Homeland Security:

Justice Department's Project to Interview Aliens after September 11, 2001

GAO-03-459: Published: Apr 11, 2003. Publicly Released: May 9, 2003.

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As one response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Justice (DOJ) initiated a project to interview aliens whose characteristics were similar to those responsible for the attacks. The purpose was to determine what knowledge the aliens might have of terrorists and terrorist activities. GAO was asked to (1) determine the criteria DOJ used in compiling the list of aliens to be questioned, (2) whether law enforcement complied with DOJ guidance for the project, (3) the interview project's status, and (4) what information resulted from it.

Between September 11 and November 9, 2001, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) compiled a list of aliens whose characteristics were similar to those of the hijackers. DOJ searched its databases for aliens that fit certain characteristics relating to type of visa, gender, age, date of entry into the United States, and country that issued the passport, and identified 7,602 names for interview. According to law enforcement officials, attorneys for interviewees, and immigration advocates in six U.S. Attorney districts, law enforcement officers who conducted the interviews adhered to DOJ guidelines for the project. The guidelines stressed that the project's objective was information gathering, not criminal investigation, and that participation was to be voluntary. Attorneys for interviewees and immigration advocates agreed that the law enforcement officers adhered to project guidelines, but expressed the view that interviewed aliens did not perceive the interviews to be truly voluntary. They noted that although aliens were not coerced to participate in the interviews, they worried about repercussions, such as future INS denials for visa extensions or permanent residency, if they refused to be interviewed. Firm and complete information on the project's status is unavailable. As of March 2003, law enforcement officers had interviewed 3,216 aliens--about 42 percent of the names on the list. However, the list contained problems such as duplicate names and data entry errors, making it difficult to determine how many interviews remained to be completed. DOJ asserted that the project netted intelligence information and had a disruptive effect on terrorists. But the results are difficult to measure, and DOJ has not fully analyzed all the data obtained from the interviews or how effectively the project was implemented.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOJ stated that it evaluated the results of the interview project, identified actions it should take in any similar future activity, and listed the lessons learned they determined would improve the results of a subject interview project. DOJ stated that it will consider these lessons learned in any future such interview projects it may conduct.

    Recommendation: Because there indications that the government's antiterrorism efforts will continue to rely, in part, on conducting interview projects with aliens who reside in this county, we believe that the interview projects affords an opportunity to build a knowledge base that could assist future efforts to collect interview data and monitor project status. Accordingly, the Attorney General, upon completion of the interview project, should initiate a formal review of the project and report on the lessons learned. The issues that such a review might address include methods for identifying and locating aliens, constructing effective interview questions, designing a database for maintaining the data collected, issuing guidance on interview methods and inputting data into the database, conducting the interviews, obtaining state and local support for the project, overseeing project status, and analyzing the data. The review should include input from participating law enforcement officials on what aspects of the project were effective and how the objectives of the project might have been better or more efficiently met.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice


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