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."
As of last week, local law-enforcement agencies still weren't saying whether or not they would participate in the process, in part because Heffelfinger was still determining how much personnel he would need. According to Minneapolis Police Department spokeswoman Cyndi Montgomery, "We haven't received any request as of yet. When we do we'll respond on the basis of our policies and procedures." A spokesperson for the St. Paul police said the department had had no "official" request from Heffelfinger, but would "evaluate [their] ability to support him based on what he asks [them] to do." Nationally, some agencies, notably the police department in Portland, Oregon, have refused to participate on the grounds that it might be a violation of state civil-rights statutes. Some local critics have suggested that Minnesota agencies also decline, on the grounds that participation would go against the spirit of recently passed legislation meant to eliminate racial profiling.
"It's a giant fishing expedition of a specific group of people, without probable cause," argues Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. "Put it this way: If we want to eliminate the Mafia, should we go talk to all Sicilian-Americans between the age of 18 and 50 and ask if they know anything about the Mafia? How about asking all black males between the ages of 18 and 30 what they know about black street gangs? Oh, I forgot--we already do that."
"This is not racial profiling," Heffelfinger insists. "People are not chosen because of race or even national origin, but because they are from areas where recent terrorism activity has emanated." He adds that he plans to use a combination of FBI and local police officers to conduct the statewide interviews. "Since September 11, we have enjoyed a good relationship between all local, state, and federal levels of law enforcement, and I expect that to continue. However, if for any reason a police department does not wish to participate, that is their prerogative."
Who exactly makes up the pool of interviewees in the state is unclear. A popular assumption is that Minnesota's abnormally large Somali-immigrant population will be heavily represented, but Thal says that may not be the case. According to the Justice Department initiative, those with tourist, student, or business visas will constitute most, if not all, of the interview subjects. "Those aren't the typical ways Somalis enter the country. They usually come as refugees or through family-based petitions. Somalia hasn't had a stable government in about ten years, so there haven't been a lot of passports or visas, that kind of documentation," Thal says. "There are a large number of Pakistanis here, and people from Egypt and Saudi Arabia and some of the former Soviet republics. We don't know what the breakdown will be.
"It will be interesting to see a year from now what organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have to say about the United States," Thal concludes. "We are often looked at by the rest of the world as a model of democracy and a protector of rights. I think we need to take a careful examination of how far we are going in the other direction."
Meanwhile, the interrogation process continues apace. According to the memo sent to Heffelfinger and others, the Justice Department would like all of the interviews wrapped up by December 21. But who is talked to and what is learned will not be made public. "This is a matter under investigation, so the results won't be released," Heffelfinger says, again sounding a lot like Jack Webb's Sgt. Friday. "Nor will the media be notified when it is over."