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The Arab scare: when the heat is on, Arab-Americans lose their rights.

We don't yet know, at this writing, who was responsible for the late-February bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, but whoever is ultimately convicted of the crime, there is no question that Arab-Americans in general and Muslims in particular are in for a rough time of it. Even before the first suspects were placed under arrest, the news media engaged in heavy speculation about the nationality and religion of the possible perpetrators and focused on the likely involvement of Arab governments or Arab movements.

There are, of course, Arab-Americans who are not Muslims and Muslims who are not of Arab descent. Such distinctions matter little to those who began, almost at once, to assign blame for the bombing. Arab-Americans and Muslims felt the targets being placed on their backs by FBI and police briefers at the scene and by reporters covering the daily developments. Arabs are America's new scapegoats, and anti-Arab hysteria has been building in this country for many years. We knew from painful past experience that after the twin-towers bombing, there would be an increase in the violence directed at us and the FBI would seize on a new pretext for stepping up its constant surveillance and harassment of the Arab-American community.

Three weeks before the New York bombing, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the spiritual leader of the Jersey City mosque attended by the bombing suspects, told a Newsweek interviewer, "The FBI has called hundreds of Muslims and asked them questions relating to me and my preaching in different mosques. They took some from work and some at 5 o'clock or 4 o'clock in the morning. Where is the freedom, then? All this is happening in America, and we never expected that from a country that is called the leader of the free world."

As a former member of the U.S. Senate, a lawyer with extensive contacts among Arab-Americans, and chair of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), I've long been acquainted with the problem. In the mid-1970s, for example, I dealt with the case of Sami Ismael, a Detroit Arab-American who had flown to Israel to visit his dying father. He never reached him. Immediately upon landing at the Tel Aviv airport, Ismael was arrested and jailed by the Israeli authorities on a charge of having contact with terrorists. More specifically, the Israelis said he had taken terrorist training in Libya. Ismael denied the charge.

In the midst of it all, the FBI was accused of having provided Israeli authorities with intelligence it had gathered on Ismael. I was then a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, so I took the occasion of a hearing at which the then FBI'S counterterrorism chief was testifying to ask him whether it was true that the FBI provided information on American citizens to the Israeli government. The agent requested an opportunity to talk off the record, and I agreed. In a room behind the Judiciary Committee hearing chamber, he admitted that the FBI had a practice of providing intelligence to Israel. "But in Ismael's case, they already knew all about him," he explained, as if that justified the FBI'S actions.

Sami Ismael was eventually released from Israeli custody, but only after he had spent several long months in an Israeli prison. He apparently was not enough of a terrorist to warrant the political criticism Israel was receiving for holding him.

In 1981, out of the Senate and chairing the newly founded ADC, I began receiving letters and phone calls from Arab-Americans all over the country complaining about FBI harassment. I asked my staff to gather sworn affidavits from all those who had complaints, and I delivered them in person to FBI headquarters in Washington. I was specifically interested in the case of a Minneapolis woman who had become the target of FBI harassment after she had hosted a group of West Bank mayors during their tour of the United States. Although Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser was also one of their hosts, as a Palestinian-American she became the FBI'S target.

Though no FBI agent visited the woman, an investigator did call on her neighbors. He told them that the FBI had received an anonymous phone call identifying her as a "Palestinian terrorist." That was all. There was no investigation, no charges were filed - nothing except that chilling message left about her with her neighbors.

The FBI admitted to me, in private again, that the agent's conduct was wrong. The Minneapolis Tribune learned of the harassment and, in an editorial, demanded a public apology from the FBI, as did I. But the FBI refused to apologize publicly or in writing, so the woman would have something to show her neighbors. And the FBI did nothing about the dozens of other affidavits I presented, or about the dozens more that ADC has provided in the years since.

Perhaps the longest-running case of harassment was directed at Abdeen Jabara, an Arab-American whose ancestors came from Lebanon. He had been a politically active lawyer in Detroit at the time of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and the FBI began a campaign of harassment against him, the extent of which came out in discovery for a lawsuit the ACLU had filed on his behalf against the FBI.

