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US Settles with Citizen Who Was Victim of Post-9/11 Practice of Imprisoning Muslims as ‘Material Witnesses’

John Ashcroft, who was Attorney General when FBI abused material witness statute to arrest terrorism suspects

The United States government has settled with a Kansas-born Muslim man, who it now admits was arrested in 2003 because he was a material witness and not a criminal suspect. He was the victim of a post-9/11 practice where agents would take advantage of the material witness statute and detain and interrogate individuals instead of securing testimony.

Abdullah al-Kidd, a University of Idaho graduate, was arrested by FBI agents and detained at Dulles Airport in Virginia on March 16, 2003. He was planning a trip to Saudi Arabia because he had received a scholarship at a university. He had no idea that the government wanted him to testify in the case against a University of Idaho student indicted for “visa fraud and making false statements to the government.”

According to the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), al-Kidd was taken by FBI agents to an airport room and interrogated on his “religious beliefs, opinions on various Islamic organizations and past travels.” He was never given the opportunity to assure the agents he would be back in the US to testify at the student’s trial. The agents, instead, jailed him and he was imprisoned for 15 days in facilities in Virginia, Oklahoma and Idaho.

Al-Kidd was subject to severe conditions. In two facilities, he was “humiliatingly strip-searched.” During transfer between prisons, he was “treated as if he were a dangerous terrorist and not a witness. He was routinely placed in full shackles, with his feet chained together and his hands cuffed to a belly chain that prevented any movement of his arms.”

The government never called him to testify against the University of Idaho student.

In a letter [PDF] addressed to Al-Kidd, US Attorney for the District of Idaho Wendy J. Olson wrote:

As part of the United States’ settlement with you, please accept this letter as official confirmation that you were arrested in 2003 solely because you were considered a material witness in an upcoming criminal trial of another individual and not because you were suspected of any criminal wrongdoing. The government acknowledges that your arrest and detention as a witness was a difficult experience for you and regrets any hardship or disruption to your lfie that may have resulted from your arrest and detention.

In reaction to the letter he received, Al-Kidd stated, “I am pleased the government has finally acknowledged the trouble it put me through and has compensated me for that trouble. I hope no one else has to go through what I went through.”

The US government agreed to pay [PDF] a $277,500 settlement. FBI agent Michael Gneckow, who al-Kidd specifically sued, also agreed to pay $107,500. But the settlement stipulated that it should not be “construed” as an “admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States,” Gneckow or any other FBI agents or employees.

According to the ACLU [PDF], Magistrate Judge Mikel H. Williams, who “originally issued” al-Kidd’s material witness arrest warrant based on Gneckow’s affidavit, found that it was “misleadingly drafted and omitted numerous material facts.” Gneckow had been “reckless in preparing” it and “there was no excuse” for omitting facts on his “citizenship, family ties, and past cooperation” with the FBI.

Gneckow created a “misleadingly and highly suggestive picture” of al-Kidd, according to Williams and another judge named Edward Lodge.

Lodge also concluded:

…Defendant painted a wholly inaccurate picture of a possible Saudi national with no ties to the United States who was returning to the Middle East, rather than the accurate picture of “a United States citizen, who attended college in the United States, has a wife and children in the United States, and had previously cooperated with law enforcement in their investigation.” As Judge Lodge summarized, it was the “very nature of the omissions themselves as well as the manner in which the warrant application was misleadingly drafted” that demonstrated a “reckless disregard for the truth.”

Al-Kidd had been voluntarily speaking with the FBI. In past meetings with agents, at no point was al-Kidd ever advised that he needed to notify the FBI of any travel outside the United States. He also was never informed that the government would ever need him as a witness. [The affidavit for al-Kidd’s arrest, submitted by an FBI agent, never mentioned previous agency interactions with al-Kidd.]

As argued by the ACLU, what the FBI essentially granted itself the power to do after the 9/11 attacks is arrest innocent citizens “even where they have done nothing wrong, have given no indication that they would not cooperate with a subpoena in the future, and have had no opportunity to conform their actions to the law.” And, initially, al-Kidd had sued former Attorney General John Ashcroft but the Supreme Court ruled that his “subjective motivation” could not be considered.

The ACLU described al-Kidd’s case as a “major test case.” It was unclear if future cases against government abuse of the material witness statute would be brought.

Significantly, days after al-Kidd’s arrest, FBI director Robert Mueller highlighted him as he praised the government’s “anti-terrorism efforts.” His name came after he noted the capture of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed:

…Abdullah al-Kidd, a US native and former University of Idaho football player, was arrested by the FBI at Dulles International Airport en route to Saudi Arabia. The FBI arrested three other men in the Idaho probe in recent weeks. And the FBI is examining links between the Idaho men and purported charities and individuals in six other jurisdictions across the country…

Al-Kidd was placed under surveillance after 9/11 as part of a broad investigation in Idaho. He had engaged in no illegal activity and was accused of no crimes.

