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Interrogations to Begin Soon For Illegal Mideastern Aliens

By Dan Eggen

Federal agents will soon begin apprehending and interrogating thousands of illegal Middle Eastern immigrants who have ignored deportation orders, seeking ways to prosecute any who have ties to terrorism and compiling the results of interviews in a new computer database, according to a Justice Department memo.

The Jan. 25 memo instructs federal agents to find methods of detaining some of the immigrants for possible criminal charges, rather than merely expelling them from the United States as previously planned.

The tactics are part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s efforts to locate an estimated 314,000 foreign nationals, known as “absconders,” who have ignored court orders to leave the country. Justice Department and FBI officials have said that the operation would focus first on about 6,000 immigrants from countries identified as al-Qaida strongholds, though the vast majority of absconders are Latin American.

Thursday, officials said the arrests will begin next week with a group of fewer than 1,000 illegal immigrants, most from the Middle East and Pakistan, who are believed to be the most dangerous because they are convicted felons.

The “Absconder Apprehension Initiative” is the latest example of the Justice Department’s wide-ranging efforts to thwart terrorism by increasing its focus on domestic intelligence gathering. So far this campaign has involved, in part, compiling information on foreign nationals living in the United States both legally and illegally.

The internal department memo, sent to anti-terrorism officials by Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and obtained by The Washington Post, shows that the FBI and Justice Department have created a special computerized reporting system that already includes information gathered from recent interviews with thousands of Middle Eastern men who were invited to come forth voluntarily. Results from the new round of interrogations will be added to the database.

U.S. officials are forming special “apprehension teams” that include agents from the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service and the INS, according to the memo.

Justice Department officials said it is logical to start the absconder program by gathering information on people living here who may have ties to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network, which has been blamed for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.

“We can’t go after 314,000 people at a time, so it only makes sense to prioritize them in a way that makes sense from a law enforcement perspective,” said one senior Justice Department official. “If we didn’t do this, then we should be criticized.”

But the absconder program’s initial focus on Middle Eastern nationals has renewed complaints from Arab American and civil liberties groups that the Bush administration is practicing racial profiling in its war on terrorism.

Khalil Jahshan, vice president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee here, said Thursday that information in the special terrorism database could be used to unfairly smear the reputations of innocent individuals.

“This whole path the government is taking is clearly a case of racial profiling,” Jahshan said. “It’s clearly a case of selective enforcement. ... These half-baked methods seem totally isolated from a whole tradition of respect for civil liberties.”