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JEFFREY KAYE: Since September 11, thousands of Muslims and Arab Americans have been caught up in the biggest criminal investigation in U.S. History. In southern California alone, home to a quarter of a million Muslims, the FBI has pursued more than 22,000 leads.
MAN: I opened the door; there were two gentlemen from the FBI
MAN: Turn the light on; open the door– five agents walked in.
MAN: They said, “We’d like to speak with you regarding the events of last Tuesday.”
JEFFREY KAYE: Dr. Riad Abdelkarim says FBI Agents questioned him for 75 minutes, mostly about his political views.
DR. RIAD ABDELKARIM, Physician: They asked me, “Are we the bad guys in this thing?” I looked at them kind of funny and I said, “who is ‘we’ and what ‘thing’ are you talking about?” He said, “‘we’ being the United States, and ‘this thing’, you know, this thing with Osama bin Laden.”
JEFFREY KAYE: Hani Teebe, who imports food from the Middle East, says he was asked similar questions.
HANI TEEBE, Food Importer: What they had is just, “what do you think about it? How did you feel about it? Do you know anybody who was happy about it?”
JEFFREY KAYE: And real estate agent Tariq Mirzaq says he was asked about his numerous recent calls to his native country of Pakistan.
TARIQ MIRZAQ, Real Estate Agent: And they asked, “Who did you talk to? What did you talk about?” And I just talk to my family. Pretty simple. I just called my brother, talked to my mom. “What’s going on? What are you doing?” Simple things. And after the thing, I’ve been… The last few days, I’ve been thinking about it. Am I done with or not? Or are they going to come back, arrest me? That is something which is very unsettling, like an experience. It keeps… It’s just like a fear in the back of my mind.
JEFFREY KAYE: FBI Agent Stephen Steinhauser is trying to address concerns like these.
STEPHEN STEINHAUSER, Federal Bureau of Investigation: Why are you so afraid of the FBI? You know, hopefully, you’re not believing everything you read in the paper.
JEFFREY KAYE: Recently the 23- year veteran of the bureau in charge of a three-county area of southern California accepted an invitation by Muslims and Arab Americans to answer questions, not ask them.
STEPHEN STEINHAUSER: Unfortunately, we may not always be able to tell you why that agent or agents are knocking on your door. And that is because of the nature of this investigation. I hope that you would understand that. If we can explain it to you, we will, but we are not targeting and we are not profiling. If we’re knocking on your door, it is because we have a question to ask and you may have the answer.
JEFFREY KAYE: For two and a half hours Steinhauser responded to a salvo of questions.
AREFA VOHRA: You mentioned that racial profiling has not been taking place in regards to the September 11 tragedy, so what are the specifics in terms of the American Muslims that have been questioned and the non- American Muslims that have been questioned?
STEPHEN STEINHAUSER: The FBI Is not keeping statistics. However, when we’re investigating the activities of 19 terrorists that were involved in the atrocities of September 11, what we are trying to do is peel back layers of how they had integrated themselves into the fabric of the Arab-American culture and society. They knew that they could wrap themselves around your customs, your culture, and your people — not telling you what they were here for, but hiding themselves, concealing themselves, camouflaging themselves for their true roles that they were about to play.
JEFFREY KAYE: Sidqi Sobhi’s remote connection to the terrorists led the FBI to his door. Last week, he and his sister Lamia were cleaning up after a search of their apartment. Agents confiscated a computer and books belonging to the Yemeni students. Sidqi Sobhi says the agents questioned him extensively about his car insurance policy.
SIDQI SOBHI: After two and a half hours of questioning about insurance policy, I asked him, “What is going on? At least let me know what is my position in all that’s going on?”
JEFFREY KAYE: It turned out that Sobhi’s name had appeared on insurance papers of a friend who lived in the same apartment complex of two of the hijackers.
