ASSESSING THE THREAT
September 4, 1998
In March, an immigration judge ordered six Iraqi asylum-seekers to be deported based on classified evidence. But the declassification of the evidence has raised new questions about the case. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET reports.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
May 4, 1998
An initial report on the U.S. government's decision to deport six Iraqis.
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The United Nations.
JEFFREY KAYE: Six Iraqi men the U.S. Government says are security risks have been in federal detention in Los Angeles for a year and a half. Brought here by the U.S. to seek political asylum, they say they were part of a CIA plan to overthrow Saddam Hussein. But in March an immigration judge ordered them deported based on classified evidence, which even their lawyers couldn't see. The secrecy brought wide attention to the case. But this summer Justice Department lawyers changed their minds and declassified FBI reports, secret court hearings, and the judge's decision. The FBI originally classified most of the evidence. That was a mistake, now says Paul Virtue, general counsel of the U.S. Immigration Service, speaking for the U.S. Justice Department.
PAUL VIRTUE: When it was reviewed at headquarters, FBI, as a consequence of that review, the FBI determined that it should not have been classified, or at least that the greater portion of that should not have been classified.
JEFFREY KAYE: The Iraqis' lawyer, Niels Frenzen, who's appealing the deportation order, says had he seen the evidence against his clients, he might have successfully countered the government's case.
NIELS FRENZEN: We would have been able to respond to a variety of ridiculous charges very easily. In regard to some more serious allegations, we would have been able to bring in evidence to rebut the significance of those allegations. And we were prevented from doing that, and a judge ruled against us because that evidence was withheld from us.
Shedding light on the U.S.' case.
JEFFREY KAYE: Some of the evidence is still secret. But the now declassified materials shed new light on the government's case. The government says Dr. Ali Yassin Mohammed Karim is related to a man the U.S. believes is an Iranian agent. It says Dr. Karim kept his true identity and relationship to the man hidden. Former Iraqi soldier Safa Batat is believed to have ties to numerous Mideastern intelligence agencies and to have lied about his past. Mohammed Tuma, a defector from the Iraqi army, is suspected of being an Iraqi agent, as are three other detainees. The Iraqis say the allegations are false.
DR. ALI YASIN MOHAMMED KARIM: What was written against me are 100 percent lies and confusion.
SAFA BATAT: (speaking through interpreter) I was shocked, reading all these secret documents. I'm still in a state of shock.
JEFFREY KAYE: Those documents suggest the government's case is based largely on FBI interviews. They were conducted in 1996 in Guam - en route to the U.S. - after the government evacuated the six men, along with 6500 other Iraqi refugees. The rescue followed Saddam Hussein's attack on the Iraqi opposition. According to Frenzen, most of the government's case against his clients is based on tips provided by rival Iraqi informers in Guam - tips the FBI took at face value.
NIELS FRENZEN: The government collected these allegations and then stopped -- accepted these allegations as true. There was no investigation done. They gathered raw information; they put it down on a piece of paper; they improperly and perhaps illegally stamped "secret" on this piece of paper, and then they condemned our clients.
JEFFREY KAYE: The defense points to newly released accusations against Dr. Karim, which they say show government misunderstanding and confusion. The government says Dr. Karim deceived them by not revealing his true last name is "Al-Ufayli." Government records show that nobody with the Al-Ufayli name was supposed to be processed to come to the U.S. to avoid admitting relatives of this man - Aras Habib Mohammed Karim, now living in London. The government believes he is an Iranian agent, a charge he denies, and that is real family name is "Al-Ufayli." Although Dr. Karim admits being related, he says he never lied about his last name, which is at the center of the government's case against him.
PAUL VIRTUE: Our contention was that he may have not used that name because he would have known that Ufayli would not be a name that would be accepted on the list.
DR. ALI YASIN MOHAMMED KARIM: I am Dr. Ali Yassin Mohammed Karim.
JEFFREY KAYE: Is that your real name?
DR. ALI YASIN MOHAMMED KARIM: Yes. I have only this name. I have no other names.
