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Justice Department anti-terrorism investigators want to interview more foreigners

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) _ Attorney General John Ashcroft said anti-terrorism investigators will seek voluntary interviews with about 3,000 more foreign visitors in the United States.

The announcement Wednesday generated the same allegations of ethnic profiling that arose after an initial group was targeted last year.

Ashcroft insisted that 90 percent of those questioned have cooperated with authorities, whose sensitivity ``fostered new trust'' with Arab and Muslim communities. He said an initial round of interviews had produced promising leads.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, challenged that assertion.

``Law enforcement officials and local community leaders alike have made it clear to us that the first round of interviews produced no useful information,'' he said. ``At the same time those interviews created deep strains between law enforcement and recent immigrants who are Arab and-or Muslim.''

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said, ``The suggestion that Arab and Muslim Americans appreciate begin singled out and interrogated is a prime example of the Attorney General's wartime propaganda machine in full swing.''

Conyers, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, represents a Detroit district with many constituents who were interviewed.

Ashcroft, in a news conference at the U.S. attorney's office, said more than 2,200 interviews were conducted in the first round from nearly 5,000 names retrieved from government databases.

Most of the remainder were found to have left the country or could not be located. The investigators' best efforts to find them ``could not overcome the serious flaws that exist in our ability to locate visitors to our country,'' Ashcroft said, adding he is looking for dramatic improvement in the immigration system.

Interviews with the next group would be completed in 60 days, he said. ``These will be men who come from a variety of settings and whose passports reflect a variety of settings where there have been strong al-Qaida presences,'' Ashcroft said.

The completed interviews enabled anti-terrorism task forces to develop new sources of information, and a number of the foreign nationals agreed to continue talking to investigators, Ashcroft said.

He released a report that provided sketchy details of leads gleaned from the interviews. It said investigators learned the name and address of a person connected to the Sept. 11 hijackers; spoke with someone who recalled seeing one of the hijackers; and learned of individuals who had taken flight training in Florida, as had some of the attackers.

``We believe that these individuals might either wittingly or unwittingly be in the same circles, communities, or social groups as those engaged in terrorist activities,'' Ashcroft said. ``The individuals to be interviewed are not suspected of any criminal activity.''

Ashcroft said fewer than 20 of those interviewed were taken into custody, mostly for immigration violations. Three were charged with criminal violations, none related to terrorism.

The attorney general said the interviews ``were designed to disrupt potential terrorist activities. The sheer volume of activity and the dedication of the task forces ensured that potential terrorists hiding in our communities knew that law enforcement was on the job in their neighborhoods,'' he said.

The government's prevention strategy ``may well have contributed to the fact that we have not suffered a substantial terrorist attack since Sept. 11,'' he insisted.

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