SIDQI SOBHI: I don’t think he knows them on a personal level. I know him; he’s a straight… You know, a straight student and not into too much socializing.
JEFFREY KAYE: Did you ever go to that complex?
SIDQI SOBHI: No, I’ve never been to San Diego to visit him.
JEFFREY KAYE: The Sobhis were handcuffed, and taken off to an Immigration Service detention center. They were held for 16 days. Lamia Sobhi says she understands why she and her brother were questioned, but she says she was humiliated by officials who refused to let her wear her headscarf. She had never been before a man without it.
LAMIA SOBHI: I was basically scared because they really scared me and I didn’t want to break down and cry in front of them, because I felt like they wanted to, like, you know, to show that they’re stronger. They’re, like, “yeah, yeah, we know this is you and everything, but here you follow the rules like everybody else.
JEFFREY KAYE: The Sobhis are now facing deportation because the Immigration Service says their student visas have expired. Like the Sobhis, many questioned by the FBI had something in their past that might have raised red flags with authorities. Food wholesaler Hani Teebe studied nuclear physics, but never pursued a career in the subject. Physician Abdelkarim sits on the board of a humanitarian organization that Israel accuses of having terrorist connections; his group denies the ties. And real estate agent Mirzaq said the FBI asked him about his aviation background.
TARIQ MIRZAQ: They asked me, “how about this guy who hit the towers? Is it very difficult to do that or not?” I said, “I don’t have any experience in any big commercial airlines, but as a pilot, I know basically it’s a difficult thing to do.”
STEPHEN STEINHAUSER: Keep in mind that we’re not going out and talking to people because of their culture or because of their religion or because they are of Middle Eastern descent. We are talking to that individual because perhaps that phone number for your residence was written on an application that a hijacker used; perhaps that address was used by a hijacker on some application or some reference.
JEFFREY KAYE: The future of civil liberties was a major concern at this forum.
WOMAN: Are we going to compromise civil rights for national security?
STEPHEN STEINHAUSER: Is there a chance that some of your civil liberties may slip while we guarantee the security of this country? Maybe. Maybe.
JEFFREY KAYE: Steinhauser suggested that liberties might be eroded depending on circumstances.
STEPHEN STEINHAUSER: Let me give you an example: Do you have the civil right and the civil liberties to go into a grocery store without being searched? Yes or no? Yes. You have that. That is one of your civil liberties. You can go into a grocery store, buy your gallon of milk, and walk out and you are guaranteed you’re not going to be searched. Now, next week, a suicide bomber straps on a dynamite pack and he walks into the local Ralph’s or Albertson’s and he blows himself up over by the bananas. Well, maybe it’s the meat department. (Laughter) Three days later, it’s an Albertson’s a mile away. A couple of days later it’s a Vaughan’s, a couple of blocks away — three, four, five suicide bombers in grocery stores in the United States of America, here in Orange County. Now, every grocery store hires an armed guard and everybody that goes into the grocery store must be frisked and go through a metal detector. What happened to those civil liberties?
JEFFREY KAYE: Steinhauser assured the audience they could trust the FBI and that the government would not repeat abuses of the past, abuses that were vivid in the memories of Japanese Americans invited to this forum to share their experiences and advice.
SALLY TSUNEISHI: And the FBI Did come to my home, December 7, 11:30 at night, knocked on the door, took my father in his nightclothes and slippers, and we haven’t seen him after that for two and a half years. In those days, we went sheepishly where the government told us to go. We didn’t have the guts to say, “Hey, I’m an American– I won’t go.” But I think now most people are sophisticated. I think that Arab Americans are more sophisticated. It won’t happen to you, never, because I can see the young people today are so much more sophisticated and they know their rights as a citizen and they’re not going anywhere that they don’t feel like going. (Applause)
JEFFREY KAYE: Despite the resolve and amity in this room, fears linger as to whether the government can effectively investigate the crimes of September 11 and after without putting entire communities under a pall of suspicion.