The agents assigned to Jabara obtained the cooperation of his bank, the Bank of the Commonwealth, which provided the FBI with his financial records. The FBI monitored all of his political speeches, providing complete reports on them for his dossiers in Detroit and at Washington headquarters. The agency reported on the financial contributions Jabara made to various groups, and conducted covert surveillance on him while he traveled. It tapped his clients' phones, recorded his conversations with his clients, then made summaries of what was said for his FBI files.

The FBI even asked the National Security Agency to monitor Jabara's overseas telephone calls, making summaries of those as well. It gave information on Jabara to three unnamed foreign governments and seventeen Federal agencies.

What did not appear in his FBI file during the lawsuit was the fact that parties unknown to him made regular phone calls to Jabara, pretending they were someone other than the FBI agents he suspected them of being. The FBI most likely burglarized his law office and impersonated the Internal Revenue Service in phone calls threatening him with imprisonment because of alleged but never proven tax irregularities.

The ACLU initiated the lawsuit for Jabara in 1972, and in 1984 the FBI agreed to a settlement with him which included admitting on the record that he had broken no laws and that his political activities were protected by the U.S. Constitution. The Court also ordered the FBI to destroy its files on Jabara - but old habits die hard; they were not destroyed until five years after the settlement. And when Jabara made a new application under the Freedom of Information Act for the contents of his FBI files, he was preliminarily informed that his new dossier - since its alleged destruction - consisted of 400 pages. (Jabara is currently vice chairman of ADC'S board of directors. The record of his harassment by the FBI can be found in Jabara v. Kelley, 476 F.Supp. 561.)

The FBI'S persecution of Arab-Americans is constant, but it becomes visible only when a crisis in the Middle East - The Gulf war, for example - or a dramatic incident such as the World Trade Center bombing permits the agency to go public with its activities.

I have represented as an attorney a number of Arab-Americans whom FBI agents have asked to come into a field office to be interviewed. In these cases, I routinely inquire of the agent in question whether my client is the target of an investigation or merely a witness. In every instance, the Arab-American being sought is simply designated as a witness. When I inform the agent that the witness designation must be in writing and that I will insist on being present during the interview, the agent invariably calls it off. My strong suspicion is that the FBI has two objectives - to intimidate politically active members of the Arab-American community and to try to turn them into informants.

I represented a prominent Arab-American physician in Washington, D.C., who became the target of a particularly aggressive FBI agent. The physician is a member of a Lebanese political party that is apparently being investigated by the FBI. The fact that his membership in any political party is constitutionally protected has made little difference to the Federal investigators. One of the FBI agents in the case approached a convicted drug dealer who was incarcerated in a northern Virginia jail and asked whether he would be willing to plant illegal drugs on the physician. The drug dealer refused, then told one of his friends about it, and ultimately gave me a sworn affidavit describing the agent's request. The agent did not stop there, however. He followed the physician's fiancee to a Washington restaurant and had a waiter pass her an unsigned note: "Your Lebanese boyfriend is involved in terrorism."

I turned over all of this information to Representative Don Edwards, a California Democrat who serves on the House Judiciary Committee. The last I heard, more than three years ago, was that the FBI was conducting an internal investigation of the matter, but I know of no one being fired or reprimanded, a strong indication that the agent was following orders from his superiors.

When George Bush's conflict with Saddam Hussein erupted in 1990, the FBI announced that it was interviewing prominent Arab-Americans to determine whether Iraq posed a real threat of terrorism. According to those who have talked about the interviews, the questioning turned quickly to the political views of the interviewees and their friends.

After the Gulf war, FBI activity directed at Arab-Americans returned to its low visibility level - until the Israeli government found itself in controversy over the deportations of some 415 Palestinians accused by Israel of being terrorists for HAMAS, an Islamic fundamentalist resistance group in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli authorities attempted to deflect the international criticism of the deportations with the January arrest of three Arab-Americans who were visiting their families in the Occupied Territories, accusing them of bringing money and instructions to HAMAS terrorists. Israel then accused the U.S. Government of harboring terrorists, asserting that HAMAS had moved its command structure from the Occupied Territories to the United States.

