged with a crime; that wasn't the point. COINTELPRO "was in the business of frightening people, so maybe they'd shut up," Kerr says.
COINTELPRO was dissolved in 1971, but the extent of its activities wasn't revealed until congressional hearings were conducted from 1973 through 1975. In 1976, President Gerald Ford approved new guidelines that restricted the FBI to investigating groups and individuals believed to be involved in violent acts or violations of federal law. That same year, Ford abolished the FBI's domestic intelligence branch.
Agent-turned-teacher Likar argues that the restrictions meant "the FBI really couldn't investigate terrorism in this country." It succeeded only in stamping out some terrorist groups, like the Puerto Rican nationalist Macheteros in the early 1980s, by catching the members in criminal acts. "We knew who they were and what they were doing," says Likar, who was involved in the Macheteros busts. "The problem is when you don't have that level of evidence."
If the COINTELPRO revelations shackled the FBI, the Sept. 11 attacks broke the chains. Six weeks after the attacks, Congress passed the Ashcroft-proposed Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. The 342-page USA PATRIOT Act does many things. For one, it allows the government to detain noncitizens suspected of involvement in terrorism indefinitely, subject to court review every six months. But even more controversial are sections that make subtle changes in the rules for wiretapping, surveillance, e-mail monitoring, financial investigation, and search and seizure.
Pre-PATRIOT Act, if the FBI wanted to wiretap or search, it had to show a judge either that it had probable cause to suspect that a person was engaged in criminal activity, or that it had proof that a person was an agent of a foreign power. In the case of foreign agents, the decision on whether to tap or search was made by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, which isn't bound by the same civil liberties safeguards as criminal courts. The PATRIOT Act removes the requirement that the FBI prove a person is an agent of a foreign power, and instead requires that the bureau "certify" that the tap or search is intended "to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities."
That's "a completely meaningless standard," says Walczak. "All [a judge] can do is rubber-stamp it."
Not true, says Jeff Killeen, chief division counsel for the FBI's Pittsburgh branch. He says a request to tap or search goes through multiple reviews even before it gets to the FISA court. "We are not going to waste the court's time" with unnecessary requests, he says, "because we don't want to make the court mad." And there are specific, classified guidelines the court uses to determine whether a request is warranted, he says. "They don't just rubber-stamp it." In fact, in August the FISA court rejected a Justice Department plan to allow the FBI's counterintelligence and criminal agents to share information freely. In a rare public ruling, the court instead required that any consultation between the two sides be chaperoned by special agents who serve the court.
Ashcroft and other members of President George W. Bush's administration have also adjusted internal guidelines to give law enforcement more leeway. The FBI can now watch political organizations, churches, public gatherings and even Internet chats "without the slightest evidence that wrongdoing is afoot," according to an ACLU analysis of the changes. The Customs Service can search packages sent overseas and federal airport screeners can search luggage at random. And the Bush administration has skirted normal constitutional protections by declaring alleged al-Qaida and Taliban operatives, including two American citizens, as "enemy combatants." The administration has argued that enemy combatants don't have the same rights to know the charges against them and to consult a lawyer as criminal defendants.
McCabe says the new rules don't mean his agents will be listening in on everyone's phone calls, or taking roll at churches, mosques and demonstrations. "We don't have the time or the manpower to be tapping and listening to everybody's phone," he says. "We're not going to start going to every different church, every different mosque, just to take roll or a picture. There's got to be some sort of predication for us to believe that some type of illegal activity is going on."
Likar notes that much of American history is an effort to balance security concerns with individual rights. When the country is threatened, the pendulum swings toward security. "The Constitution was never written to be a suicide pact for us," he says. If the FBI waits until a terror suspect breaks the law, he says, "while you're watching, they may commit a terrorist act." He cites the case of Jose Padilla, a Chicago thug accused of plotting with al-Qaida to build and explode a low-level radioactive weapon. "Under the old bureau, before 9/11, they'd have to continue to watch him, find out who all of his associates are, maybe catch him making a bomb," Likar says. "But what if he'd have gotten away with it?"
Interviewing people who aren't suspects is also a legitimate way to scare off terrorists, says Likar. "You're my buddy. I'm the terrorist," he says. "All of the sudden the feds pick you up and interview you. I'm going to wonder what you know. I may pick up and run."
In the past, the pendulum has swung back toward civil liberties when perceived threats have died down and government excesses have come to light. "We've come through it before, so maybe we'll come through it again," says Marion Damick, who worked for and then directed the Pittsburgh ACLU for 30 years before her retirement in 1992. "But in the meantime, it can ruin a lot of lives."
Many of the people currently under the government's microscope have seen the effects of unchecked government power before. "There is not a single country on the [INS special registration] list where you could not be picked up by the security apparatus in the middle of the night, and thrown in jail for the rest of your life, and there's nothing your friends or family could do about it," says Clifton Omar Slater, the American-born president of the Islamic Council of Pittsburgh, which coordinates activities by local mosques. "They see what's happening, and they fear that that's the way America is going. ... They've stepped into the specter of where they came from."
Adel Fergany says even Muslims who haven't heard the FBI's knock feel like suspects. Fergany came to the U.S. from Egypt in 1981, became a citizen in 1994, and makes a living as a computer consultant. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was the Islamic Center's president, and led the local effort to build bridges between shocked Muslims and the skittish general population. Now he sees those bridges burning in the hot light of suspicion. "You are constantly treated as a suspect until proven innocent. You are required to prove your loyalty over and over again. ... You cannot live constantly under this feeling that you are a suspect," he says. "I have been a citizen for almost 10 years. This is the first time I've considered whether I should get out."
Sami Almussa knows he could have cast himself as a cheerleader for American foreign policy. Instead, he argued that U.S. sanctions against Iraq are only hurting that country's people. When the agents said his home country of Saudi Arabia wasn't free, he pointed out the recent use of secret evidence, closed proceedings, detainment without charge and expanded surveillance right here. When they asked him whether people in his country hated the U.S., he noted that Arab rhetoric is matched by the anti-Islamic pronouncements of the likes of preacher Pat Robertson, whose Christian Broadcasting Network Almussa flipped on to hammer home his point. He even reminded them of anti-Muslim statements attributed to their ultimate boss, Ashcroft, who reportedly called Islam "a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him." (Ashcroft has said the reported remarks "do not accurately reflect what I believe I said.")
"There are some oppressions you can't remain silent about," Almussa says. He knows he may be interviewed again, detained, held, perhaps deported. But he came here to get his degree, and he's determined to complete it. "I have goals I have to achieve," he says. "Whether I'm going to be discriminated against or spat on or interviewed, that is part of the package."