ALEXANDRIA, Va. – U.S. law enforcement authorities will ask some 3,000 foreign nationals for voluntary interviews in continuing attempts to learn more about the threat of terrorism, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Wednesday.
During a visit to the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of Virginia, which will handle several major terrorism cases, Ashcroft said the second-phase interviews will be similar to some 5,000 undertaken since early November.
CIA Director George Tenet said Tuesday that 1,300 people with ties to Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network have been detained by 70 countries in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"As in the first round of interviews, these visitors to our country have been selected for interviews because they fit the criteria of persons who might have knowledge of foreign-based terrorists," he said.
"We believe that these individuals might, either wittingly or unwittingly, be in the same circles, communities or social groups as those engaged in terrorist activities. The individuals to be interviewed are not suspected of any criminal activity. We are merely seeking to solicit their assistance to obtain any information they may have regarding possible terrorists or potential terrorist acts," Tenet said.
Ashcroft said he is asking U.S. attorneys across the country to conduct the second-stage interviews, using task forces created earlier.
"The task forces were able to develop sources of information that should give potential terrorists pause," he said. "In fact, many of those interviewed volunteered to provide information on an ongoing basis in the future, and a significant number offered to serve as interpreters in our efforts against terrorism.
"In addition to developing leads and sources of information," Ashcroft said, "these interviews were designed to disrupt potential terrorist activities. The sheer volume of activity and the dedication of the task forces ensured that potential terrorists hiding in our communities knew that law enforcement was on the job in their neighborhoods."
Ashcroft said "this disruption is a critical component of our prevention strategy, and it may well have contributed to the fact that we have not suffered a substantial terrorist attack since Sept. 11.
"Contrary to the critics who warned that reaching out to visitors to our country would create friction and resentment, we have seen over the course of these interviews an improvement in relations," he said. "Representatives from many of the agencies involved in the project — myself included — made a point of meeting with community and religious groups to explain the project and to listen to their concerns. This outreach effort put many of their fears to rest and helped to enlist their support for the project."
Ashcroft said that fewer than 20 of the people interviewed initially were arrested, mostly on charges of immigration violations. Three individuals were arrested on criminal charges, but none of the cases was connected to terrorism, according to a report he released Wednesday.
Ashcroft said the second round of interviews was necessary because authorities could not find all the people they were interested in interviewing.
But he emphasized, "We don't assume that because we couldn't find a person, that they're planning a terrorist attack. Well beyond 90 percent of the people that we could find were willing to converse with us."
Saying the key goal of the interviews was to obtain information about terrorist activities, the report mentioned a number of leads that came from the interviews. While key information was deleted, the report said those leads included an interviewee who gave authorities the name and address of one of the 19 hijackers.
Also, one of the people interviewed indicated that he recalled seeing one of the Sept. 11 hijackers at a place not identified, and others provided information on an organization related to terrorist groups and on the names of acquaintances who had taken flight training in Florida.