Fighting Terror With Databases

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By Jim McGee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2002

When the Justice Department announced plans in November to interview 5,000 Middle Eastern men who share certain demographic traits with the 19 al Qaeda hijackers, senior officials described the program somewhat modestly as an extension of the Sept. 11 investigation, one more way to prevent terrorism.

In fact, the now-completed interviews and upcoming interrogations of Middle Eastern immigrants who have ignored deportation orders are only the most visible pieces of a broad effort to expand the war on terrorism through domestic intelligence-gathering. The effort will marry 21st-century technology with tactics not seen since the 1950s and '60s, according to federal documents and interviews with informed sources.

The intelligence-gathering system being born will ultimately combine more than $ 100 million in new funding, powerful new terrorism laws, an expanded role for local police and state-of-the-art computer networks that will link federal agents with thousands of police departments. Local authorities may soon be empowered to obtain virtually all of the FBI's most sensitive information under laws being considered in Congress.

The new role for local police is one of the most significant aspects of the new system. On the FBI's behalf, local police conducted many of the voluntary interviews, returning local law enforcement for the first time in 25 years to the sensitive job of gathering intelligence on political and religious groups suspected of violence.

In Florida, for example, state anti-terrorism task forces were detailed by the Justice Department to find and interview the 546 men on the list of 5,000 believed to live in that state.

A Jan. 25 memo from Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson to anti-terror officials shows that authorities have created a computer database for information gleaned from several thousand interviews conducted since December. Hundreds of other foreign visitors sought for questioning could not be located or declined to participate, officials said.

The same database will be used to compile intelligence from interrogations that will accompany a current program to apprehend 6,000 illegal immigrants from nations considered al Qaeda strongholds.

But some FBI officials view the earlier interview project as a waste of time unlikely to produce evidence against al Qaeda. And some legal experts and civil liberties groups are concerned that its far-reaching nature could lead to racial profiling or entrapment. Others fear past abuses may be repeated.

"It sounds to me like we are right back in the 1930s, the 1940s and the 1950s," said Marquette University Professor Athan Theoharis, a leading historian of the Justice Department and chief editor of an authoritative compendium on the FBI.

Bush administration officials have defended the 5,000-interview project as legal and voluntary, as well as necessary for smoking out terrorists who might be living quietly in the United States.

"This is the least intrusive type of investigative technique that one can imagine" Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff told Congress. "This is not rousting people, this is not detaining people, this is not arresting people. This is approaching people and asking them if they will respond to questions."

The other program, which focuses first on Middle Eastern immigrants among the 314,000 people known to have ignored deportation orders, is also a logical way to thwart terrorists and gather intelligence, officials say. But that effort has been criticized as racial profiling.


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© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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