The arrests last week of hundreds of people from Muslim countries is the harshest evidence yet of how U.S. immigration policies have clashed with civil liberties since 911.
And, ironically, one of the best examples of a more open immigration process — possibly too open, says a former State Department employee who supervised it — came at the close of this country’s last war with Iraq in 1991. In the years following the Gulf War, the U.S. allowed 12,500 Iraqis to enter the U.S., including up to 6,000 ex–prisoners of war. A good number were opponents of Saddam Hussein who most certainly would have been killed had they been forced to leave the camps in Saudi Arabia and return to Iraq. But regardless of their status, most were allowed to immigrate to the United States after passing only cursory scrutiny, according to current and former U.S. officials interviewed for this story.
No one has come forward with evidence that immigrants sympathetic to the Hussein regime may have slipped into the U.S. and are plotting harm, but the deal made with Saudi officials who wanted nothing to do with providing safe haven for Iraqi soldiers a decade ago raises questions and offers important historical perspective. For one, it shows how some of the same players in today‘s dispute with Iraq — Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney — had previously adopted a loose policy that allowed thousands of refugees to enter the U.S. without insisting on thorough investigations or even routine monitoring. In the post-911 climate, that more humanitarian approach has been entirely supplanted with a policy dominated by fears of terrorism.
Just last month, The New York Times broke a story about an intelligence program to track thousands of Iraqi immigrants, though it was not clear from the story, nor was it made clear later by the State Department, whether special emphasis will be given to the ex-soldiers with military and weapons training now in the U.S. Several military and State Department sources told the Weekly that the looser resettlement policies of a decade ago could make it nearly impossible to track down all of those who entered the country after the Gulf War.
Trying to piece together what happened in the immediate days following the Gulf War isn’t easy. Spokesmen at the State Department and CIA said they could find no one who was around at the time, or who could produce records that would show what took place. One of the key players at the time was Rob Frazier, who has since left his government post and now works as a private computer-security consultant in Virginia. In August 1991, he arrived at his American Embassy posting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and, as a political official, the task fell to him to deal with refugees staying at two camps.
One camp, outside Rafha, a town 600 miles north of the Saudi capital, and a few kilometers from Iraq‘s southern border, was home to some 34,000 Iraqi men, women and children. The second camp, at Al-Artawiyah, situated almost halfway between Riyadh and Rafha, housed 13,000 ex–Iraqi soldiers. These former POWs had been among the 83,000 Iraqi soldiers captured by U.S. and coalition forces during Desert Storm.
Most of them were quickly repatriated after the war ended, but those remaining at Al-Artawiyah refused to go home, claiming that Saddam Hussein’s internal-security forces would persecute or kill them for their political or religious beliefs.
Frazier says the handling of these former combatants posed a real dilemma for U.S. officials. “We had a case where enemy soldiers refused to go back home.”
Frazier, who wrote the State Department‘s human rights reports on conditions inside Saudi Arabia for 1991, 1992 and 1993, made regular car trips to both camps. The conditions at Al- Artawiyah, Frazier says, were harsh. Even though these men were now claiming political asylum, the Saudis ran the facility as a prisoner camp, causing a lot of anger inside. Saudi officials wanted the international community to move these people out of their territory.
In late 1991, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, made a final plea to the ex-prisoners to return home. That appeal was rebuffed. It was then, Frazier says, that a political deal was struck: The U.N. commission agreed to step in and take responsibility so long as the U.S. and other countries agreed to resettle the refugees outside Saudi Arabia. It was an unprecedented arrangement, “but a decision was made that something had to be done,” Frazier says.
In December 1992, Al-Artawiyah was closed and the remaining Iraqis moved in with the civilian population at Rafha, a merger that produced some creative bookkeeping that benefited all the countries involved. The ex-prisoners were reclassified as civilian refugees. The U.S. and coalition countries could now technically claim that all of the soldiers had been repatriated back to Iraq. Says Frazier, “Suddenly there were no more enemy prisoners.”
But the deal created problems for Frazier and others.
