Muslims…The Usual Suspects

Taken from The Usual Suspects – How Muslims Got Caught in Bush’s dragnet & How Yale Students Exposed it as Sham’
(Andy Bromage – fairfieldweekly.com, November 20, 2008)

Federal agents summoned Rashid to the nearest federal building one day. They wanted to talk about his status as a U.S. immigrant. Rashid went to the office, sat down and answered their questions. Pretty soon, the topic turned to terrorism.

Do you own guns, explosives or chemical components, the agents asked? Do you know anyone who does? Have you had any military or weapons training? Do you know anyone who’s taken flight lessons? Or anyone who’s laundering money or financed terrorism?

Rashid (not his real name) was taken aback. A twentysomething Pakistani immigrant and recent graduate of a prestigious American university, he told the agents he didn’t know anything of the sort.

“They were polite. They weren’t belligerent,” Rashid says in a phone interview. “I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I just thought they were odd questions. I assumed that since I was from Pakistan, that’s why they were talking to me.”

After 30 minutes, Rashid was free to go. Days later Rashid secured a six-year work visa. That’s the last he thought about the short interview. Until now.

As the Bush administration prepares to make its disgraced exit from Washington, new information has come to light about a secret national security program launched in the waning days of the 2004 presidential election that targeted thousands of innocent Muslim immigrants as suspected terrorists.

Operation Front Line‘s stated goal was to disrupt terrorist cells that might be planning an attack during the campaign or on inauguration day.

But government documents recently obtained by a team of Yale Law School students and faculty expose Operation Front Line as a massive fishing expedition that hinged on racial profiling.

Of the 300 case files supplied to Yale, not a single immigrant was charged with a terror-related crime. Nearly all the immigrants questioned came from Muslim-majority countries. Many weren’t even in violation of their visas.

The Yale team says the evidence shows the feds “conflate ‘Muslim background’ with ‘terrorist.’” The American Civil Liberties Union brands it “unconstitutional and discriminatory.” The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee calls it blatant racial and religious profiling that had “nothing to do with protecting the election process or anything relating to terrorism.”

The Bush administration, meanwhile, has yet to say a word about it.

In a windowless basement room in Yale Law School’s Ruttenberg Hall, law students Sameer Ahmed and Bram Elias recently told me how they and nine colleagues unraveled a Bush administration secret.

“We were reviewing documents in another case — we’re not allowed to speak about the case — and the words Operation Front Line came up,” says Ahmed.

So Yale Law School’s National Litigation Project, a human rights advocacy clinic, filed a freedom of information request, and later a federal lawsuit, seeking records on the operation from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), its umbrella agency the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a half dozen other agencies.

That launched a two-year legal battle during which the feds continually stonewalled the Yale lawyers, blowing off laws requiring an answer within 20 days, or saying they couldn’t supply information for national security reasons.

The Yale lawyers didn’t buy it and kept fighting for the records’ release. Homeland Security finally relented in September of this year, reaching a partial settlement with Yale that supplied them with thousands of pages of heavily redacted case files and internal memos the feds previously claimed couldn’t possibly be shared.

The Yale team soon discovered what they suspect is the reason for the secrecy. ICE supplied them with 300 individual case files, selected at random from ICE offices all over the country. Separately, they supplied every case file from the Hartford office, about 25.

What they found was that Operation Front Line, conducted in two phases from May 2004 through February 2005, was a total bust. The sweeping immigration enforcement campaign involved 504 people and was justified on national security grounds, but didn’t result in a single terror-related arrest. The worst crimes in the Yale files were identity theft and credit card forgery.

“What a huge waste of government resources,” says Ahmed. “They were talking to people who are doctors and students and engineers, who come from Muslim backgrounds, and asking them the most widespread questions just to try to find something.”

The information supplied by ICE shows a disturbing trend of what could only be read as ethnic profiling. Of the 300 immigrants, 79 percent were from Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Somalia. Immigrants from Muslim-majority countries account for just one percent of the undocumented population in the U.S., meaning they were 1,280 times more likely to be targeted by Operation Front Line than non-Muslim counterparts.

Only 18 percent of the operation’s targets were charged with any immigration violation at all; the most common, an overstayed visa. Three-quarters of them were men.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” says Kareem Shora, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “If you talk about a population that makes up less than 1 percent of the undocumented in the U.S., I would certainly call it profiling.”

Rashid certainly felt profiled, even if he wasn’t expressly intimidated.

Rashid was surprised to learn he’d been caught in a national security dragnet without knowing it. When I read him the details of his interview from an ICE incident report, Rashid was more unnerved about such information becoming public than about being pegged by ICE as a possible terrorist.

“This is not something I would want in the papers,” he says.

Rashid agreed to speak about his experience as an Operation Front Line target on the condition that no revealing information would be published. What we can tell you is this: Rashid was born in Pakistan and moved to the U.S. to attend an elite university. After 9/11, Rashid and hundreds of thousands like him, men from the Muslim-majority countries that spawned the hijackers, were forced to register in a massive national database called NSEERS, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System.

“Everyone had to do it,” Rashid says. “Officially, they had a list of countries and people from those countries had to go and report.”

Rashid gave fingerprints and personal information for NSEERS, so when agents questioned him for Operation Front Line, Rashid says it “seemed normal.”

The agents asked him about weapons and whether he attended a mosque with radical ideologies. They asked what he knew about laundering money. Nothing, Rashid told them, adding that government crack-downs on money laundering have made it hard to send and receive money even for legitimate purposes, like when his parents send money for school.

Upon graduating Rashid secured a job and a work visa that lets him remain in the U.S. Rashid plays golf in his free time and likes the rock band Queen. His life, he says, is as normal as anyone he knows. How he got singled out as a possible terrorist, Rashid says, he’ll never know.

