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Thanks for Nothing

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Six Iraqi separatists who helped the CIA in its attempts to overthrow Saddam Hussein were flown to the U.S. for asylum by the Department of Defense. But the FBI and the INS, desperately trying to cover up their blunders on the case, have been trying to get them deported.

By Robert Ito, July 19, 1999


For for all Profiteers those who believe that the term "military intelligence" is an oxymoron, here's your proof. From 1996 until late last month, six Iraqis languished in prison, on the brink of deportation -- and almost certain execution by the Iraqi government -- by the very country for which they risked their lives. The six had been coopted by the CIA in the early 1990s for the agency's unsuccessful plot to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Last month, after nearly three years in California detention facilities, five of the refugees agreed to be deported to a neutral third country. Part of the deal required the five men to "admit" they had entered the country illegally, although, in fact, they were escorted to the United States on airplanes chartered by the Department of Defense.

The lone holdout, a Kurdish doctor named Ali Yassin Mohammed-Karim, plans to stay in prison to fight allegations that he's an Iraqi double agent. His lead attorney, Niels Frenzen, has a bigger goal: to expose the dirty dealings of FBI, CIA, and U.S. immigration officials that have turned the case of the Iraqi Six into an international bureaucratic nightmare.

The case has been mired in controversy from the beginning. Much of the evidence against Ali and his five compatriots was based on secret evidence withheld by the FBI. Furthermore, recently declassified files reveal U.S. intelligence and immigration communities as prone to outrageous errors, overt anti-Arab stereotyping and prejudice, and doing downright sloppy work. This autumn, armed with these newly declassified documents, Ali's attorney will finally come face to face with his client's accusers, a host of FBI agents and immigration officials who up until now have hidden behind a wall of secrecy.

Welcome to America. Now Go Home

When Ali Yassin Mohammed-Karim was airlifted out of Iraq in 1996 by U.S. forces, he breathed a sigh of relief. The Kurdish physician had by then survived two assassination attempts stemming from his implication in CIA-backed plots to overthrow Saddam Hussein. After a short stint in Guam undergoing interviews to establish his eligibility for political asylum, Ali was transported aboard a jet chartered by the Department of Defense to Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, where the young doctor would, he assumed, be processed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and free to begin his new life in the United States.

But Ali's relief was short-lived. The INS, claiming that Ali was a threat to national security, blocked his legal entrance, jailed him, and sought to have him deported. Deportation would be a virtual death sentence for a man who had served as the private physician to one of Saddam's most hated enemies. The official charge lodged by the INS: entering the country without a proper visa. Ali was, in effect, being accused of sneaking across the border onto U.S. soil, via Guam, aboard a Defense department-chartered jet.

Because it classified Ali as an alien "stopped at the border," the INS was not obliged by U.S. law to offer him any rights to due process. To make matters worse, all of the information implicating Ali as a national security risk was deemed classified evidence by the FBI. The names of his accusers, the number of accusers, and even the crimes with which he was charged were strictly off limits to Ali and his legal counsel. Thus began a three-year legal nightmare for Ali and five other Iraqis, a twisted series of events that former CIA director James Woolsey termed "a stain upon the honor of the United States." Because of FBI bungling and an overzealous climate of secrecy, the six Iraqi refugees faced trumped-up charges which could have resulted in their deportation and certain death at the hands of an unsympathetic regime.

Ali's case probably would have languished in the backrooms of the INS if a few senators hadn't questioned the INS's use of such secret evidence in deportation hearings. When the INS and FBI started to feel the heat from Congress, the organizations made a startling admission: Much of the information in Ali's files, as well as the files of the five other detainees, had been deemed classified by the FBI by mistake.

In July 1998, after a year and a half in prison, Ali and the other detainees got their first look at some of the charges levied against them when the documents were declassified.

File under D for D'oh!

The information in the newly declassified documents was surprising, but not for the reasons one might suspect. There were no accusations of past terrorist activities, no allegations of plans to smuggle chemical weapons into the United States or to engage in acts of espionage against any of the six detainees. Instead, the list of allegations within the declassified FBI documents was surprisingly short, consisting of mostly unsubstantiated hearsay and conflicting testimony from unnamed "walk-in sources," many of them refugees also seeking asylum who were willing to lie about fellow refugees to secure their own passage into the United States.

Racial and cultural biases may also have played a role in the botched FBI case. Special Agent Mark Merfalen said of one Iraqi suspect at his immigration hearing, "I didn't like [his] whole demeanor when I was talking to him. He had this kind of smug look." At the same hearing, Merfalen added that people from the Middle East tend to "lie an awful lot." Another agent said, "[W]e were told -- and this I actually learned through mistakes in dealing with Arabs -- there is no guilt in the Arab world." He added that, to Arabs, "there is no guilt associated [with lying]. In other words, if I lied to you, I'd feel bad that I didn't do what I knew I should do. But ... that's part of doing business."

After the FBI investigation concluded, the information the agency had gathered was somehow erroneously classified as secret by the FBI. Some of the material was declassified only a year later, when Senators Trent Lott, Orrin Hatch, and Jesse Helms (presumably guided more by a sense of loyalty to backers of U.S. policy in Iraq than by a concern over immigrant rights) began questioning its use by the INS. The FBI claims that the second look at the documents was not the result of any political or media pressure, but simply due to a random audit.

How the documents came to be erroneously classified in the first place, however, remains a mystery. According to Niels Frenzen, lead attorney for the Iraqi Six, "We sought clarification from the INS informally and have asked the senators to talk about it, and we've just never gotten a good answer. It's not that we haven't gotten a good answer; we haven't gotten any answer."

Today, the attorneys for the Iraqi Six have many of the declassified documents, but the FBI still maintains that it has more information (legitimately classified this time) that implicates the Iraqis.

The deal signed by five of the six detainees -- deportation to a neutral country -- allows the INS to avoid a huge political and public relations nightmare in which it would have to answer for the near deportation of men who -- at their own peril -- had assisted the United States in its highly visible campaign against Iraq.

But the deal came with a big catch for the Iraqis: The five have to "admit" that they entered the United States illegally and forfeit all rights to an appeal. Some thanks.

While attention from the case has prompted a full review by the U.S. Attorney General's office of all cases involving secret evidence, the FBI has, to this date, refused to release any information about the rest of the still-classified documents on the Iraqi Six. These documents may still come back to haunt Dr. Ali Yassin Mohammed-Karim, the one holdout who has refused the INS deal and is insisting on a retrial.

Because of the complex nature of the case, the immigration judge has said the retrial could possibly take nearly a year, which means that Ali will probably remain in prison well into the year 2000. In the meantime, the other five refugees will remain under house arrest in Lincoln, Neb., subject to wiretaps, curfews, and random searches and surveillance of their homes and vehicles, until neutral countries can be found to accept them.

While Frenzen sees his clients' current situation as "tragic," he hopes that this case will have a major impact on the use of secret evidence in future immigration hearings. "There's definitely enough blame to be shared with the FBI, the CIA and the Justice Department, but the INS is the agency that took this secret evidence knowing that it was a bunch of worthless rumors and innuendoes and ran with it," he says. "They shot themselves in the foot, and have increased the likelihood that there are going to be some significant legislative changes."



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