WASHINGTON (AP) _ Investigators are knocking on the doors of Middle Eastern visitors in the United States and looking through the files of foreign students as part of a widening terrorism inquiry, sparking complaints about racial profiling.
State and federal agents are questioning 5,000 male foreigners from Middle Eastern and other countries, and investigators have contacted more than 200 colleges and universities seeking information about foreign students from Arab and Muslim nations.
Authorities say those sought for questioning are not suspects but are wanted for voluntary interviews because investigators believe they might have information that will help police find those who planned the Sept. 11 attacks and others planning new attacks.
They are being targeted because they fit the criteria of people who might have knowledge of foreign-based terrorists and not because of their nationality, according to a Justice Department memo.
None will be forced to submit to interviews; those who choose to speak to investigators can have lawyers present.
Civil rights groups say investigators are threatening the basic privacy rights of people from particular ethnic groups.
``We have serious concerns about what appears to be a dragnet approach rather than a targeted investigation,'' said Lucas Guttentag, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's immigration rights project.
Only those who traveled from nations that have been way stations for terrorists in Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network were placed on the list, said Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker, who declined to specify which countries were targeted.
``We looked at the country they entered from. We're not looking at their nationality,'' said Tucker. ``They are not suspects, they are simply people who we want to talk to because they may have helpful information.''
They will be asked whether they have heard anyone advocating terrorism or violence, according to a Justice Department memo. Tucker said they would not be questioned about their religious beliefs and practices.
Law enforcement sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said over 20 countries are targeted, including Middle Eastern and European countries. The 19 hijackers and their accomplices are believed to have plotted the attacks in Germany and England and suspected ringleader Mohamed Atta traveled to Spain and the Czech Republic. Some of the hijackers entered the United States from Europe and some obtained visas in Saudi Arabia.
Late last week, the Justice Department began distributing names of male foreigners to federal and state anti-terrorism task forces around the country. Using immigration and State Department records, investigators compiled names of males aged 18-33 who entered the country after Jan. 1, 2000.
David Cole, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said most of those on the list will be Arab or Muslim.
``This is as close as you get to ethnic profiling without literally relying on ethnicity,'' said Cole.
A memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft to law enforcement agencies says the men were targeted because their backgrounds are similar to people who have already helped investigators since Sept. 11. ``These individuals were not selected in order to single out a particular ethnic or religious group,'' Ashcroft said.
The ACLU and other groups are already up in arms about new wiretapping laws and new rules that allow investigators to monitor communications between detainees and their lawyers.
Local police will conduct many of the interviews. Their new role follows complaints by local law enforcement agencies that the FBI has not shared terrorism information relevant to their communities.
Meanwhile, more than 200 colleges have been asked for records about foreign students, including what subjects they are studying and their e-mail addresses and phone numbers.
A survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers showed that the majority complied with the requests, which came from the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service or state and local police. Universities are obligated by law to provide the information.
A number of Arab and Muslim students at the University of Colorado in Denver have been interviewed by investigators and some have probably been asked to provide names of other Arab students, said Larry Bell, director of international education at the University of Colorado. No arrests have been made.