Ex-Intel VP Fights for Detainee

Friends of an Intel programmer who is being held in a federal prison can't help but shake their heads in disbelief. They've also launched a website pushing for his release and collecting donations for his defense.

The most salient explanation for the arrest seems to be a link between the programmer, Maher "Mike" Hawash, and a charitable organization to which he donated a fairly large sum three years ago. The U.S. government has subsequently tagged the charity as having ties to terrorism.

Hawash, a U.S. citizen, was arrested last month by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. For nearly two weeks, he has been held as a so-called "material witness" in solitary confinement in a federal lockup in Sheridan, Oregon. The designation allows authorities to hold him indefinitely without charging him with a crime.

The Department of Justice has required a federal court to seal Hawash's case. He has only limited access to his family and lawyer.

A friend and former colleague at Intel, Steven McGeady, is championing Hawash's case. McGeady, a former vice president at the chipmaker who hired Hawash as a programmer in 1992, was a high-profile witness in the Microsoft antitrust trial.

"People say this doesn't happen in this country," McGeady said, "but one of my neighbors has been disappeared. It's not what he might have done that matters to me -- they disappeared him. They need to question him and let him go, or charge him. It's like Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka."

McGeady set up a website, Free Mike Hawash, that urges supporters to write politicians and donate to a legal defense fund. The site is drawing considerable attention online, climbing the charts on Daypop and Blogdex.

Because of the campaign, the office of Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden has promised to contact the FBI about the case, McGeady said.

Authorities have detained at least 44 other material witnesses in probes following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to an investigation by The Washington Post.

Hawash, an Arab American, was arrested by FBI agents at about 7 a.m. March 20 as he arrived for work at the Intel plant in Hillsboro, Oregon. During his arrest, a squad of armed agents in bulletproof vests stormed his home, seizing computers and files. His wife, Lisa, and their three children were asleep at the time.

Neither the FBI, which arrested Hawash, nor the U.S. Marshals office, which is responsible for his detention, would provide any information about the case, citing a gag order.

"Due to court rules I can't answer any questions," said Beth Ann Steele, a spokeswoman in the FBI's Portland office.

Calls to the U.S. Attorney's office in Portland requesting comment were not returned.

An FBI press release concerning Hawash's arrest says simply that four federal search warrants were executed in the Hillsboro area as part of an "ongoing investigation." There are no hints about the nature of the investigation, except that it is unrelated to the war in Iraq, or the number of people detained.

Though he's guessing, McGeady said it was possible Hawash was targeted because of charitable donations he made in 2000 to the Global Relief Foundation, a Muslim charity that purported to fund mosques and schools in the United States, as well as West Bank medical facilities.

However, two years after Hawash made his donations, the Illinois-based charity was accused of links to terrorist organizations, and the Treasury Department froze its assets. The charity denies the accusations and is fighting the pending extradition of one of its founders.

According to a story in The Oregonian newspaper, Hawash donated about $10,000, which the paper uncovered by examining the foundation's federal tax returns.

Hawash made the donations after a representative solicited funds at a local mosque or Islamic center, the paper said. "The organization is legit," Hawash told a reporter. "We believed that they are doing good work. It's a well-known organization."

But McGeady said Hawash's detention could easily be related to something else.

"I'm completely puzzled," he said. "He has family in the West Bank, but he's not political. He worked at Intel Israel for two years, for heck's sake. His most political act was setting up an ISP on the West Bank, and in my opinion that's not political. I don't know. Maybe it's a case of mistaken identity. Maybe it's something beyond my comprehension."

Hawash, 38, was born in the West Bank but became a U.S. citizen in 1988. His wife, two of his children and his stepchild are all American-born.

Hawash co-authored a book on multimedia programming. He was laid off from Intel in 2001, but was later rehired as a contract programmer.

According to The Washington Post's November investigation, at least 44 people have been arrested and detained as material witnesses in post-Sept. 11 terrorist probes. The paper was unable to determine hard numbers because of secrecy surrounding the cases.

The 1984 material witness statute was designed to coax testimony from unwilling witnesses or those likely to flee the country. But since Sept. 11, authorities have made widespread use of the statute to detain suspects indefinitely without charging them with any crime.

According to the Post, none of the 44 witnesses held was charged, and nearly half were not called to testify before a grand jury. Most were held in maximum security for periods ranging from days to "several months or longer." At least seven were U.S. citizens, the Post reported.

In early 2002, Jose Padilla was detained as a material witness for allegedly plotting to explode a "dirty" nuclear device. The U.S. government subsequently designated him an "enemy combatant" and has held him in a Navy brig in South Carolina. Padilla has not been tried and is denied access to a lawyer.

Leander Kahney writes for Wired.com

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