Cover Story

Enemy within

Terrorist activities have left no doubt that dangerous foreign nationals live and operate on U.S. soil. What should (and can) the government do about it?

Issue: "Homeland insecurity," Nov. 10, 2001

They were supposed to be students; they turned out to be killers. Hani Hanjour and Mohamed Atta, two of the terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, were among the 600,000 foreigners admitted each year on student visas. How many others among those 600,000 are here not to learn from America's institutions but to destroy them? President Bush last week announced that he intends to find out. "We're generous with our universities. We're generous with our job opportunities," he said. "And never did we realize that people would take advantage of our generosity to the extent they have." At the first meeting of his new Homeland Security Council, Mr. Bush said that, in addition to adopting measures to "tighten up the visa policy" and monitor students after they arrive, he would name a Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force to recommend other changes. There seems to be no shortage of opportunities. With national attention turned toward immigration, people are asking questions like: Why does the Visa Waiver Pilot Program allow travelers from some foreign countries to enter the United States through an American consulate without obtaining a visa (and thus without criminal screening)? Or what is the government going to do about the 2 million "nonimmigrant overstays"-travelers who arrived using legal visas, but who didn't leave when their visas expired? Suspected 9/11 conspirator Ayub Ali Khan and Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested in August after a Minnesota flight school notified authorities he wanted to learn how to steer a large commercial jet, both held expired visas. Those questions may be leading to significant reform. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) last month introduced a bill under which foreign travelers entering the United States would be issued "biometric" visas encoded with their irises, palm prints, or other identifying characteristics. The measure also would create a centralized database of all visa holders and other noncitizens who enter the country each year. To screen out criminals, the database would intersect with those maintained by intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. "Our nation's borders have become a sieve, creating ample opportunities for terrorists to enter and establish their operations without detection," Ms. Feinstein said. The conservative Mr. Kyl and the liberal Ms. Feinstein may seem like strange political bedfellows, but this isn't the first time the threat of hostile foreign nationals on U.S. soil has brought the left and right together. "It is a fact," wrote left-liberal columnist Walter Lippman on Feb. 12, 1942, "that the Japanese navy has been reconnoitering the Pacific Coast more or less continually and for a considerable period of time, testing and feeling out the American defenses. It is a fact that communication takes place between the enemy at sea and enemy agents on land. These are facts which we shall ignore or minimize at our peril." Lippman wrote those words about two months after the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. Now, nearly two months after attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon exacted a death toll nearly double that at Pearl Harbor, America faces similar facts:

