Statement of Mary Lieberman, Executive Director, Bridge Refugee and Sponsorship Services
Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor et al. v. John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller: The First Challenge to The USA PATRIOT Act
DETROIT – I work for Bridge Refugee and Sponsorship Services, an ecumenical non-profit organization that resettles refugees throughout East Tennessee. We have joined the ACLU lawsuit because we are concerned that Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act compromises our ability to serve our clients. Our clients have come to the United States seeking refuge from persecution. Working with local churches, synagogues and mosques, we help them to get the services they need in order to adjust to life here. Of course, we can’t get them the help they need if they won’t trust us with their personal information. And they won’t trust us with that information if they think we are going to hand it over to the FBI. Bridge was approached twice by FBI agents seeking information about Iraqi refugees. The first time, an agent came to my office and I refused to allow him to take away records or notes. The second time, in November 2002, the FBI served Bridge with a subpoena for all records relating to its Iraqi clients. When I received this document, I experienced a flood of emotions. This subpoena upended all of my assumptions about what our government stands for. I was heartbroken that my government would indiscriminately invade the privacy of people who were not suspected of any crime. I was also heartbroken for our Iraqi clients, many of whom had attained refugee status because they had risked their lives to help the American military during Desert Storm and were then persecuted by Saddam Hussein. I knew that they did not deserve this treatment from our government. I was also angry; and in that frame of mind I called a former member of our Board of Directors who is an attorney. He immediately filed a motion to quash the subpoena. Ultimately, the FBI agreed not to seek more information than Bridge’s clients would already have provided to the INS. However, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney retained the right to seek further information from our case files. If the FBI came back to us with a Section 215 order, my staff and I would not be allowed to challenge the order or even discuss it publicly as I am doing today. Some people may wonder just what kind of people Bridge serves. I would like to tell you about one of them, Muwafa Albaraqi. Mr. Albaraqi was born in 1968 in Najaf, Iraq. In 1991, at the urging of the United States, he participated in an uprising against the government of Saddam Hussein. Although the uprising was successful in Najaf, American support did not materialize and ultimately the city fell again to the Iraqi Republican Guard. Those who had participated in the uprising were labeled traitors and were tortured, imprisoned, or killed. Mr. Albaraqi fled to Saudi Arabia, where he lived in a United Nations-administered refugee camp from March 1991 to September 1994. He applied for political asylum in the United States while living at the camp. Bridge assisted Mr. Albaraqi in adjusting to life in Tennessee. He became a United States citizen in 1999 and he is now working as a check-out clerk at a grocery store in Knoxville. He is also a part-time student in electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee. The FBI contacted Mr. Albaraqi in January 2003, stating that they wanted to meet with him. He was not told that the interview was optional or voluntary or that he had a right to contact an attorney and have an attorney present at the interview. During the interview, the FBI asked, among other questions, whether anyone associated with the Iraqi government had asked him to engage in terrorism against American targets; what he would do if an Iraqi agent asked him to engage in terrorism; and whether he might act differently if the Iraqi agent cut off his brother’s finger and sent it to him in the mail. We at Bridge were outraged by these questions. And we know that Mr. Albaraqi and others like him would not have sought our assistance on sensitive personal matters if he had thought that the government could easily access Bridge’s records. Bridge is participating in this challenge because we feel the need to speak out on behalf of our clients, who have suffered enough already. Our decision to participate in this challenge is the result of sober consideration, reverence for the Constitution, and respect for our clients.
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