JEFFREY KAYE: What about the name Al-Ufayli?
DR. ALI YASIN MOHAMMED KARIM: Faili -- no Al-Ufayli -- Faili.
JEFFREY KAYE: Dr. Karim says he's a Faili Kurd, one of a large ethnic group. Iraqi expert Adeed Dawisha says FBI agents may have confused a name "Al-Ufayli" with Dr. Karim's ethnicity as a Faili Kurd. Dawisha is a professor at George Mason University in Virginia.
ADEED DAWISHA: Faili is a group of Kurds who are Shiite Kurds and, in fact, not even mainstream Shiites. In Iraq, you do not designate your family name by your sect. And so no one will go and call themselves Faili.
JEFFREY KAYE: The immigration judge found Safa Batat also lied, according to newly released reports. Batat claims Iraqi agents poisoned him with thallium, a rat poison he says was slipped into a drink. Virtue says Batat used the poison recreationally.
JEFFREY KAYE: That's what you believe - that he was trying to get high by using the drug, thallium?
PAUL VIRTUE: That's what we believe based on the information we have, that's right.
NIELS FRENZEN: The allegations against Safa Batat in some respects are the most serious and in some respects are the most ludicrous. Thallium is a deadly poison. Safa Batat was evacuated, with the assistance of the U.S. Government, with the assistance, as far as we understand, of the Central Intelligence Agency, several years ago to a military hospital in Great Britain for treatment for thallium poisoning.
Questioning the FBI's understanding of Middle Eastern culture.
JEFFREY KAYE: The government says it got the information on Batat from an Iraqi source in Guam but defense lawyers maintain thallium causes bleeding, vomiting, and death, not a high, a claim corroborated by independent drug specialists we interviewed. The Defense also questions the FBI's understanding of Middle Eastern culture. The declassified documents show that FBI agents told the judge Arabs "lie a lot" and know "no guilt" - "only shame." The agents said their opinions were based on experience and training. The Justice Department's Virtue says the Iraqis can have their case retried or appealed. He remains firm that regardless of the controversy over the evidence, the men are security risks.
PAUL VIRTUE: I think it's important to remember that the immigration court has looked at all the evidence in total and make an assessment that there is a reason to believe that all of these individuals represent a danger to the national security.
JEFFREY KAYE: For their part, the Iraqis have mixed feelings now they know more about the case against them.
JEFFREY KAYE: Knowing what you do about what the government is saying, are you optimistic or pessimistic about your future in this case?
DR. ALI YASIN MOHAMMED KARIM: If the law system in the United States -- just like this tragedy -- I am hopeless.
MOHAMMED TUMA: (speaking through interpreter) I am optimistic if these documents are given to Middle East and Iraqi specialists, they'll understand our case.
JEFFREY KAYE: While the Iraqis' lawyers consider their next step, controversy over the use of secret evidence remains. Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, who sits on the judiciary and immigration committees, says he is troubled by the government's handling of evidence in this case.
Sen. Kyl: "This was a situation in which government agencies simply did not do their job properly."
SEN. JON KYL: It seems strange now that 95 percent of it can be declassified and that some of it appears not to have been very secret information. This was a situation in which government agencies simply did not do their job properly. And it has resulted in a continued prolonged imprisonment of people who we don't know yet whether they should be allowed to remain in this country or not. They may be perfectly innocent of the charges that apparently have been leveled against them by someone.
JEFFREY KAYE: Kyl says Congress may have to consider new laws to ensure evidence in future immigration cases is not wrongly classified. But the Justice Department's Paul Virtue says any mistakes have been remedied.
PAUL VIRTUE: The Immigration Service has put into place procedures to request in writing an unclassified summary of any classified material that we propose to use in Immigration Court. In addition, the FBI has put into place classification reviews for any material that would be used in Immigration Court, irrespective of its source.
JEFFREY KAYE: The men's lawyers say the remainder of the classified evidence - which they believe comes from the CIA - should also be released. They say without it, their clients will never receive due process.