Tom Heffelfinger, U.S. Attorney for the State of Minnesota, speaks with a clipped, "just the facts, ma'am" formality made famous by Fifties TV star Jack Webb, best known for his portrayal of Sgt. Joe Friday. Heffelfinger is the local point person for a Justice Department initiative, begun in earnest this week, that calls for law-enforcement officials to interrogate approximately 5,000 men, aged 18 to 33, who have entered the U.S. since January 1, 2000 on tourist, student, or business visas from countries linked to terrorism. The initiative is one of a series of federal-government actions taken since the September 11 attacks that have raised concerns that the Bush administration is willing to abridge civil liberties for the sake of security. Which is why Heffelfinger is perfect. He has the rhetorical ability to paint the process as a potentially significant fact-finding mission, instead of a bloodthirsty dragnet.
"The number of people to be contacted in Minnesota is less than 200," he says. "These will be consensual, voluntary interviews. None of these people are under investigation or suspected of doing anything wrong. And therefore, if they do not want to speak, that is their right. The situation is the same as a police officer going up to people on the street after a traffic accident, asking if they are willing to share what they saw and what they know."
Yet a November 9 memorandum sent by the Justice Department to U.S. Attorneys nationwide provides guidelines for interviews that are much more invasive and wide-ranging than what Heffelfinger intimates; especially considering that those being questioned are immigrants, and their interrogators could lead them down a path to deportation. Among other things, the eight-page memo suggests that the interviewer go to the subject's "home, workplace, or neighborhood" and ask whom he associates with, how he can be contacted in the future, and how he felt on the day of the terrorist attacks. First published in the Detroit Free Timesthe memo also includes the following recommendations.
"Questioning is an art; it is not a machine," Heffelfinger replies, when asked if his agents will follow the suggestions in the memorandum. "Sometimes answers generate new questions. It is fair to say we will attempt to cover the same topics all around the country. Some information may be in the hands of people who don't think it is significant. But you compare what you learn in Minneapolis to other things you learn in Toledo and you may develop some good leads."
"There is some pretty scary stuff in that memo," says Steven Thal, the former chair of the Minnesota/Dakotas chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who is now a private attorney specializing in immigration issues. "If I had a client who was called to be interviewed, I would suggest they politely decline, as they have a right to do. Why put yourself in a situation that could be much different than you might imagine? This is being done under the guise of a civil proceeding, and the criminal protections won't necessarily be there."
The Deputy Attorney General's memo specifically states that because the interviews will not be "custodial interrogations," there is no need to read the individual his Miranda rights, which warn of the potential for self-incrimination and remind interviewees that they have the right to remain silent. "What the person says can be used in a removal proceeding--what used to be called deportation--because it is a civil procedure," Thal observes. "What if someone says, `Well, I supported charitable work by one of the organizations that was found to have terrorist ties,' or if they say they knew a money-wiring company might be connected to terrorists but needed to get money to their relatives back home? That could be cause for removal." Those who think Thal is indulging in paranoia or lefty dogma need only read the Justice Department's memo, which states, "If you suspect that a particular individual may be in violation of the federal immigration laws, you should call the INS representative on your Anti-Terrorism Task Force ....[to determine] whether he should be detained."