By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Faced with angry complaints, U.S. officials defended an anti-terrorism program yesterday that secretly tested radiation levels around the country -- including at more than 100 Muslim sites in the Washington area -- and insisted that no one was targeted because of his or her faith.
One official knowledgeable about the program explained that Muslim sites were included because al Qaeda terrorists were considered likely to gravitate to Muslim neighborhoods or mosques while in the United States.
"If you were looking [for] the needle in a haystack, that's the haystack you would look at," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the program is classified. "You'd look at the [likely] targets and the places the operators were."
No indications of radiation were found at the businesses, homes, warehouses or mosques that were included in the program. The official said that radiation monitoring of the Muslim sites started after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and lasted through 2003.
The focus on the Muslim sites, which was first reported last week by U.S. News & World Report, has stunned and angered officials at mosques and Muslim and Arab-American organizations. Two such groups have filed Freedom of Information requests, known as FOIAs, in recent days to try to learn which sites were monitored. They also have requested meetings with the FBI, which ran the program along with the Energy Department.
"The problem [is] . . . it further gives the Muslim community a sense they are suspect, they are under the gun," said Ahmed Younis, national director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
Michael A. Mason, who oversees the Washington Field Office of the FBI, said in an interview that he hoped to meet next week with the groups.
"We have not violated the law; we have not violated the Constitution; we have not gone on private property," Mason said. He said that he could provide few details because the program remains classified but added that the monitoring devices involved were "passive," roughly akin to holding a thermometer out the window of a moving car to measure the temperature.
"It's not like thermal-imaging a house, where you're trying to figure out if they're trying to grow marijuana," he said.
Officials emphasized that Washington wasn't the only place where the program operated. Nor were Muslim sites the only focus: The program included airports, buildings and monuments that were considered possible targets for a terrorist attack, said the official familiar with the program who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"There was no more intensive focus on D.C. than there was on several other cities," he said.
The testing began several months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when a series of events had convinced U.S. officials that another terrorist attack was imminent, the official said. Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was arrested in May 2002 on suspicion of planning an attack with a radiological dirty bomb; Osama bin Laden was threatening to strike again.
In addition, documents discovered in Afghanistan indicated that terrorists could possibly use a U.S. mosque to hide radioactive material, said Jack Cloonan, a former FBI counterterrorism agent.
Cloonan, who earlier was interviewed by ABC News about the program, said it was not clear which mosques might have been considered.
The official familiar with the program acknowledged that "now it sounds like a crazy thing. But at the time it didn't sound like a very crazy thing. . . . All the intel was saying, 'An attack is coming, it's likely to be al Qaeda, likely to be launched in a U.S. city, likely to involve a dirty device'. . . . Where would you go looking for that?"
Authorities determined that in the past, al Qaeda terrorists or people close to them tended to live in Muslim neighborhoods or attend local mosques, the official said. That's how some sites became included in a program, he said. Other sites were chosen because of specific intelligence information.
Most of the testing was apparently done from nearby streets. But, according to U.S. News & World Report, in as much as 15 percent of the cases, officials had to go onto private property, such as mosque parking lots and private driveways, to get accurate readings.
Officials involved with the program said no warrants were needed because they were in public access areas. But some Muslim activists said they were concerned.
"We'd like our federal law enforcement agencies to know the American Muslim community stands firmly behind protecting our nation's borders," said Arsalan Iftikhar, legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the groups that are seeking the addresses of the sites involved. "But, at the same time, we are not willing to give up our guaranteed constitutional and legal rights in order to do that."
He said his group constantly received phone calls from Muslims who believed they were under surveillance. But none had specifically mentioned possible radiation testing.
U.S. News & World Report said that some officials believed the program, which involved property occupied or owned by U.S. citizens, was legally questionable. It quoted one unidentified source as saying that participants who complained "nearly lost their jobs."
Mason said that did not occur in the local FBI office.
"No one in the Washington Field Office would ever be so threatened," he said. "Never."