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    Report lays out Al-Najjar scrutiny

    His attorneys say the report, an agent's testimony with much deleted, tells them little.

    By SUSAN ASCHOFF

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001


    The FBI used electronic surveillance and intelligence reports from other countries to pursue Mazen Al-Najjar as a suspected terrorist, according to a recently released excerpt from an agent's secret testimony.

    What the spying uncovered remains a mystery.

    The FBI agent testified in private before immigration judge R. Kevin McHugh late last year, after McHugh first took testimony in open court on whether Al-Najjar should be released on bail. The former University of South Florida teacher was jailed for more than three years without criminal charges as a security threat, and he has become a national figure in the growing opposition to secret evidence against immigrants.

    Without commenting on the significance of the agent's classified evidence, McHugh found that a summary of its contents for Al-Najjar was insufficient. McHugh ruled that Al-Najjar could not defend himself.

    McHugh ordered Al-Najjar freed, and he was released Dec. 15. The summary of the evidence never was shared.

    So Al-Najjar's attorneys asked for it, writing to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a division of the Justice Department that oversees immigration judges and appeals. On Friday, they received 17 pages.

    "It doesn't give us any new information. I don't find it particularly useful," attorney Joseph Hohenstein said Tuesday. "The focus is the same as it was in open court."

    Attorneys for the Immigration and Naturalization Service did not return calls seeking comment.

    For the most part, the newly released documents repeat the U.S. government's accusations that Al-Najjar is a fundraiser and leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Damascus-based group is on the State Department's list of designated terrorist organizations and has claimed responsibility for bombings in the Middle East.

    The 17 pages rejected by McHugh include a one-page summary and a 16-page excerpt of the FBI agent's testimony to the judge.

    The summary is about six sentences long. It says members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad reside in and raise funds in the United States, and that "Mazen Al-Najjar has held a leadership position in the PIJ with a significant role in the financial affairs."

    The extract of the agent's testimony says the FBI had probable cause to think Al-Najjar is an "agent of a foreign power" and got a court order for surveillance and a national security letter to examine his bank accounts.

    The 16 pages are marked in more than 30 places with the word "redact" -- the removal of a sentence or paragraph legally exempted from release for investigatory or security reasons. There are six redacts, for example, under the heading "Al-Najjar's Leadership Position in the PIJ."

    Al-Najjar is from Gaza but has lived in the United States for about 20 years. He was arrested in 1997 for overstaying a student visa, then was denied bail by McHugh after the judge heard secret evidence of his "association with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad."

    Until this week, the half-sentence summary of evidence against him was the only glimpse of the classified case Al-Najjar had ever received.

    In the early 1990s, Al-Najjar worked at a USF-affiliated think tank known as WISE with Ramadan Abdullah Shallah. Shallah left Tampa and became head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in October 1995. In immigration court, Al-Najjar's attorneys successfully rebutted allegations that funds in his personal accounts and his work at WISE supported terrorists, McHugh decided. McHugh, under orders from a federal judge to ensure that Al-Najjar's due process rights were protected, then heard the secret evidence, but found the 17 pages lacking and ordered him freed.

    Al-Najjar is appealing his ordered deportation, which is pending before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a three-judge panel heard arguments last month.

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