Saturday, January 25, 2003

So, this is where we are

BROWN: All right. Back to Iraq and a couple stories that brought a chill today. The State Department warned all Americans living abroad to be prepared to be evacuated. A senior official not denying that the possibility of war triggered this most unusual worldwide advisory.

Also today, we learned the FBI is trying to get a handle on Iraqis who are living in the United States; living here legally or otherwise. For more on this, we go to Washington and CNN's Kelli Arena -- Kelli, good to see you tonight.

ARENA: Hi there, Aaron. Well the FBI is very busy trying to locate and interview as many as 50,000 Iraqis currently living here in the United States. Now, officials say that agents are searching for everything from potential terrorist cells to individuals who may be able to provide information that would be helpful if the U.S. goes to war with Iraq: for example, someone who may have a relative that's still in Iraq who may be able to contact people that are interested in defecting or providing information to the U.S. military.

Now, agents have been interviewing Iraqis in their homes, at work, in mosques. But it is a very delicate balancing act. They need cooperation from these communities. And when FBI agents come sniffing around, especially these days, Aaron, law enforcement sources say that people tend to clam up, especially if they're here illegally.

Now, separately, sources say that there are as many as 600 to 1,000 individuals under constant surveillance here in the United States, some of them Iraqi, but definitely not all of them. And these people, sources say, may be capable of doing harm to the United States. So, that is what's going on, at least on the domestic front, as we approach a possible war, Aaron.

BROWN: If you know, when the FBI contacts people who are here illegally and seeks their cooperation, are they told that they'll get a pass from immigration or not, if they cooperate?

ARENA: Not always. Not always. It really is done on a case-by- case basis.

Sources have said that, in some cases, the threat of deportation does make people cooperate in some instances. But headquarters has sent out a very clear message, Aaron. They have said: Look, we're looking from cooperation from these communities. Do not go out there and use a heavy-handed approach. Do not go out there and intimidate. People can come forward voluntarily. We want them to come forward voluntarily. So, let's not go out there and smash people with this. We want to make sure that we get cooperation now and in the months ahead, when it's going to be really crucial.

BROWN: And just as perhaps a matter of common sense, while it's certainly possible -- I don't know if it's likely, but it's certainly possible there are Iraqi bad guys in the United States. One would think that most of the Iraqis who found their way to the United States were desperately trying to get out of Iraq, because it's not a very pleasant place to be, necessarily.

ARENA: That's right.

BROWN: And they're more happy to be here, legal or otherwise.

ARENA: That's right. That's right.

And FBI officials do point out that the majority of Iraqi nationals living here, they have absolutely no evidence to support that they're here to do any harm. But they are very concerned about possible terrorist cells that may have been sent here after the first Gulf War by Saddam Hussein, waiting to be ignited, waiting to be put into action.

Now, I have to underscore, Aaron, that officials say that they have absolutely no evidence of any Iraqi cells or any terrorist cells in general that they've been able to locate. But it is a concern. And they want to get as much information, intelligence-wise and military operation-wise, as they can.

BROWN: Thank you, Kelli Arena -- and one more sign of how the country is preparing at least for the very real possibility that war could come.

Thank you, Kelli Arena.