The U.S. State Department denied that HAMAS has any kind of control center in the United States. But having said that, the Department announced that HAMAS would be added to its list of terrorist factions, and this, presumably, prompted the FBI to begin "interviewing" Arab-Americans to check on their possible connections to HAMAS. Specifically, the FBI is said to be trying to trace fund-raising efforts within the Arab-American community to see whether they can be linked to HAMAS.

Legislation introduced early in March would deny alien members of HAMAS visas to enter the United States and subject those already in this country to deportation. Arab-American leaders fear the bill could inflame anti-Muslim hysteria. Laws already on the books bar known terrorists from entering this country.

Once again, Arab-Americans are being targeted by the FBI's interrogation squads. Though FBI Director William Sessions has denied that interviews are being conducted solely on the basis of ethnicity, the Arab-American community has reason to be skeptical of the Government's assurances, as well as of its intentions.

In mid-March, a local newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, reported that Gary Kraemer, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin's Harlowe Primate Lab, "was surprised last week to discover that men who identified themselves as FBI agents had gained entry into his locked office to conduct surveillance on the Muslim mosque across the way.... He says the agents - four of them, at one point - stayed about two hours, 'observing the comings and goings out of the mosque,' " which doubles as a day-care center. Kraemer speculated, "It could be that the FBI is just being the FBI. These may be the only Muslims in town to watch, and they're bored."

Arab-Americans are not amused, however. In 1987, ADC obtained an Immigration and Naturalization Service memo - dropped over the transom, as they say - which outlined a detailed plan to establish an internment camp for Arabs in the event of a war by the United States against an Arab country. When I confronted INS Commissioner Alan Nelson with the memo, which was on INS stationery, he claimed that neither he nor any other official of the INS had anything to do with it.

But there have been too many instances of community-wide harassment of Arab-Americans by Federal agents over the years to make Nelson's denial credible.

These are among the recent FBI interviews of Arab-Americans reported to ADC:

Paragraph On or about January 10, 1993, in Houston, Texas, FBI agent Matthew B. Taylor requested an in-home interview with an Arab-American, who asked that it be conducted in a restaurant. The agent wanted to know who was responsible for distributing flyers about Palestinian issues in the local mosque; who was responsible for collecting funds to support Palestinian causes, and what did the interview subject know about alleged "training camps" for Palestinians.

Paragraph On or about January 25, 1993, in Houston, Texas, two FBI agents, one of them Floyd S. Wiltz, asked similar questions in a thirty-minute interview with an Arab-American at the Texaco station where he worked.

Paragraph On or about January 30, 1993, in Houston, Texas, an FBI agent paid a 5 a.m. call on an Arab-American who refused to talk to the agent. An argument ensued and the agent left. There has been no further contact by the FBI.

Paragraph On or about February 1, 1993, FBI agent Robert G. Wright Jr. asked an Arab-American in Columbia, Missouri, to answer questions about Palestine in an interview that lasted about thirty minutes. The agent also asked personal questions about the Arab-American and his family - how he earned a living in the United States, whether he supported HAMAS. During the interview, the agent asserted that he knew nothing about Palestine himself, but that his superiors at the FBI had asked him to question the Arab-American.

Paragraph In mid-February 1993, in the San Francisco Bay Area, an FBI agent asked an Arab-American about Omar Ahmed, the president of the Islamic Association for Palestine. The agent asked about Ahmed's alleged involvement in the training of uniformed individuals who allegedly visited Ahmed late at night.

Each of the Arab-Americans questioned in this series of FBI interviews is a Palestinian of the Muslim faith - and each denies any involvement with "training camps." But the FBI understands the effect its "interviews" have on people who have immigrated from countries where political activity, or even political discourse, can land one in prison. The impact has been to chill the legitimate political activity of Arab-Americans.

During the Gulf war, the ADC asked President Bush to make a public statement drawing a distinction between Saddam Hussein and Arab-Americans. He did so and it helped. We have addressed a similar request to President Clinton with respect to the current round of arrests and accusations, but so far we have received no response.
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Author:Abourezk, James G.
Publication:The Progressive
Date:May 1, 1993
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