*

The government can claim all it wants that it did not have a deliberate policy of abusing the material witness statute to arrest alleged terrorism suspects, but the fact is al-Kidd had not even been charged with anything and he was already having his name dropped by the FBI director as if he were a terrorist.

This is very similar to what happened immediately after 9/11 when Ashcroft and Mueller oversaw a policy where Arab or Muslim noncitizens, especially those who had violated immigration laws, were rounded up and subjected to abuse.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) sued the US government on behalf of several who were imprisoned, arguing individuals were “rounded up and detained on their immigration violations so government officials could question them in connection with the ongoing investigation of the 9/11 attacks.”

Arabs or Muslims were deemed to be terrorism suspects, even though they had only committed immigration violations. They were subject to a “hold-until-cleared policy,” and kept in confinement for “lengthy periods of times—often for months after they were ordered removed from the country—until the FBI affirmatively cleared them of suspicion of wrongdoing.” This resulted in individuals being subjected to “extremely restrictive conditions of confinement.”

As in al-Kidd’s case, Ashcroft and Mueller escaped accountability.

The settlement is an important acknowledgment of the hardship al-Kidd should not have been put through, however, the ability of government officials to abuse and violate the rights of Muslims in the United States will continue so long as no courts are willing to challenge these policies as being approved by officials in the highest echelons of power.

Creative Commons Licensed Photo from Flickr by Gage Skidmore

CommunityFDL Main BlogThe Dissenter

US Settles with Citizen Who Was Victim of Post-9/11 Practice of Imprisoning Muslims as ‘Material Witnesses’

John Ashcroft, who was Attorney General when FBI abused material witness statute to arrest terrorism suspects

The United States government has settled with a Kansas-born Muslim man, who it now admits was arrested in 2003 because he was a material witness and not a criminal suspect. He was the victim of a post-9/11 practice where agents would take advantage of the material witness statute and detain and interrogate individuals instead of securing testimony.

Abdullah al-Kidd, a University of Idaho graduate, was arrested by FBI agents and detained at Dulles Airport in Virginia on March 16, 2003. He was planning a trip to Saudi Arabia because he had received a scholarship at a university. He had no idea that the government wanted him to testify in the case against a University of Idaho student indicted for “visa fraud and making false statements to the government.”

According to the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), al-Kidd was taken by FBI agents to an airport room and interrogated on his “religious beliefs, opinions on various Islamic organizations and past travels.” He was never given the opportunity to assure the agents he would be back in the US to testify at the student’s trial. The agents, instead, jailed him and he was imprisoned for 15 days in facilities in Virginia, Oklahoma and Idaho.

Al-Kidd was subject to severe conditions. In two facilities, he was “humiliatingly strip-searched.” During transfer between prisons, he was “treated as if he were a dangerous terrorist and not a witness. He was routinely placed in full shackles, with his feet chained together and his hands cuffed to a belly chain that prevented any movement of his arms.”

The government never called him to testify against the University of Idaho student.

In a letter [PDF] addressed to Al-Kidd, US Attorney for the District of Idaho Wendy J. Olson wrote:

As part of the United States’ settlement with you, please accept this letter as official confirmation that you were arrested in 2003 solely because you were considered a material witness in an upcoming criminal trial of another individual and not because you were suspected of any criminal wrongdoing. The government acknowledges that your arrest and detention as a witness was a difficult experience for you and regrets any hardship or disruption to your lfie that may have resulted from your arrest and detention.

In reaction to the letter he received, Al-Kidd stated, “I am pleased the government has finally acknowledged the trouble it put me through and has compensated me for that trouble. I hope no one else has to go through what I went through.”

The US government agreed to pay [PDF] a $277,500 settlement. FBI agent Michael Gneckow, who al-Kidd specifically sued, also agreed to pay $107,500. But the settlement stipulated that it should not be “construed” as an “admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States,” Gneckow or any other FBI agents or employees.

According to the ACLU [PDF], Magistrate Judge Mikel H. Williams, who “originally issued” al-Kidds’ material witness arrest warrant based on Gneckow’s affidavit, found that it was “misleadingly drafted and omitted numerous material facts.” Gneckow had been “reckless in preparing” it and “there was no excuse” for omitting facts on his “citizenship, family ties, and past cooperation” with the FBI.

Gneckow created a “misleadingly and highly suggestive picture” of al-Kidd, according to Williams and another judge named Edward Lodge. (more…)

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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