The Bush administration has begun to monitor Iraqis in the United States in an effort to identify potential domestic terrorist threats posed by sympathizers of the Baghdad regime, the New York Times reported, citing senior government officials.
The previously undisclosed intelligence program involves tracking thousands of Iraqi citizens and Iraqi-Americans with dual citizenship who are attending American universities or working at private corporations, and who might pose a risk in the event of a U.S.-led war against Iraq.
Some of the targets of the operation are being electronically monitored under the authority of national security warrants. Others are being selected for recruitment as informants, according to the report, which did not name the officials.
In the event of an American invasion of Iraq, officials would intensify the program's mission through arrests and detentions of Iraqis or Iraq sympathizers if they are believed to be planning domestic terrorist operations.
The Iraqi domestic intelligence program is in addition to the government's continuing effort since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to identify citizens of Middle Eastern countries who represent a potential threat. Those efforts have also been stepped up as the country prepares for the possibility of war.
This week, federal authorities plan to begin interviewing Arab-Americans, asking them to report suspicious activity related to Iraq, according to the New York Times. The interviews will be voluntary, but in the past, such efforts have been criticized by Arab-American groups. The FBI is planning to meet with Arab-American civic leaders to explain the nonclassified aspects of the operation.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the White House Office of Homeland Security, declined to comment on the surveillance program, which is classified.
The effort by intelligence agencies, particularly the FBI, to strengthen and expand their counterterrorism programs comes at a time of serious discussion in Congress and in the Bush administration about whether to create a domestic intelligence agency like MI-5, the British agency that collects information about internal threats.
Senior Bush administration counterterrorism officials gathered on Veterans Day at a White House meeting directed by Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, to discuss whether to strip the FBI of its domestic security responsibilities. The meeting was first reported on Saturday by the Washington Post.
No one in the administration has formally proposed creating a domestic intelligence agency. The New York Times reported that several officials said dismantling the FBI remained an uncertain prospect, but they said a wide range of ideas were likely to be considered with the creation of a Homeland Security Department.
Another part of the new intelligence operation involves a focused effort to assess whether the regime of Saddam Hussein has engaged in any actions, through alliances with Middle Eastern terrorist organizations or efforts to obtain weapons, that could threaten American interests in this country or abroad. The operation is also tracing the movement of money by the Iraqi government, and organizations sympathetic with Iraq, around the world.
The officials said the monitoring operation has not detected any specific threats in the United States or against American interests overseas.
The operation draws on the experience of a smaller program that was undertaken in the Gulf War with Iraq in 1991, a conflict that resulted in little threat of terrorism in the United States. During the war, the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service conducted thousands of interviews with Iraqis and other Arab-Americans in the United States and investigated hundreds of Iraqis who had entered the United States on visitor's visas and who had not left when their entry permits expired.
A large number of government agencies are part of the new operation, including the Pentagon, the FBI, the CIA, the immigration service, the State Department and the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on communications around the world.
Officials said the operation would also step up monitoring of Iraq's foreign intelligence service, which they believe operates under diplomatic cover from Baghdad's mission at the United Nations.
Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who is departing as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week that American intelligence agencies, in particular the FBI, had failed to consider the full range of threats that might stem from a war with Iraq.
Graham said that beyond threats from al-Qaida, American intelligence agencies had not adequately assessed threats posed by other Middle Eastern terror groups that are likely to be inflamed by a war with Iraq, among them Hezbollah, Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
"I think we make a mistake when we assume that the threat is only al-Qaida," Graham said. "There are a lot of terror groups out there, some of them with a large presence in the United States, who shouldn't be dismissed because in the past they have not attacked in the United States."
Intelligence analysts said that for years the authorities have tracked the movements of Islamic militant groups in the United States. The groups were subjected to scrutiny because they engaged in fundraising or criminal activity that brought them into contact with law enforcement agencies, the officials said. In contrast, al-Qaida operatives like the 19 hijackers lived quietly and, except for a handful of minor traffic violations, did not break the law.
But Graham said that FBI officials, in closed sessions with the committee, had been unable to provide basic information about Islamic militant groups with a presence in the United States.
"The kinds of questions that I've asked are: how many operatives are in the United States, where are they distributed, what is their infrastructure _ financially, logistically and with communications," Graham said. "It's the same inability to answer."
For 90 minutes on Friday, Graham met with Robert Mueller, the FBI director, to discuss his concerns. Mueller presented the senator with a briefing of current counterterrorism operations in the United States.
"Mr. Mueller was more forthcoming than in past sessions, and that seemed to satisfy the senator," said Paul Anderson, a spokesman for Graham.
However, Anderson said that Graham believed the FBI "has a long way to go" in its domestic counterterrorism efforts, "and very few days in which to get there," a reference to the possibility that a military confrontation with Iraq could occur within three months.
American officials contend that the Iraqi intelligence service learned a lesson from its failure to engage in anti-American terrorist activities during the first Gulf War. Iraq's efforts were disrupted by the CIA and the FBI, and it was unable to mount any successful terrorist attacks against American interests.
After the Gulf War, Iraq botched an attempt to assassinate former President George Bush on a visit to Kuwait in 1993, prompting President Bill Clinton to order a cruise missile strike at the Iraqi intelligence headquarters building in Baghdad. Since then, according to the CIA, there is no evidence that Iraq has engaged in terrorist activity against the United States.
The Bush administration has said it has evidence of contacts over the years between Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaida operatives, and there have been reports that some al-Qaida operatives moved into Iraq after fleeing Afghanistan. But American intelligence officials said there is no evidence that Iraq has become involved in al-Qaida terrorist operations, and the Bush administration has never found hard evidence that Iraq played any role in the Sept. 11 attacks.