We take a look at a largely covert aspect of the Bush administration’s War on Terror–the government’s aggressive solicitation of Muslim informants. We speak with Banafsheh Akhlaghi, the attorney for Yassine Ouassif–who had his Green Card confiscated and was asked by the FBI to be an informant in the Muslim community in San Francisco. [includes rush transcript]
We now look at a largely covert aspect of the Bush administration’s War on Terror–the government’s aggressive pursuit of Muslim informants. This week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled, “A Muslim’s Choice: Turn U.S Informant or Risk Losing Visa.” The report detailed the case of Yassine Ouassif. Last November Yassine’s green card was taken away from him when he crossed the border from Canada. Yassine was then sent home to San Francisco and told to contact a counterterrorism agent at the FBI. The article states that the agent “made him an offer: become an informant and regularly report to the FBI on what his Muslim friends in San Francisco were saying and doing. In exchange he would get back his green card.” According to Yassine, if he refused, the agent threatened to deport him back to Morocco.
- Banafsheh Akhlaghi, attorney for Yassine Ouassif. She is founder and president of the National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in our D.C. studio by Banafsheh Akhlaghi. She’s an attorney for Yassine Ouassif. Banafsheh is also the founder and president of the National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement, a group working to protect the civil rights of people from the Middle East, of Middle East backgrounds, Muslims, South Asians. We did invite a spokesperson from the FBI to be on our program today, but they declined our request. Banafsheh Akhlaghi, tell us more about your client.
BANAFSHEH AKHLAGHI: Good morning, Amy. Yes, Yassine Ouassif entered my office at the latter part of last year. And when he entered, he was placed in what’s called deferred inspections, so he wasn’t yet placed in deportation proceedings and removal proceedings. And deferred inspections is this quasi-administrative aspect functionality of the immigration system.
Well, he had an appointment. We entered the facility at 630 Sansome in San Francisco, California, for that appointment. When we were waiting to be seen on the issue of having his green card being taken away from him — and he had received his green card, I should say, through the lottery system — and when we were waiting to be seen, we noticed that the FBI agent that Yassine had met with in Oakland at the Bay Area Rapid Transportation system — it’s a location where he and the FBI agent had been basically moving around, walking around the BART station for some hour-and-a-half to two hours while the FBI agent was attempting to have Yassine agree to become an informant for the FBI — that FBI agent, along with another gentleman with the Joint Terrorism Task Force, entered the same floor, and they asked me to come in first. And they explained to me that they were going to, out of respect and out of not protocol, definitely not out of protocol, allow me to sit in with the investigation and the interview, in representation of my client. But they were also quite clear in stating that I shouldn’t speak too much and that if I had gotten in the way of their investigations, that they could ask me to leave.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, when they first confronted him, the FBI agents apparently told him that they had been monitoring him and some of his friends for quite some time. Do you have any information now about what kind of surveillance was being done even before they approached him?
BANAFSHEH AKHLAGHI: Once we received the green card back months later, what I was told by the Department of Homeland Security’s attorney was that there were transcripts, and the transcripts were finally unclassified, declassified, and that he had a moment to be able to glance at those transcripts. Now, I haven’t actually been able to access the transcripts myself. But allegedly what has appeared in those transcripts are communications between Yassine and his friends. One individual, in particular, according to the attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, was not truly a friend, but an informant, as well, for the FBI, and that in those communications, that there was some political speech and viewpoint by Yassine and his friends and his colleagues that would have been and are protected by the First Amendment as free speech, political speech.
But in this case, it had risen to the level of suspicion and the level of investigation. Now, in terms of how heightened that level was, they didn’t have enough — the government didn’t have enough, in terms of evidence, to be able to place Yassine in removal proceedings. In fact, what was stated by the Department of Homeland Security’s attorneys was, go and find evidence before I can proceed, we can proceed, on deportation claims. So for several months, five months, we were waiting for what was called future possible evidence to come through. And in the meantime, Yassine’s life was literally placed on hold.
AMY GOODMAN: The FBI refused to come on, but they did send a statement from special agent — I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing her name right — LaRue Quy, spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California, who said, “The FBI did not arbitrarily choose Mr. Ouassif from a group of young Muslim men. The FBI was in receipt of specific information that indicated Mr. Ouassif was either directly involved in or had knowledge of terrorist-related activities. After conversations with Mr. Ouassif and further investigation, our concerns about Mr. Ouassif have considerably diminished.” That, the spokesperson for the FBI. Your response, Banafsheh Akhlaghi?
BANAFSHEH AKHLAGHI: You know, the course of action is really the issue, the way in which the FBI decided to really just target this individual. I mean, let’s be very clear on what occurred. My client went back to Casablanca, Morocco, where he’s a native of, to visit his family. Through the Charles de Gaulle Airport in France, he boarded a plane and was heading towards San Francisco. Three hours en route, three hours en route, the pilot comes on to the intercom and states that there’s a security breach on that flight. My client, along with the rest of the passengers on that flight, became quite distressed and distraught. They turned the flight back around. They land. Two French officials board the plane and approach my client. And it’s at that point that Yassine discovers that he is the security breach.
And from there, he has to purchase his own ticket back to Casablanca, where again he’s handed over to the officials, the Moroccan officials, and he is investigated and questioned there for over a month. And during the course of the investigations and the questioning and interrogations, he’s literally told that the United States government wants for his cooperation. He really truly believes that they have the wrong name, the wrong individual, so he attempt to come back into the United States through Montreal, Canada, so that he can access the government here and try to figure out exactly where the problem was. Now, when he enters back through New York, the FBI come and visit him, and they give him a card, and they say the FBI agent in San Francisco is awaiting his response.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, Banafsheh.
BANAFSHEH AKHLAGHI: The issue is, if you are looking for terrorists, if you are looking for national security threats, these are not the mechanisms and the ways to do it, because if Yassine was truly a threat, back within the community, these types of evidence are being collected. And individuals, if they had a negative thought about the United States, based on these actions, can truly start to look at ways to be able to harm us. Yassine is not one of those individuals.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us. Banafsheh Akhlaghi is the attorney for Yassine Ouassif. In the Wall Street Journal piece by Peter Waldman, “A Muslim’s Choice: Turn U.S. Informant or Risk Losing Visa,” it ends with a quote of Mr. Ouassif. He says, “It’s okay to ask me or anyone else if you see a dangerous person, an extremist, will you call us,” he says. “Of course, I will. But I don’t want to live a secret life.”