- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who ordered interviews of 5,000 foreign men from countries with ties to al Qaeda terrorists after the September 11 attacks on America, wants another 3,000 foreigners found and questioned.
Mr. Ashcroft announced the new round of interviews during a speech at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Alexandria, dismissing accusations of racial profiling by some critics.
"Overwhelmingly, the individuals we located [last fall] voluntarily agreed to speak with officials," he said. "Except for a very small number who refused to be interviewed, the majority of the persons we spoke to made their best effort to provide useful information."
"Accordingly, today I am announcing that we are reaching out to a second group of foreign nationals for their assistance in identifying and disrupting terrorist networks. Approximately 3,000 individuals who entered the United States more recently than the first round of interviewees will be asked to speak voluntarily to U.S. officials," he said.
In a memo to each of the 64 U.S. attorneys nationwide, Mr. Ashcroft directed that they assign the interviews to members of the Justice Department's Anti-Terrorism Task Forces and ensure completion of the interviews within 60 days.
The Justice Department was criticized for racial profiling by some civil rights groups, members of Congress and others over the initial interviews, which targeted men aged 18 to 33 who entered the United States on non-immigrant visas from countries that U.S. intelligence officials said had al Qaeda terrorist presence or activity.
Mr. Ashcroft said that, contrary to the critics who warned that the interviews would create friction and resentment, they had fostered what he called a "new trust between law enforcement and these communities."
"The task forces were able to develop sources of information that should give potential terrorists pause. In fact, many of those interviewed volunteered to provide information on an ongoing basis in the future, and a significant number offered to serve as interpreters in our efforts against terrorism," he said.
He said several federal officials, including himself, met with community and religious groups to explain the project and listen to their concerns. He said the meetings helped to enlist their support for the project.
Under the Nov. 9 order, the Justice Department came up with a list of 5,146 men. Mr. Ashcroft asked that those interviews be completed within 30 days.
"The Anti-Terrorist Task Forces did a superb job finding the individuals we sought," he said. "But candidly, their best efforts could not overcome the serious flaws in our current ability to locate visitors to our country. A significant number of individuals on the list could neither be verified as having left the country nor be located within the United States."
A Justice Department report said most of those interviewed so far had no information about the September 11 attacks, but some had provided leads that may assist in future probes. The report said less than 20 were taken into custody, mostly for immigration violations, and none was involved in terrorism.
In the new round of interviews, Mr. Ashcroft said those selected fit the criteria of people who could have knowledge of foreign-based terrorists through their ties to community or social groups.
"The individuals to be interviewed are not suspected of any criminal activity. We are merely seeking to solicit their assistance to obtain any information they may have regarding possible terrorists or potential terrorist acts," he said.
Mr. Ashcroft said he was "inspired by the quiet courage" of those who came forward.
"Their courage evokes the volunteer spirit that has been a sustaining force in this country since its founding," he said. "These citizens of other nations prove that the commitment to defeat terrorism is universal to all people who believe in justice and the sanctity of human life."


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