The FBI's Washington field office has established an Arab American Advisory Committee aimed at strengthening relations between the law enforcement agency and the Arab community, which has voiced concern about some of the tactics used by agents investigating possible terrorist activity.
The six-member committee of Arab Americans, all of whom were appointed by the FBI, will meet monthly with bureau officials to discuss such issues as hate crimes against Arabs and the agency's interviews of Arabs and Muslims at mosques and elsewhere. There are about 70,000 people of Arab descent in the Washington area.
"We want to build a trust between our community and the FBI," said James Zogby, one of the six committee members and president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, which helped create the committee. "I have gotten angry with law enforcement and how it has dealt with my community, and I want to improve that relationship."
The FBI announced the panel's creation yesterday. Similar committees have been established in several other regions of the country since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In Detroit, 23 prominent members of the Arab community meet monthly with the U.S. attorney and officials from the FBI and other federal agencies. "It's been a great success. We've been able to tackle hot issues," said Imad Hamad, the Michigan regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the Council on American-Islamic Relations set up a liaison committee with the FBI three weeks ago. Altaf Ali, the council's executive director, said the committee is "drafting a list of complaints from our community where law enforcement has overstepped bounds," including four instances in which he said the FBI or other agencies forcibly entered homes without search warrants.
"We don't want our community to be fearful," Ali said. "Unless the trust is developed, collaboration cannot be achieved."
Van Harp, head of the FBI's Washington field office, said he hopes the formal meetings with the committee will provide "a better understanding of their concerns and productive communication so they can understand us and we can effectively do our job."
Zogby said he recently told the FBI of his opposition to its mass interviewing of Iraqis in the Washington area. About 400 Iraqis were interviewed immediately after the war broke out last week. "We want the opportunity to talk to [the FBI] to hopefully influence these policies," Zogby said.
"They know it's lousy, and it breaks down trust," he said of the interviews. "The fact is, law enforcement knows this doesn't work."
Zogby dismissed any suggestion that the committee would be used by the FBI to collect information about suspected terrorists.
"If we ever knew anything, we wouldn't need a committee or someone to prod this out of us," he said. "People in leadership roles are as committed as anyone in America. This is about opening a dialogue and improving the way we relate to each other."
Others in the Washington community who share similar concerns about the FBI applauded the new committee.
"We welcome any step towards improved relationships between the FBI and Arabs and Muslims," said Hodan Hassan, a spokeswoman for the D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. "I think we have to remember that we are on the same team, we have the same goals [even if] we have differences on some tactics."