WASHINGTON, April 17 (UPI) -- FBI agents this year questioned nearly 10,000 citizens and former citizens of Iraq living in the United States, as part of an effort to glean intelligence to help the U.S.-led war in their homeland and to head off any terrorist attacks planned to coincide with the military effort, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday.
"During the past few weeks, Iraqis in the United States have become our unheralded partners in Operation Iraqi Freedom" -- the codename for the military assault launched by the United States and its allies March 19 -- he told a briefing for journalists at the Justice Department.
But advocacy groups for the Arab-American community said some of the interviews had been heavy handed, a few had resulted in detentions they believed unconstitutional, and that the whole exercise had been of questionable value.
Ashcroft said that last spring the department had developed "a contingency plan" to address any threats that might emerge during possible military activity in Iraq.
Officials told United Press International at the time of the start of the war that intelligence reports suggested a heightened threat of terrorist attacks from Iraqi intelligence or those sympathetic to the Iraqi regime, as well as from al Qaida and other terror groups seeking to exploit the unpopularity of the war in the Arab and Muslim world.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said the response from the Iraqis they wanted to speak to was "overwhelmingly positive."
"All of these interviews were voluntary, and all were conducted within the strict confines of the Constitution," he told the briefing.
"The Department of Justice greatly appreciates the assistance and the cooperation of the Iraqi community here in the United States," added Ashcroft.
But neither man would directly answer questions about whether any individuals had refused to be interviewed and the press offices at the FBI and Justice Department both said later they had no information about the question.
Mueller did say that he had heard of only two complaints as a result of the interviews.
But Arab-American advocacy organizations told UPI there were many more than that.
"We know of five formal complaints on one score alone -- agents accosting people at their work, which the FBI had agreed not to do because of the impression it might give employers or colleagues that the interviewee was in some way seen as a threat," said Hussein Ibish, of the American-Arab Anti-discrimination Committee -- a civil rights group that had attorneys or other third party observers at about 200 of the interviews.
Ibish said that some of the interviews were conducted in an "intimidating" manner -- although he added that this was normally the fault of the people who were conducting the policy, rather than the policy itself.
"We (in the Arab-American community) have a great deal of experience with these so-called voluntarily interviews," he said. "The tone -- and the type and tone of questions -- depends a lot on the expectations and attitude of both parties involved. Do the questioners have a belligerent and combative approach? Do they see themselves as inquisitors? Do they view the subject with suspicion or in a neutral way? Is the subject relaxed and confident? Or is he nervous?"
In some cases, said Ibish, attempts by interviewees to exercise their constitutional prerogative not to answer certain questions were treated as "hostile acts" by agents.
Jean Abinader, of the Arab-American Institute -- a Washington-based research organization -- said that his group was aware of at least 100 complaints -- mainly concerning people being told they could not bring a lawyer, or being asked about their visa status -- but pointed out that this number was still a very small proportion of the 10,000 interviews.
"The great majority of the interviews were conducted in the proper way ... I think the reason it went so well was that FBI Director Mueller called in our organizations -- the Arab-American and American Muslim organizations -- and said 'I need your help.' By involving the community, it helped the interviews to go a lot more smoothly than they would have ... it raised the comfort level."
There was also controversy about the effectiveness of the program.
"These round ups that they've been doing have not been effective in tracking down terrorists," said Abinader, "It's because they've been using a dragnet approach instead of good law enforcement."
"They're looking at the haystack instead of for the needle," he concluded.
Even Ashcroft was not clear about how useful information from the interviews had been in stymieing potential terrorist attacks by Iraqi agents or their sympathizers.
He said that one man -- the son of a diplomat and senior Ba'ath Party official -- had been charged Monday with "acting as an agent of the Iraqi Intelligence Service," but he did not say whether the arrest resulted from information gotten from interviewees.
Mueller said about 250 reports had been sent to U.S. forces in Iraq "to assist in locating weapons production and storage facilities, underground bunkers, fiber optic networks and Iraqi detention and interrogation facilities."
"According to the Department of Defense," he added, "the information was timely, excellent, relevant and greatly assisted in bridging gaps in other intelligence." He said much of what had been gleaned had been corroborated on the ground in Iraq.
"What they did get was a number of very solid tips for U.S. forces in Iraq on things like weapons storage areas and where records were being kept -- the kind of stuff they got from ex-military or government people," said Abinader.
But he added that this information could have been gleaned from a much smaller series of more focused interviews.
Ibish said that the benefits of such a huge operation were outweighed by its costs. "Costs in terms of our values, in terms of the United States as a country that doesn't practice discrimination; costs in terms of the disruption to the lives of ordinary people; and costs in terms of the relationship of law enforcement ands federal government with our community."
He also said that a number of those interviewed had been detained, either because of their immigration status, or because they were being investigated to determine whether they might pose a national security threat. He said this latter category of detention was "utterly unconstitutional" and that it "smacked of preventive detention."
Ashcroft said that -- in addition to gathering intelligence -- the interviews were aimed at "identify(ing) backlash threats to Iraqis in the United States."
He said that every interviewee had been reminded that discrimination and harassment was unlawful and that 36 new cases had been opened by Justice Department civil rights lawyers as a result of information received from interviewees.