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Citing a lack of specific criminal information, UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley announced in a written statement Thursday that UW Police will not assist the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the questioning of international students.
“University officials, including me, believe the criteria to select individuals for interviews … is broadly based and appears to consist of people who are not suspected of any crimes or suspicious activities,” Wiley said.
Wiley’s announcement came after recent reports that two or three UW-Madison students had been questioned in conjunction with terrorism investigations ordered by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to interview 5,000 Middle Eastern men who have entered the country since Jan. 1, 2000.
In addition, university officials say they will maintain a policy of only providing federal officials with already public information, unless legally bound to do otherwise.
UW-Madison University Communications spokesperson John Lucas said that to the best knowledge of UW-Madison administration, any contacting of students by federal authorities thus far has been “obtained in a manner other than [through] a records request to the UW.”
Other local authorities are taking similar positions. For instance, Madison Police Department Public Information Officer Larry Kamholz said police would not assist federal authorities questioning individuals unless there is a specific suspicion of criminal activity. Kamholz cited departmental concerns regarding the use of racial profiling to question individuals.
“We’re not going to start violating people’s rights just because of their ethnic background or wherever they’re from,” Kamholz said. “Just on that basis, you won’t see involvement from this department.”
Cathy Fahey, a spokesperson for the Milwaukee field office of the FBI, also denied Thursday having conducted the reported student interviews.
In addition, Grant Johnson, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, who is overseeing Justice Department investigations in Madison, denied that student questioning was related to Ashcroft’s orders regarding the list of Middle Eastern men.
Johnson would not comment on who might have conducted the interviews or for what reason, only saying that the reported student interviews “[have] nothing to do with the list of people that we’re supposed to interview at the direction of the attorney general through the District Terrorism Task Force.”
The UW-Madison Office of International Student Services, which originally reported the questioning of students, did not respond to media inquiries Thursday.
According to Lucas, the questioned students originally saw an adviser in the Office of International Student Services after being sought for interviews.
The identity of the questioned students, as well as who questioned them, still remains unknown.
Johnson said he was aware that “some” of the men on the list were university students, who have yet to be questioned. He said his office was taking the list given to it by the U.S. Attorney General’s Office and cross-matching it to local public directories, such as UW-Madison’s student directory, in order to find accurate contact information.
Outlining the procedure for interviewing individuals, Johnson said agents from his office, or cooperating local officials, would visit individuals at home. If no contact was made, a note would be left directing the individual to call the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Once contact was made, he said, agents would ask if the individual would like to be interviewed, and would also explain what was wanted from the interview.
If the individual declined to answer questions, agents would “smile and say ‘thank you,’” Johnson said. If personal legal counsel was requested by the interviewee, both individual and counsel would be directed to the assistant U.S. Attorney and the U.S. Attorney assigned to the task force.
“We’d figure out what they wanted to do and move on with life,” Johnson said.
“This is truly a voluntary program.”
Micabil Diaz, the legal director of the Wisconsin American Civil Liberties Union, said students should not answer any questions without the presence of a lawyer.
“If any of these investigatory agencies approach you, seek a lawyer,” he said.