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FBI to Interview Iraqis

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    FBI Has War Plans To Mobilize Agents Against Terrorists By Dan Eggen Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, March 17, 2003; Page A01 If U.S. forces invade Iraq,
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 20, 2003
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      FBI Has War Plans To Mobilize Agents Against Terrorists
      By Dan Eggen
      Washington Post Staff Writer
      Monday, March 17, 2003; Page A01

      If U.S. forces invade Iraq, the FBI has plans to mobilize as many as
      5,000 agents to guard against terrorist attacks, monitor or arrest
      suspected militants and interview thousands of Iraqis living in the
      United States, according to officials familiar with the effort.

      The FBI operation, which would approach the scale of the
      investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is a
      reflection of widespread fears among counterterrorism officials that
      the risk of attack will increase dramatically in the event of war.
      Although authorities said that most Iraqis living in the United
      States are not a threat, they are concerned Muslim extremists will
      retaliate for war with suicide bombings and other attacks, the
      sources said.

      Many of the FBI's criminal surveillance operations would be
      temporarily suspended in order to focus on potential terrorism or
      espionage suspects, one top law enforcement official said. Any
      immigration violators found during interviews and sweeps would be
      detained, several officials said.

      The steps are part of a voluminous and detailed contingency plan
      developed by the FBI over the last year in preparation for an
      invasion of Iraq. Sources said the plan includes a checklist of more
      than four dozen steps to be taken by FBI field offices and joint
      terrorism task forces before and after war begins.

      "We're prepared for the worst and hoping for the best," said a senior
      FBI official. "If there is anything else we can do, I'd like somebody
      to tell me what it is. . . . There is going to be a very large
      commitment to anything and everything that could possibly happen."

      Although Bush administration officials do not emphasize it publicly,
      U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism experts are in broad agreement
      that a war in Iraq will dramatically increase the chances of
      terrorist attacks against U.S. targets. As a result, numerous sources
      have said the Department of Homeland Security could raise the
      nation's color-coded threat level from yellow to orange, or "high
      risk," as early as this week.

      Attorney General John D. Ashcroft told a House subcommittee earlier
      this month that "the FBI is prepared to act to defend America,
      including the possibility of a war against Iraq. Thousands of FBI
      agents, here and abroad, are working day and night." In a television
      interview last week, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned
      that "we have to prepare for the inevitability" of suicide attacks in
      the United States.

      At the start of a war, FBI headquarters and all 56 field offices
      would immediately staff 24-hour command centers, in conjunction with
      66 joint terrorism task forces across the country, authorities said.
      The head of one major FBI field office said that "the small
      percentage of agents who aren't directly involved will be on
      call. . . . This is an all-hands type operation."

      Some of the steps outlined in the FBI contingency plan have already
      begun, including initial meetings between the heads of FBI field
      offices and local Islamic groups across the country, officials said.
      FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III also met late last month with
      leaders of Arab American, Muslim and Sikh groups to ask for their
      support in identifying terrorists and to assure them of FBI
      protection against hate crimes.

      Working from an initial list of about 50,000 Iraqi nationals living
      in the United States, the FBI has winnowed that number down to about
      11,000 who would be targeted for interviews in the event of a war, a
      senior FBI official said.

      Officials hope to complete those interviews within a few weeks of an
      invasion, the official said. The FBI would be aided by immigration
      investigators at Homeland Security, who would detain anyone found to
      be in violation of immigration laws, officials said.

      Other interviews have taken place, focused primarily on Iraqis who
      were considered potential security threats or who were thought to
      have information that would be helpful to U.S. military efforts,
      officials said. Several of those interviews have resulted
      in "information of value," a law enforcement official said, while
      others have led to deportations or expulsions.

      FBI and immigration officials are also still working to locate as
      many as several thousand Iraqis who entered the United States on
      valid visas that have since expired.

      Senior FBI officials said the interviews and investigations have not
      changed their general view that most Iraqis in the United States are
      hostile to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and are unlikely candidates
      for terror.

      U.S. officials are more concerned that Muslim extremists affiliated
      with al Qaeda or other terrorist groups might wish to use an Iraqi
      conflict as the reason for an attack. The FBI also warned law
      enforcement agencies earlier this month about the threat posed
      by "lone extremists" who are not connected to al Qaeda or other
      terror groups but who share their radical beliefs.

      "There is a lot of animosity out there toward the United States," a
      senior law enforcement official said. "These groups and individuals
      want to attack us anyway, and this could give them the perfect
      excuse."

      U.S. intelligence officials also worry that Hussein's regime might
      secure cooperation from an unwilling Iraqi citizen living in the
      United States by holding family members hostage back home.

      During the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi agents in Thailand, Indonesia and
      the Philippines failed in amateurish attempts to bomb U.S.
      facilities, leading to the widespread view within Western
      intelligence circles that Hussein's regime is not adept at overseas
      terror operations.

      Yet U.S. officials say they are alarmed by a case last month in the
      Philippines, where a high-ranking Iraqi diplomat was expelled after
      allegedly having contact with members of the Abu Sayyaf terror group.
      The Iraqi government dismissed the allegations as U.S. propaganda.

      "Iraqi intelligence did try some pretty pathetic operations last
      time," a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said. "Do I think
      they'll try it again? Probably, but this time they may have help.
      That's one of our major concerns."

      Bruce Hoffman, a Rand Corp. terrorism expert, said, "It's only
      prudent to think about a spectrum of adversaries" during a new
      conflict.

      "Twelve years ago, we were mostly thinking of a terrorist threat in
      terms of an overseas or foreign threat, and mainly by Iraqi agents,"
      Hoffman said. "The world has changed a great deal since then, and
      there are more threats than ever to worry about."

      © 2003 The Washington Post Company
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