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Are Syrian Spies Keeping Tabs on Opposition Activists in U.S.?

January 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
While the death toll in Syria's unrest has climbed above 5,000, another side of the government crackdown has played out in the U.S. A federal indictment filed in October alleges a Virginia man was actively spying on expatriates in the U.S. and passing information back to Syria. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Next, the crackdown on Syrian dissidents, this time in the United States.

While the death toll in Syria has now climbed over 5,000, another sinister side of the struggle is playing out right here at home.

Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It is an anthem filled with meaning for Syrian- American virtuoso Malek Jandali. And among the words to his composition entitled “I’m My Homeland,” “Oh, my homeland, when will I see you free?”

Jandali played it before hundreds protesting outside the White House this summer against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and in support of the uprising. Though he says the song intends a global message, his appearance and his performance may have almost cost his parents their lives back home in Damascus.

MALEK JANDALI, Syrian-American composer and pianist: And when I performed at the White House, a few hours later, less than four days, the Syrian cops and the security forces of that regime attacked my parents. Here’s a regime who couldn’t stand a five-minute song.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Did you expect them to go after your parents?

MALEK JANDALI: Yes. I actually warned my parents, you know “I’m going to be performing. Watch out.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jandali’s 73-year-old father and his 66-year-old mother were attacked in their Damascus home in late July, an assault documented with photos and video a short time later.

MALEK JANDALI: Thank God they have didn’t kill them. They handcuffed his hands and they made him watch my mom being beaten.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He had tape placed over his mouth, handcuffed, beaten.

MALEK JANDALI: Mm-hmm. That’s my dad. That’s my mom after the attack.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She’s bleeding from her eye and her head.

MALEK JANDALI: Mm-hmm. You can see her neck, too.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Shortly after the attack, Jandali’s parents were granted emergency visas to be with their son here in the U.S.

He’s convinced it was not random thuggery or even regime loyalists, but an attack orchestrated by the security forces of Bashar al-Assad. Jandali contends that the attackers acted on information gathered here in the United States. He has feared for his own safety here, and perhaps with good reason. He’s received threatening phone calls, and his own website was hacked in mid-December by the Syrian Electronic Army, which plastered a menacing message across the page.

How do you know that your parents were targeted because of what you did in Washington?

MALEK JANDALI: When they were beating my mom, she was screaming: “Why are you killing me? Why are you hitting me?”

And they said, “Well, we’re doing this to teach you a lesson, because your son is demonstrating against us.”

I have no doubt in my mind that there’s a group of people who are surveilling, monitoring the Syrian-American community. And it’s managed by the Syrian Embassy in Washington.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s a charge the Syrian government categorically denies. But it’s not just Syrian expatriates making that allegation. In mid-October, the FBI arrested Mohamad Soueid, a naturalized citizen from Syria and a former car salesman in Northern Virginia.

Among the charges leveled in the indictment, that Soueid was acting as an agent of the Syrian Mukhabarat, which is their national intelligence service. The indictment alleges he was actively spying on the expatriate community here and passing information back to Syria, where relatives of U.S.-based protesters would then be threatened or killed.

Prosecutors say he had protests videotaped for delivery to Syrian agents.

Neil MacBride is the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, based in Alexandria. His office is prosecuting the case.

NEIL MACBRIDE, U.S. Attorney: If you go through the indictment, it lays out in detail act after act after act of Mr. Soueid engaging in conduct in which he’s clearly trying to conceal, hide and misrepresent the fact that he’s an operative for Syrian intelligence. He’s directing other people to make recordings of dissidents and protesters, and then providing that information back to the Syrian government.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Part of the foundation of that case against Soueid was built on wiretapped conversations he had in Arabic with his wife and with an FBI informant. Soueid’s defenders say the government has misunderstood the tone and content of the nine conversations and mistranslated similarly harmless expressions unique to Syrian Arabic.

But McBride says there are other parts of the case that link Soueid to the Assad regime.

