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Flashpoints: Homeland Security and the Right to Civil Liberties

July 11, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Next, a preview of a new PBS program featuring the NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill and her former NBC colleague, Bryant Gumbel. “Flashpoints U.S.A.” will examine how the quest for homeland security intersects with Americans’ civil liberties. In this excerpt, Gwen looks at the Evansville Eight– a group of Muslims detained in Indiana after 9/11.

GWEN IFILL: Carolyn Bah is part of a small Islamic community in Evansville, Indiana. Just days after September 11, the FBI interviewed her husband, Tarek al-Basti, a naturalized American citizen born in Egypt. They own The Crazy Tomato, an Italian restaurant along a retail strip in town. One October night, Tarek called Carolyn at home. The FBI was back.

CAROLYN BAUGH: It was around 8:00, 7:30. He said they were there, “they” were there. They wanted to ask him a few more questions so maybe he would be a little late coming home. Then around maybe 10:30 that evening, he called and said he wasn’t coming home.

TAREK AL-BASTI: The supervisor of the FBI, he called all of us, that’s when I saw the rest of the guys in another room, and they just told us that the good news that everybody has been really great and everything, but the bad news that there is a warrant for our arrest as a material witness.

CAROLYN BAUGH: Up until then I assumed that, you know, it was all a mistake and it would just be undone as easily as it had been done. But with that, it got far more scary.

GWEN IFILL: Evansville had become a focal point in the war against terror. The FBI was tipped that al- Basti and eight others– all of them Muslims, all from Egypt– were part of a plot to fly a plane into the Sears Tower in Chicago. As it turns out, Tarek al-Basti had been taking flying lessons but they were a gift from his father-in-law, a pilot.

PATRICK FITZGERALD, U.S. Attorney, Chicago: When the Evansville matter first came to light, a concern that there was a terrorist plot involving Chicago, the most important thing was to get to the bottom of it quickly.

GWEN IFILL: Prosecutors got a court order to arrest eight of the nine as material witnesses. Wearing striped prison jumpsuits, shackled hand and foot, they were taken to Chicago to the federal detention center. No one could find them– not their lawyers, not their wives. Tarek al-Basti was terrified.

CAROLYN BAUGH: He was banging on the inside of his cell saying “Please, somebody talk to me.” And his lawyer couldn’t even find him. They told him that he wasn’t there. So being an American citizen then means nothing, means nothing.

GWEN IFILL: The Chicago lockup is a long way from Egypt where Carolyn, an Arabic studies graduate from Duke, met Tarek, who was on the rowing team at the American University of Cairo. They fell in love and got married twice– once in Cairo, and again with Carolyn’s family in attendance when they moved to the United States. Eventually they wound up in Evansville at the restaurant. Tarek brought friends from the rowing team to work there. The couple started a new family in the house where Carolyn grew up. But Tarek’s American citizenship cut no ice in Chicago. Ken Cunniff, his attorney, was not allowed to see him for four days.

KEN CUNNIFF, Defense Attorney: The bottom line of all of it was that this man who had done everything right in his life was put in a position where he didn’t even know… he had no clue as to what the final part of his existence was. And what I did, when I did talk to him and inform him the government said it was a potential capital case, he was truly destroyed.

GWEN IFILL: Did you think they were just going to lock you up and throw away the key?

TAREK AL-BASTI: To be honest with you, when we were in Chicago we thought they were going to just kill us – we were just going to be just… just hanged or something for something. We didn’t know even what we did.

GWEN IFILL: Eight men, all from Egypt, all connected to Tarek, Tarek taking flying lessons.

CAROLYN BAUGH: I think a lot of my time with the investigators in Chicago had to do with dispelling some of those coincidences.

KEN CUNNIFF: He had not been allowed to contact his family. He didn’t really know why he was there.

CAROLYN BAUGH: They needed to arrest somebody, didn’t they, you know? So if we’ve got that many fishy looking things, then there must be some stink in the fish.

GWEN IFILL: But Tarek’s lawyer knew the prosecutor and trusted him.

KEN CUFFIFF: If it were any other prosecutor, I probably would not have allowed my client to talk to them; my client still might be in custody.

DEAN POLALES, Asst. U.S. Attorney, Chicago: We all jointly agreed that we would conduct the investigation with the FBI and we would do it by interviews. They made their clients available. We interviewed family members and relatives. We sought information from foreign countries.

GWEN IFILL: Eventually, all the men were released. The tip was bogus.

DEAN POLALES: These individuals did not have any information related to a terrorist plot directed at Chicago.

GWEN IFILL: But the story didn’t end there for Tarek. When he returned from a visit to Cairo last year, his name popped up on a warning list at Kennedy International Airport. He was delayed by Immigration officials for five hours. So a year and a half after their release, Thomas Fuentes, the chief FBI agent in Indiana, took the extraordinary step of apologizing to the men.

THOMAS FUENTES, FBI Special Agent: That apology was that they had to endure what happened and that they had been put through that.

CAROLYN BAUGH: Certainly, Tom Fuentes did an incredibly human thing in going to the lengths that he did to make the apology public.

GWEN IFILL: And last month, Tarek and Carolyn got word the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago had taken the highly unusual additional step of asking a federal judge to expunge or completely wipe out the records of the Evansville arrest.

SPOKESMAN: If I were a state trooper somewhere and it came up on the computer and I saw that, that would make me treat somebody I pulled over for speeding a bit differently.

GWEN IFILL: Tarek and Carolyn are grateful for the apologies.

TAREK AL-BASTI: There is lots of stuff worse happening to lots of people, so would I say that we were just lucky that we got out of this whole thing just fine.

CAROLYN BAUGH: I didn’t have my orifices searched and I wasn’t shackled, and, you know, I didn’t go through that. I’m very eager to just put it to rest, and to thank the men who got it done quickly and to urge Godspeed to those in positions of power who have the lives of innocent men in their hands.

RAY SUAREZ: That was an excerpt from the new PBS program “Flashpoints U.S.A.” that airs Tuesday, July 15. Please check your local listings for the time.