An Intel Corp. software engineer, detained without charges two weeks ago in Oregon, is being held in connection with the prosecution of six Portland, Ore., suspects charged last year with conspiring to fight in Afghanistan against U.S. forces, according to sources familiar with the case.
Maher Hawash, who was born in Nablus on the West Bank and is a 15-year U.S. citizen who lives near Portland, is being held as a material witness in the federal terror prosecution, the sources said.
The Justice Department said today it would release no information about the case. "We do not comment on material witnesses or even confirm whether someone is or is not a material witnesses," said Mark Corallo, a spokesman in Washington.
In a letter released today, U.S. Attorney Michael W. Mosman said that a federal judge has issued a "very specific" order prohibiting his office, defense lawyers or the FBI from saying anything about Hawash. The letter was sent to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who had sought information about Hawash, whose detention has alarmed his family and friends.
But in his letter, Mosman added: "Unlike the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Mr. Hawash is not in the custody of the Department of Defense as an unlawful enemy combatant."
Hawash, 38, who goes by the name "Mike," was on his way to work March 20 when FBI agents in flak jackets surrounded him in an Intel parking lot in suburban Portland. At the same time, another FBI team searched his nearby house, where he lives with his wife Lisa and three children, ages 11, 5 and 2.
The FBI hauled away three computers, financial records and several children's videos, according to a group of friends trying to attract attention to Hawash's case.
Those friends, who include a former Intel vice president who was Hawash's boss for eight years, say he is being held in Sheridan Federal Prison, about 90 minutes southwest of Portland. They say authorities have not yet questioned Hawash, who has lived in the United States for nearly 20 years and is a software designer who develops business-related products for Intel.
The gag order has silenced his lawyers. Those lawyers, friends say, also have advised his wife, who has visited her husband several times in prison, not to comment on the case.
"We are surprised and frightened that a longtime United States citizen can be held for two weeks without any comment from the government," said Steven McGeady, the former Intel executive.
He and several others have set up a Web site -- FreeMikeHawash.org -- to raise interest in the case. They plan to rally on Monday outside a Portland federal courthouse, where Hawash is expected to appear in a closed hearing.
"Yes, he was born on the West Bank, he is a Muslim and he did become more focused on his faith after 9/11, but in a completely benign way," said McGeady. "Mike was for the most part apolitical. He is a citizen, and if he needs to be accused of something, they should accuse him publicly."
Press reports this week have said that Hawash has not been allowed to appear before a judge. But Wyden's chief of staff, Josh Karden, said he was brought into a closed courtroom after his arrest.
"It's my understanding that he did appear before a judge with his lawyers present and they were given the opportunity to make his case," Karden said. He added that, even though federal authorities are declining comment on Hawash's detention status, "it is my understanding that he is being held as a material witness."
The use of the material witness statute is one of the most controversial tactics in the government's war on terror because of the extreme secrecy attached to such cases and the statute's ambiguity. The law does not set limits on how long the government can hold a witness, or whether it must compel the witness to testify.
The Washington Post has identified about 50 people who have been arrested and jailed for some period of time as material witnesses since Sept. 11, 2001. As of late last year, many had not been brought before a grand jury, the ostensible reason for holding them.
Criminal defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates have argued that this pattern of detention shows the government is twisting the original intent of the 1984 material witness law. Critics say the Bush administration has turned it into a tool to detain suspects indefinitely while investigating them for links to terrorism.
Noting that the law does not require a material witness to testify, Michael Chertoff, assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's criminal division, said last year: "Bear in mind that you get not only testimony -- you get fingerprints, you get hair samples -- so there's all kinds of evidence you can get from a witness."
Initially, speculation among Hawash's friends was that his detention was related to two donations totaling about $10,000 that he made to the Global Relief Foundation, an Islamic charity whose assets were frozen last year after federal authorities alleged it was connected to terrorism.
Friends now speculate that Hawash's detention probably involves something else.
"There must be some other reason," said Rohan Coelho, a software engineer in Portland who once worked at Intel and has been a close friend of the Hawash family for 12 years. "From reading between the lines, it seems that the donations as such are not the primary reason."
The indictment of the six Portland suspects, whom Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has described as "a suspected terrorist cell within our borders," charges that in late 2001, five of them tried to make their way to Afghanistan to fight U.S. soldiers. Apparently encountering visa or financial problems, they failed even to enter Pakistan, the gateway to Afghanistan.
The sixth suspect allegedly wired money on several occasions to some of the others as they traveled.
Staff writer Steve Fainaru contributed to this report.