Ashcroft: ‘Saudi Arabia ally in war on terrorism’

By Paul Sperry

WASHINGTON – “The Department of Justice considers Saudi Arabia an ally in the war on terrorism,” Attorney General John Ashcroft’s top media aide has reaffirmed.

Spokeswoman Barbara Comstock issued the statement to reporters Tuesday in an attempt to clear up confusion generated by a story broken by this newssite that Ashcroft has authorized immigration officers to add visiting Saudi nationals to a new anti-terrorist tracking system.

The hushed policy, which goes into effect Oct. 1, seems at odds with the official Bush administration position that Saudi Arabia is a partner in the war on terrorism.

Spelled out in a sensitive INS memo published Sept. 19 by (page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4), the policy requires the fingerprinting, photographing and monitoring of men, ages 16 to 45, who enter the U.S. from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Yemen, as well as from Pakistan, America’s other putative ally in the war.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers, all young men, came from Saudi Arabia, which is now thought to have bankrolled al-Qaida operations through various charities.

The directive expands the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, program that went into effect Sept. 11. NSEERS targets Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Syria, known terrorist-sponsoring nations in the Mideast.

Officials from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have expressed outrage that their countries were lumped in with the five terror states.

Saudi Arabia demanded a meeting with Ashcroft – and got one Friday with his chief of staff, David T. Ayres. Saudi Arabia claims Ayres denied the new policy.

But a carefully crafted Sept. 23 letter he wrote to Adel Al-Jubeir, foreign policy adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, contradicts that claim.

And Comstock did not deny the policy in her press release – although, like Ayres, she uses obfuscatory language that makes it seem as if Saudi will not be targeted.

“Currently, all nationals of Libya, Syria, Sudan, Iran and Iraq are required to be registered under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (emphasis in original),” Comstock said. “However, no other countries – including Saudi Arabia – will be required to have all of their nationals who visit the United States registered.”

Technically, she’s right. Not all Saudis will be registered. Just men, ages 16 to 45, according to the internal memo, dated Sept. 5.

Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez told New York Newsday Tuesday that he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of the memo published by WND. He also said he couldn’t talk about the criteria for extra screening because it is “law-enforcement sensitive.” In a previous interview with the Los Angeles Times, Martinez claimed it was classified.

Under U.S. immigration law, Justice must publish federal notice naming countries it will target for special screening when that screening includes all their citizens. Only a certain group of Saudis, Yemenis and Pakistanis must register at U.S. borders, according to the memo, so Justice doesn’t have to make that information public.

U.S. law-enforcement officials say Justice didn’t want to publicize the expanded policy primarily for political reasons. Adding Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to the terror-risk list is tacit admission that the administration has been trusting the wrong countries to cooperate in the war on terrorism, they say.

Also, the State Department fought the policy because it didn’t want to offend Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

Arab-rights groups in the U.S. became aware earlier this month that at least Saudi Arabia and Pakistan had been added to the INS blacklist, and they were already protesting the move. Those who didn’t know would have known as soon as fingerprinting began. So there was little surprise value in keeping the policy secret.

Interestingly, Comstock’s press release, which was sent to reporters, is not posted on Justice’s website along with other press releases.

Previous stories:

Saudi panic over Justice memo leads to meeting

Saudi Arabia ‘shocked’ to be added to watch list

New INS limits on Mideast visits not so strict

INS to vet Indonesia, Malaysia travelers

Memo: U.S. gets tough with Paki, Saudi visitors

INS crackdown yields few foreign fugitives

U.S. still resettling Afghan refugees here

INS agents: Ashcroft’s visa-check plan flawed

INS hasn’t closed terrorist loopholes at airports

INS profiling some young Mideast men

INS terrorist database often crashes

Don’t arrest terrorists, INS tells LAX agents in memo

INS to deport 6,000 Arab aliens on commercial jetliners

FBI shadowing suspect passengers