NEIL MACBRIDE: At a time of immense civil unrest in Syria, the president takes time to meet personally with Mr. Soueid. Mr. Soueid has access to the Syrian ambassador here in the United States. He has access to high-level members of the Syrian intelligence agency.

HARI SREENIVASAN: His trial is set for May. He is jailed without bail now. Though Soueid freely admits he’s an Assad supporter, his family and associates say he wouldn’t risk his and his wife and children’s livelihoods here. They insist he’s innocent. Soueid expressed a desire to be interviewed by the NewsHour, but our requests were denied by the authorities who hold him. His public defender also declined to speak on the record.

The Syrian Embassy in Washington, D.C., has repeatedly refused NewsHour requests for an on-camera interview with either the ambassador or a top aide on the Soueid matter and whether the Syrian government is running agents in the United States.

But in a statement, they did say: “There have been concerted efforts recently by individuals and the media to spread lies and distortions regarding the Embassy of Syria. These preposterous allegations claim that the embassy is involved in targeting or intimidating Syrian expatriates in the U.S., which is absolutely untrue.”

The Syrian-American community is divided between support for the uprising and for the Assad regime. At a Syrian orthodox church outside Washington, not a single parishioner wanted to talk about their riven homeland.

The congregation’s pastor, Fady Abdulahad, struck a careful middle ground.

REV. FADY ABDULAHAD, Saint Ephraim’s Syriac Orthodox Church: We are with those people who ask rightly for their rights. They want it in the right way, going on the streets in daylight, demonstrating peacefully, but not for those people who carry arms.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Only 10 percent of Syria is Christian. And the Assad regime has allowed them to practice and even attain high rank in the Syrian government. Some Syrian Christians are cautious to take sides in the uprising. And that caution has been reinforced by the recent travails of Christians in Egypt, as Islamists come to the fore.

Pastor Abdulahad says no one is without blame in Syria and every side is spreading its own misinformation.

REV. FADY ABDULAHAD: Everyone is engaging in a propaganda campaign, the government and the opposition, everyone. The church even is engaged in propaganda campaign. Everyone campaigns for his political point of views and how he sees what is best for the country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Abdulahad says he has heard the rumors of the Mukhabarat’s presence in the United States, but that he believes the Syrian government when it says they have nothing to do with it.

REV. FADY ABDULAHAD: I have heard it through the news. And I have went to the Syrian Embassy in D.C. And the statement posted over there that the embassy says it has nothing to do with it and it never recruited anyone to work for it who is American and who lives in the U.S.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Those denials meant little at a recent meeting of the Syrian American Council outside Washington. Speaker after speaker denounced the Damascus regime, speaking and singing of a Syria without Assad.

Many told the stories of family harassed, assaulted or worse, allegedly because of actions taken by their family members here in U.S.

Muna is from Michigan. She didn’t want her last name used for reasons that will become apparent. Her father, who left Syria 40 years ago, was marching outside the Syrian Embassy this past spring when the ambassador invited him and others in to talk.

MUNA, Syrian opposition activist: So, he gave his first name, last name, where he was from. And then same day — and I got a text from my sister in Abu Dhabi saying, isn’t this crazy? The Mukhabarat just came to my uncle’s house in Daraa and asked, what’s your brother up to over there in America?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Another uncle of hers later died from a brutal beating security forces meted out when they came to arrest one of his sons. She told us that 10 cousins were also rounded up, tortured and beaten. Muna said, if she thought it would make a difference to her family’s safety, she would stop protesting.

MUNA: You know, Mukhabarats are everywhere in the Syrian community. So, I’m certain that there’s surveillance. But to me, that is not going to stop. The fear — the wall of fear is down.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But whether any part of that wall was ever built here will be a key issue when Mohamad Soueid is brought to trial next spring.

GWEN IFILL: On our website, we want to hear from Syrian-Americans who believe they or their family members have been intimidated by agents of the Assad regime and its supporters. You can submit your information confidentially.