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The FBI’s at the Door

Khalid Al-Faris has long considered himself a cheerleader for America. Gregarious by nature, he eagerly recounts, in his strong Iraqi accent, his joy at living in the United States, untempered even after 30 years in Southern California.

Al-Faris’ personal history, as he tells it, falls into two parts, the first in his native Iraq, from which he fled in 1968 after government operatives tried to force him to join the repressive Baath Party, and the second here in the United States, where he has lived comfortably ever since.

"I tell a lot of people, hey, guys, the great thing about America isn’t that you can buy a car or wear a bikini," said Al-Faris, who works as an analyst for an insurance company. "The great thing is that you can say whatever you want and live your life, and no one will knock at your door."

Then the knock came. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in March, and Al-Faris answered. He was just leaving his home in the city of Walnut to go computer shopping with his wife and high school–age daughter. Standing on the front porch were an FBI agent and a police officer.

Though the visit was unexpected, Al-Faris was not completely surprised. He was well aware that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was questioning some 11,000 Iraqis nationwide in a quest for information on terrorism and military intelligence. They flashed their badges, showed Al-Faris a photo of his sister and her husband, whose emigration to the U.S. from Iraq Al-Faris had sponsored last year, and asked if he knew their whereabouts.

The officer and the agent were courteous, friendly even, and Al-Faris invited them in. As he gave them a drink of water and wrote down his sister’s address, he was overcome by a deep sadness, one he had not felt since witnessing countless abuses by the Baath regime before fleeing his homeland.

"It was not their approach," Al-Faris said. "Because, to be honest, they were very nice. It was the nature of the whole situation. It was a sudden knock on the door. It was just too similar to what would happen in Iraq. The knock on the door, they ask a few questions. Then, before too long, someone disappears, never to be heard from again."

John Iannarelli, special agent with the FBI’s national press office, said such fears are unfounded. He said the purpose of the interviews is twofold, first to ally the bureau with the community in battling hate crimes and also to battle terrorism. Iannarelli said that those being interviewed are considered witnesses, not suspects. He said that of those questioned, there have been no arrests. About 40 have been found in violation of immigration regulations, and no one has been taken into custody.

"I cannot emphasize enough that when we talk to people, we are doing so because we consider them good witnesses," he said. "We normally don’t approach the subject of an investigation until we are ready to make an arrest." Iannarelli, who said the bulk of the interviews will be concluded this week, called the operation "very successful" in generating useful information for the government. "We put a lot of energy and resources into these interviews," he said. "The effort has been very beneficial."

But leaders in the Arab-American community wonder if the price of gaining that information is worth the damage it has caused. "Half of those who have been questioned feel like, ‘I have nothing to hide, so I am not concerned,’" said Susan Attar, hate-prevention coordinator for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "The other half feels like, ‘I know I have nothing to hide, but I’m not sure anymore if being innocent is enough.’"

Wafa Hoballah, an immigration attorney who specializes in Middle Eastern and Islamic law, agreed. Hoballah who has four clients and many friends who have been questioned by the FBI, said the emotion she hears expressed most often and most intensely is fear. "They are afraid if they say anything here that it might get back to the Iraqi government over there, and their families who are still living there could be harmed as a result," Hoballah said. "And they fear if they don’t show cooperation with the FBI they will become suspects here."

After Al-Faris gave the agents his sister’s address, he begged them to allow him to accompany them to the interview. "Her English is not very good," he said. "She will be afraid to speak." The agents made a note in their file and then settled in to question both Al-Faris, in the family room, and his wife, at the kitchen table. The questioning took about an hour and a half, Al-Faris said, and ranged from the mundane (Where do you work? How long have you lived here?) to what Al-Faris considered the ridiculous. "They asked if I knew anybody who is a terrorist, or if I knew anybody who makes bombs," he recalled. "If I knew of such a thing, would I keep it to myself all this time?"

What worries Al-Faris most of all now is his sister. When the agents left his home in March, they said they would request that he be informed when his sister was questioned, but they said they could not guarantee it. So he waits. "When will they go? Will they tell me? Will she understand what they are saying?" he said. "Now she is wondering and waiting every day. Her life is just waiting for the knock on the door."