Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are again contacting Arab and Muslim Americans for what they describe as "voluntary interviews," as the Bush administration launches a new anti-terrorism campaign designed to thwart efforts to disrupt the U.S. elections.
In conjunction with the FBI campaign, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is initiating a separate program in major metropolitan areas that will target Arab communities prior to the Nov. 2 polls.
According to the Washington Post, the campaign will probably include rounding up and arresting hundreds of aliens from Middle Eastern and other countries known to be havens for terrorists.
Human rights groups see the initiatives as repeats of the massive sweeps carried out by the government immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon, operations that reportedly netted more than 5,000 individuals.
The Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) says the DHS project "consists of a stepped-up effort to arrest a number of non-citizens whose immigration paperwork is ‘out of status.’"
The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group says it is "troubled by the idea that immigration sweeps are being portrayed by the Bush administration as successes in the ‘war on terror.’"
"To date it is unclear whether the ICE initiative will be selectively carried out against only Arabs and Muslims," adds the ADC, repeating "its strong objection to any selective enforcement initiative that is based solely on race, national origin or religion."
In September, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge told reporters al-Qaeda is continuing to make plans to disrupt the election.
Attorney General John Ashcroft often uses high-profile press conferences to announce arrests for alleged terror-related crimes. But such events are rarely organized when these charges are dismissed or substantially reduced.
Numerous legal experts, and the Web sites of many human rights groups and Arab and Muslim-American organizations, have questioned the effectiveness of the government’s approach to Arabs and Muslims.
Supporters of the measures, including President George W. Bush, point out the United States has not been attacked since 9/11. Echoing a finding of the commission that recently completed an exhaustive probe of the attacks, Bush says the nation is "safer than it was before Sept. 11, though not yet safe."
The assertion has become a central pillar of the president’s reelection campaign.
But how can the average U.S. citizen judge the effectiveness of the government’s strategy to protect the homeland? One way is to examine the record.
Between Sept. 11, 2001 and Sept. 1, 2004, the Justice Department obtained one terror-related conviction. Two Moroccan immigrants were convicted in Detroit in June 2003 of being a "sleeper cell" for al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that carried out the 9/11 attacks, and of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.
But the Detroit cases were deeply flawed by prosecutorial malfeasance and, on Sept. 2, 2004, after the defendants had spent more than three years in jail, their convictions were thrown out.
"Until that reversal," wrote civil liberties law authority David Cole, in The Nation magazine, "the Detroit case had marked the only terrorist conviction obtained from the Justice Department’s detention of more than 5,000 foreign nationals in anti-terrorism sweeps since 9/11."
"So [Attorney General John] Ashcroft’s record is 0 for 5,000."
Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University, told IPS: "If the attorney general is 0 for 5,000 thus far in terms of actual terrorist convictions for those foreign nationals subjected to preventive detention after 9/11, it makes you wonder why he’s now planning another roundup."
Little is known about most of the 5,000 detainees. The reason is that they were rounded up and held by what used to be the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now part of the DHS.
As described by author Mark Dow in his book, American Gulag, the prisoners were locked up, many for extended periods, in INS jails America’s most secret prison system. Some were eventually deported for visa violations not for terrorism and others were finally released. No one was ever charged with a terror-related crime.
The Justice’s Department’s inspector general, testifying recently before a congressional committee, confirmed that hundreds of non-nationals picked up in the post-Sept. 11 sweeps were deprived of basic human rights. Most of those detained were Muslim males of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin.
Organizations representing Arab and Muslim Americans continue to object to what they claim is government harassment of members of their community.
The ADC says the government’s action "constitutes selective enforcement of immigration laws based on national origin and racial profiling."
In a statement on its Web site the group said it "finds this form of collective intimidation of our community extremely curious a month before a hotly contested election, as an effort to divide communities and reinforce the fear that individuals already feel."
According to a poll conducted in September in four closely-contested states, Bush is gaining on Kerry in support from Arab-Americans, although the Democratic challenger still has the support of 49 percent of decided voters, versus 31.5 percent for Bush.
The ADC is also concerned "this initiative could be perceived by the community as intimidation to U.S. citizens [and] an inhibitor to voting, especially those newly registered to vote." It adds, "Measures to combat terrorism should not be confused with immigration law enforcement."
In a Sept. 30 statemen,t the DHS’ immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) division said it had been working at a "heightened level" for several months as part of an inter-agency program that will continue until the presidential inauguration in 2005.
It added, "ICE is not conducting a ’roundup’ or a ‘sweep’ in any community; ICE is not profiling based on race or religious affiliation; ICE is not instituting a blanket detention policy."
Just as some are questioning the legitimacy of the sweeps only one month prior to the vote, others have queried recent national terrorism alerts, particularly one issued the day after Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry was officially nominated to run against President George W. Bush.
Many people in the Arab and Muslim American community are already angry at the government’s treatment of Yusuf Islam, the former pop singer Cat Stevens. Islam was removed from a plane bound for Washington from London last month when his name showed up on a government "watch list."
A DHS spokesman said Islam was denied admission to the United States "on national security grounds."
Advocacy groups are also upset by the recent treatment of two other well-known Muslims. Moderate Swiss Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most likely innovators of the 21st century, was on his way to teach at Notre Dame University’s International Peace Studies Institute when the DHS revoked his work visa under a provision of the USA PATRIOT Act.
Oregon lawyer and U.S. citizen Brandon Mayfield, a 37-year-old convert to Islam, was jailed for several weeks as a material witness because the FBI charged in error that his fingerprints were found on a backpack used in the Madrid train bombings in March. Mayfield got an apology from the Justice Department.
Meanwhile, federal, state and municipal law enforcement agencies are reporting record numbers of anti-Islamic hate crimes, including murders, beatings, arsons, attacks on mosques, shootings, vehicular assaults and verbal threats. The FBI reports that hate crime incidents rose 1,600 percent in the past year.
Nonetheless, FBI Director Robert Mueller says he is "vitally concerned that the rights of Arab Americans, Muslims and Sikhs be protected."