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Cops target local Mideast men

Questions of civil liberties arise as Florida law enforcers prepare to question men with Middle Eastern backgrounds.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 28, 2001

Questions of civil liberties arise as Florida law enforcers prepare to question men with Middle Eastern backgrounds.

If you're young, male and arrived from the Middle East in the past two years, you can expect a police officer on your doorstep any day now.

Like their counterparts across the country, law enforcement authorities in the Tampa Bay area will soon begin questioning local visitors with Arabic-sounding names and Middle Eastern backgrounds. They will be asked about everything from their reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks to their knowledge and use of weapons.

Civil libertarians call it a dangerous inquisition, a step toward the internment Japanese-Americans faced during World War II. But to Steve Cole, spokesman of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida, it's a "neighborhood survey."

"These are folks who could possibly have information that could be helpful to law enforcement," said Cole, spokesman for federal prosecutors from Naples to Jacksonville. "It's not a lengthy interview. Some of these may be done on the front porch."

But Dr. Husain Nagamia, chief of cardiac surgery at Tampa General Hospital and chairman of the Tampa Muslim Alliance, likened the Justice Department effort to a nationwide witch hunt.

"Just because I'm a Muslim, I don't want somebody walking in here and asking me questions, which could happen," said Nagamia, who was born in India but is an American citizen.

The interviews, which will be conducted by FBI and FDLE agents and local police and sheriff's deputies, were prompted by an eight-page memorandum from the U.S. Justice Department.

The memo, dated Nov. 9 and delivered to U.S. attorneys nationwide, discusses how to conduct the interviews of 5,000 men between the ages of 18 and 33, mostly from Middle Eastern nations who have arrived in the United States on temporary visas in the past two years. The Justice Department has declined to name the nations whose citizens are being scrutinized, but have generally said the interviewees will be from nations connected to terrorism.

The list of those publicized by the U.S. State Department includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Sudan, though visitors from other nations may also find their names on the list.

The names on the latest list are separate from the 1,000 or more people who have been detained by immigration authorities and law enforcement since Sept. 11. Many of those people remain in jail, either being held as material witnesses in the investigation of the attacks, or on immigration or other charges.

Cole, the spokesman for the U.S. Attorneys Office in Florida's middle district, which includes 8-million people, said the interviews with "several hundred" residents will begin in a few days and last several weeks. He would not release the names of people who will be questioned and declined to discuss the interview guidelines.

However, according to the Justice Department memo obtained by the Detroit Free Press, law enforcement authorities have been instructed to check passports and visas, and ask about visits to national landmarks; about sources of income; scientific expertise and to obtain a list of telephone numbers of friends and relatives.

Gov. Jeb Bush said Tuesday that he is pleased that the names of "500 plus" people to be interviewed were not assembled haphazardly but "identified through the process of good legal work."

"People are being invited to do this, they are not going to be put in custody, they are not suspects, so they will be invited to provide information," Bush said.

Some police departments in the country have declined to participate, saying the plan seems like racial profiling. In Portland, Ore., for example, police cited state law prohibiting the questioning of immigrants not suspected of a crime.

Elsewhere, U.S. attorney's offices are fashioning different approaches because they don't want to ruin trust with Islamic and Middle Eastern communities. Instead of knocking on doors, the U.S. Attorney's office in Detroit will mail letters to 700 Middle Eastern people asking them to call voluntarily and schedule an interview.

Locally, the Tampa and St. Petersburg police departments, as well as the Pinellas and Hillsborough sheriff's offices, among others, will participate.

Representatives from those agencies refused to discuss their role and referred questions to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which says the goal of the interview is to get information on terrorists and terrorist organizations.

"We feel the best procedure is to make personal contact," Cole said.

Information from the interviews will be sent to the Department of Justice in Washington, Cole said.

"We really appreciate the efforts of the FDLE and local law enforcement who are partnering with us to accomplish this," Cole said.

Some defense attorneys are not opposed to the interviews but said law enforcement should be careful not to abuse the process.

"If the person indicates they don't know anything, do the authorities say, "Thank you anyway' and go on their way?" asked Clearwater attorney Denis de Vlaming. "Or, does the government say, "You will cooperate. We will take you in.' We'll have to take a wait and see attitude to find out how they do it."

During an interview, if police catch people doing other crimes, they can be arrested for them.

Said de Vlaming, "I'm not as concerned about that as I am about the spoken and unspoken intimidation of "You will cooperate or we will see that you or your family may be inconvenienced at the very least or deported at the very worst.' "

- Times Staff Writers Julie Hauserman, Amy Herdy and Matthew Waite contributed to this report, as did Researcher Cathy Wos. Staff Writer Leanora Minai can be reached at or (727) 893-8406.

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