  • It is a fact that terrorist cells have been reconnoitering the United States for years, operating with impunity inside American territory. The 9/11 hijackers had been living here, working, attending college, even learning to fly passenger jets.
  • It is a fact that communication takes place between terrorists in the United States and their sponsors overseas. After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted congratulatory cell phone calls from the Daytona Beach area that they said were likely made to bin Laden associates overseas.
  • It is a daunting question: Even as U.S. missiles scorch bin Laden associates in Afghanistan, the American government has to decide what to do about the enemies now living within our own borders. The question is daunting for at least three reasons: First, America is not officially at war. By the time Walter Lippman's column hit print in 1942, Congress had declared war on Italy, Germany, and Japan, creating in the process what are known legally in wartime as "enemy aliens"-nationals of countries residing in a nation with which those countries are at war. But today's war against terrorism is technically an undeclared one, so "enemy aliens," though they exist in fact, do not exist in law-and neither do wartime sanctions against them. Second, as Hitler and Mussolini plundered the Eastern Hemisphere in 1939, U.S. immigration policy focused on national security and still sharply limited entry into the country. But since World War II, immigration law has centered increasingly on economic and cultural interests, and is rendered virtually toothless by academic groups courting deep-pocketed foreign students and businesses seeking cheap workers. Five million illegal aliens now live in the United States and unless they commit a crime, authorities pretty much ignore them. Finally, up until the past quarter-century, being or becoming an "American" was something special. Immigrants avidly sought citizenship and proudly blended their own national heritages into the American melting pot. Today, though, the United States is locked in the grip of multiculturalism. Racial and ethnic divisions are heightened, while the government is blurring the distinction between the rights of citizens and noncitizens. In such a climate, no one seems to want to state the obvious: Every one of the 19 suicide hijackers who conspired to murder more than 5,000 people on Sept. 11 was of Arab descent. Every one was a young, male noncitizen. Every one adhered to a violent form of Islam. Investigators were able to link most of them with Arab states known to sponsor terrorism. Shouldn't we ask aloud: How should the U.S. government use that information? Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a similar question in 1941. In late 1940 American cryptographers unraveled the Japanese diplomatic code "Purple," according to the late David D. Lowman, a former National Security Agency official and author of a book on the U.S. evacuation of Japanese residents from the West Coast during World War II. FDR faced the dilemma of how to break up domestic Japanese spy rings without revealing to the enemy that Americans had cracked their code. His answer, provoked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and now considered racist by historians, was Executive Order 9006, which created an "exclusion zone" along the West Coast. Executive Order 9006, which did not mention any race or national ancestry (a fact that led the Supreme Court to later affirm the order as constitutional), established a geographical slice of America from which "any or all persons may be excluded." But the government forced only Japanese-Americans-110,000 of them-to move from California and parts of Washington, Oregon, and Arizona. While some of those citizens chose to move inland, away from the exclusion zone, which they were free to do, most found it safer in the anti-Japanese national climate to move to barracks-like cities called Relocation Centers, to wait out the war. Many of these honest citizens, unable to secure their property on short notice, lost homes, businesses, land, and thousands of dollars in personal property. In addition to relocating citizens, the United States "interned" or imprisoned 11,229 Japanese nationals who refused to vow loyalty to the United States, as well as 5,260 Nisei-or second-generation Japanese-Americans-who renounced their U.S. citizenship. The INS also records as interned 10,905 Germans, 3,278 Italians, and more than 200 nationals from other countries. Most people would agree that Japanese who pledged allegiance to Japan after its government had just attacked and killed 3,000 Americans were rightly considered a national security threat. Creation of the exclusion zone appears-in retrospect, with the war long won-to have gone well beyond necessity. Some historians have so tarred the government's action during World War II that American military and law-enforcement groups are reluctant today to use national origin-Arab origin, in particular-to identify potential enemies in the war on terrorism. Even if the government committed such a cultural no-no, the definition of the word enemy might itself be too malleable to be meaningful. The definition could change with the direction of U.S. missile fire. Today, Afghan noncitizens, next Iraqis? The Justice Department's 22 most-wanted terrorists hail from a mixed bag of ally and antagonist countries including Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Kenya. Do American authorities begin investigating noncitizen males from those countries as well? Most-wanted terrorist Abdul Rahman Yasin, an anomaly on the list, throws another kink into the problem: Mr. Yasin is an American citizen born in Bloomington, Indiana. Prior to America's official entry into World War II, the FBI focused its internal security efforts on potentially dangerous German, Italian, and Japanese nationals, as well as native-born Americans whose beliefs and activities aided the Axis powers. During that period, the FBI infiltrated the Frederick Duquesne spy ring, then the largest internal espionage operation the United States had discovered. The investigation led to the arrest and conviction of 33 spies. Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the FBI quickly identified all 19 suicide hijackers, along with more than 50 confederates. Going forward, much of the interior battle against terrorism will continue to fall to federal law-enforcement agencies. President Bush last month signed anti-terrorism legislation that expands such agencies' wiretapping and electronic surveillance authority, and gives police wide-ranging new powers to secretly search people's homes and business records, and to eavesdrop on telephone and computer conversations. But civil-liberties groups-and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), the lone senator who voted against the anti-terrorism bill-fear such power will spawn abuses against both citizens and noncitizens. It did in 1942. Seven FBI agents with machine guns arrested Alfred Heitmann at his home in Astoria, N.Y., in June 1942. In court, U.S. prosecutors accused him of having signed a document pledging allegiance to Germany, and he remained interned until the end of the war. Officials later learned that it was a different Heitmann who had signed the pledge. Today, University of Dayton history professor John Heitmann explains that his father Alfred was a Standard Oil employee working in New York when the United States declared war on Germany. The elder Heitmann had lived in America since 1933, but had never become a citizen. Standard Oil at the time was under investigation for links with the Germans, John Heitmann says: "My father had access to all the oil tanker routes. The real concern was over Standard Oil shuttling oil to the German submarines in the Canary Islands." Given such past injustices, how should the FBI proceed in today's war? "We do have to investigate people, there's no doubt about it," John Heitmann says. "The lesson to be learned from WWII: Be very careful in the handling of evidence and authenticity of the knowledge generated by investigations. The misreading of a document had horrific consequences for my family." Some observers already are concerned about the uncharacteristic shroud of secrecy surrounding the detention and investigation of more than 900 people rounded up in connection with the 9/11 attacks. Officials have often sealed court records and kept hearing and grand jury proceedings secret, while charging only a few people with crimes. Three Arab men in San Diego were arrested on Sept. 21 as material witnesses to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Without notifying their attorney Randall Hamud, authorities transported Osama Awadallah, 21, and Mohamed Al-Mohdar, 23, and another man from California to a New York detention facility and held them for a month in federal jail cells, allowing them no visitors, and no access to radio, television, or reading materials. But last month Mr. Awadallah and Mr. Al-Mohdar were charged with immigration violations. Khaled Saffuri, president of the Islamic Institute in Washington, D.C., is concerned that authorities held the men so long without filing charges against them. As for singling out or "profiling" Arabs as potential enemies, Mr. Saffuri has mixed feelings. "We understand suspicion has to be in the direction of Arabs, since the [terrorists] were mostly Arabs," he said. "But we want to be treated with respect, as innocent until proven guilty." Prior to 9/11, Mr. Saffuri traveled by plane almost every week. But since the attacks, he's cut back his travel by about 70 percent, partly because of the inconvenience of new travel restrictions, and partly because "it's embarrassing being singled out at the airport because I'm an Arab ... people can choose their name, choose their religion, but we cannot choose our face." Still, Mr. Saffuri doesn't get angry when singled out. "I know they're doing their job, and I don't mind. Innocent people will forgive if treated fairly. But it's a thin line, and it's important we have respect for civil liberties." As it stands, the now amorphous notion of civil liberties may represent the greatest obstacle to thwarting aliens who truly are terrorist enemies of the United States. What stands in the way, according to Sam Karnick, editor of the Hudson Institute's conservative journal American Outlook, is "the nation's multiculturalist philosophy, which discourages us from treating noncitizens differently from citizens." In a Sept. 25 editorial, Mr. Karnick lambasted the U.S. government for treating foreign nationals on U.S. soil as if they had all the civil rights of American citizens: "But they certainly do not. Human rights, yes, but civil rights, no.... We should surely be cautious, humane, and sensitive in our monitoring of our noncitizen guests. But our first priority must be the safety of the American people." Since the 9/11 attacks the INS has adopted a similar view. Before 9/11, "we tried to balance the needs of legitimate travelers with the need for national security," said Lauren Mack, of the San Diego INS. "But the world has changed. Our protection and the needs of national security now outweigh the needs of travelers not to be inconvenienced. We don't expect that to go away." In the final analysis, how does a hyper-pluralist nation with sieve-like borders fight internal enemies in an undeclared war? Attorney General John Ashcroft last week may have distilled an answer: He pledged to use new powers granted by Congress to pursue terrorist suspects relentlessly, intercept their phone calls, read their unopened e-mail and phone messages, and throw them in jail for the smallest of crimes. Echoing a threat then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy made four decades ago to pursue mobsters for spitting on the sidewalk, Mr. Ashcroft said: "Let the terrorists among us be warned." Provided national resolve remains firm, that may be a warning terrorists ignore or minimize at their peril.

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