The ICE reports provided to Yale are full of dead-end cases like Rashid’s.

Though redacted with so much black ink they at times resemble Rorschach tests, a close reading of the documents reveals small sketches of lives caught in the crosshairs.

A student pursuing a degree in civil engineering; another attending the University of Hartford. Another report, heavily redacted, describes an immigrant who entered on a student visa and caught ICE’s eye in 2002 when he or she opened an account with $100,000 in wired money. The report mentions subsequent transfers for $60,000 and $10,000 but deciphering why or what for is impossible. “All this for a 20 year old in the United States on a student visa,” the report reads.

Another immigrant, not from Connecticut, told authorities he doesn’t know anyone who poses a threat to the U.S. and if he did, he would turn them in. When asked for his opinion of America, the immigrant responded he “cared greatly for the equal opportunities, rights and values that are afforded in America,” according to the ICE report.

I’m living the American dream, he said.

The Bush administration hasn’t commented publicly on Operation Front Line since the details were made public last month in a New York Times article.

The only window into their thinking comes from a single press release and internal policy documents obtained by the Yale team in the court settlement.

Perhaps the first mention of Operation Front Line came in a CBS News broadcast on Sept. 17, 2004, describing what the network called “The October Plan,” a campaign by ICE and the FBI that was “a massive counter-offensive of interrogations, surveillance and possible detentions” to disrupt a terrorist plot.

A week later, ICE put out a news release that hinted at the scope of Operation Front Line without referring to it by name. The operation would go after immigrant status violators based on “national security criteria” and anyone out of status would be arrested. Importantly, ICE said it was operating “without regard to race, ethnicity or religion.”

“ICE is not conducting a ’round-up’ or a ‘sweep’ in any community,” the release read. “ICE is not profiling based on race or religious affiliation.”

ICE spokesman Richard Rocha says that ICE cannot comment, “due to ongoing litigation.”

In a memo dated Sept. 27, 2004, to all ICE field office directors, the operation was again described in terms of counterterrorism. “ICE will conduct a nationwide disruption operation … intended to detect, deter, and disrupt terrorist operations leading up to the Presidential Election.”

In November 2004, ICE announced it had arrested 230 people so far in the disruption campaign. The concentration of Muslim names caught Kareem Shora’s attention.

They gave eight examples of people they had detained, six of which happened to be Arabs or Muslims,” says Shora of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

The ADC filed suit in U.S. District Court in D.C., seeking the nationalities of all those arrested, but lost. When they learned Yale’s National Litigation Project was looking for the same thing in federal court in Connecticut, they joined their effort. When Homeland Security finally handed over the files, Shora says his “worst fears” were confirmed.

“This was a slap in the face,” Shora says. “What [the Department of Homeland Security] told us four years ago was that they are not profiling people and these numbers came up and they have yet to provide us an explanation. That tells me someone is either lying or being lied to within DHS.” Shora says DHS needs to explain why so many Muslims were targeted “or litigation continues to be an option.”

Both Shora and the Yale project members say it’s unusual for ICE to be so tight-lipped about an operation of this size. And they suggest it’s because the operation missed its intended target.

“If they got some high target terrorism threat, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez would have made this front page news,” says Yale’s Sameer Ahmed.

Aside from the 230 arrests publicized in November 2004, ICE did highlight two Front Line arrests in a briefing to the congressional Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims on Nov. 10, 2004. But again, neither was charged with terror-related crimes.

The suspects’ names are blacked out, but the 14-page document obtained by Yale tells us this:

One was arrested on Oct. 27, 2004, near Oklahoma City as a student visa violator. The immigrant was under investigation for trying to pass a stun gun through airport security in Oklahoma City.

The second immigrant was arrested in Miami on Oct. 28, 2004 (four days before election day), for making false statements and was under investigation for an unconfirmed NSEERS violation. The immigrant also flunked a polygraph test about his terrorist affiliations, had phone numbers linked to narcotics and terrorism investigations and possessed in his home “references to critical infrastructure activities (railroad lines),” the ICE briefing stated.

The people at the Yale clinic understand that the government needs to pursue terror investigations, Ahmed says. It’s the indiscriminate methods employed under Operation Front Line that concern him.

“You could tell that ICE had no specific leads on any of these individuals, because if they did, the way these summaries would go is, We asked this person about this specific individual, etc.,” says Ahmed.

Yale’s case against Homeland Security is ongoing, as the sides will now fight over what information is reasonable to redact and what is not. But the biggest get has been gotten.

Hundreds of Muslim immigrants were arrested for what seem like legitimate crimes, like marriage fraud and forgery. But the way they were arrested may prove illegal. Lawyers could use the information gathered to make a compelling case that an immigrant arrested under Operation Front Line was unlawfully arrested because he was ethnically profiled, a denial of due process rights under the Constitution.

Yale’s National Litigation Project isn’t sure what its next move will be. Neither is ADC.

As for Rashid, he says his life will go on as normal. After the federal agents questioned him about weapons and terrorism, Rashid says he told the story to “almost everyone” he knew. “They just thought it was an interesting story,” Rashid says. Imagine what they’ll think when they hear the rest of the it.

A Profile in Ethnic Profiling: Operation Front Line

– Immigration crack-down launched during 2004 presidential campaign.

– More than 2,500 immigrants questioned about terrorism, including more than 20 in Connecticut.

– Out of 300 case files selected at random by ICE and reviewed by Yale Law School’s National Litigation Project, 79 percent were from Muslim-majority countries. (Which accounts for only 1 percent of the total U.S. undocumented population.)

– No arrests for terror-related crimes.

– Only 18 percent of the case files were arrested for immigration violation.

– Crimes charged against immigrants include identity theft and credit card forgery.

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