Rafha was home to a diverse population that included Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well as Chaldean Christians. Iraqi soldiers, who may have been involved in Hussein’s civilian repression, were now mixed in with those who‘d been persecuted by the Iraqi military. Tensions inside the camp rose.
Geography also added to the headaches. Rafha is close to Iraq’s southern border, and security at the camp, which was meant to house civilians, was lax. Sometimes, camp residents would travel to Iraq, bringing back money, goods and weapons.
And then there was the issue of backgrounding the former combatants. Frazier says he also received many reports from Rafha residents alleging that the camp harbored “sleeper agents” for Saddam Hussein. “I believed those reports because I was hearing the exact same thing from all these different groups. And normally, they could never agree on anything,” he says.
Frazier, who says he had a rough, working knowledge of Arabic and participated with translators in some of the interviews of the ex-combatants requesting asylum in the U.S., remembers one instance in particular.
“We were just about to start an interview, when one of the translators asked me why this individual was being considered for asylum. He told me the guy was in the Republican Guard — Iraq‘s elite unit — and was a supporter of Saddam Hussein.”
Frazier says this former soldier had no papers or military documents identifying his former assignment, and he told the translator he needed some proof that the man was a Republican Guard member. “I said, ’Give me the proof and we will hand him over to the Saudi guards.‘ But he never gave me anything,” says Frazier.
Frazier says he faced the same problem in dealing with the reports of alleged sleeper agents he was receiving from the various camp factions. Because of the political deal struck with the United Nations to resettle these former prisoners in third countries, Frazier says, he repeatedly told camp leaders that he needed evidence to back up their claims. “I don’t know whether they were afraid or they didn‘t trust us because we had dumped these guys in there, or let Saddam stay in power, but no one ever came forward with proof,” he says.
Frazier, a former Army counterintelligence officer, says he was concerned enough to send cables back to Washington detailing his worries about the inability to adequately background the ex-prisoners bound for asylum in the U.S. Most of the people he saw had no documents to verify their stories. He says he never received any direction back from the State Department.
Today, Frazier says he still worries that Saddam Hussein may have slipped sleeper agents into the U.S., though he has no evidence that he did. “It would have been easy to do,” he says. “Remember, we really couldn’t background a lot of these guys, and I was getting all those reports [of sleeper agents] from inside the camp.” Frazier also is concerned that some Iraqis might be subject to blackmail if the U.S. re-invades. “Iraqi intelligence could send a message to these people reminding them that some of their arelatives are still living in Iraq. They could say, we want you to do such and such or your family members will have big problems,” says Frazier. “And I don‘t think Saddam would hesitate to make good on such a threat.”
The Weekly has obtained a declassified April 1991 report detailing the ex-POW processing system. The former Iraqi soldiers were “searched, showered, weighed, given a physical and new clothes, deloused, fingerprinted, photographed and given an ID card,” according to the report. Those materials were shipped to a central database, but there’s no mention of what happened to the records. And Frazier says he was never made privy to that information.
Former CIA Director Jim Woolsey told the Weekly that he, too, was concerned that these ex-POWs were not properly vetted before their resettlement in the U.S. “Who knows what we did in backgrounding these people?” he adds. “They should have vetted everyone in a reasonable manner before they gave them asylum. Instead, as the saying goes, we may have left our most important work undone.”
One aspect of the immigration program did provoke criticism a decade ago. Veterans groups and conservative Republican legislators objected to the benefit packages available to the Iraqis, which included Medicaid, job and language-training assistance, health care, plus other welfare and housing benefits worth about $7,000 per person. At the time, the INS and other agencies insisted that they properly screened all who sought asylum.
Representative Cliff Stearns (R-Florida) sponsored a 1994 resolution that cut $2.8 million from the relocation budget. At the time, he raised concerns about the resettlement program and questioned the level of scrutiny given to applicants. In a written statement, Stearns recently reiterated his position: “I remain concerned that not enough was done to ensure that these individuals [POWs] do not pose a security risk to the United States.”