At 8:45 a.m. on Feb. 26, University of Idaho College of Law professor Elizabeth Barker Brandt got a call from University law clinic director Monica Schurtman, who needed help. A lot of help. One of her clients, along with 20 or so other individuals, was being questioned by the FBI. On a mission to arrest a single suspect, a swarm of a hundred law enforcement agents had descended on Moscow, Idaho—a town less than half the size of Missoula.
Their arrest was graduate student Sami Omar Al-Hussayen. The reason was alleged visa violations. But after the FBI strip-searched his computer and found thousands of pictures of the World Trade Center before and after 9/11, the agency alleged a link between Al-Hussayen and organizations funneling money to terrorist organizations.
In addition to the arrest, local law enforcement and Immigration and Naturalization Service agents made the rounds looking for “friends, neighbors, relatives, coworkers, colleagues and anybody that had an association with this guy,” says FBI Special Agent George Dougherty.
Brandt, a member of the ACLU Idaho state board and the ACLU national board, and Schurtman helped rally lawyers and law students to come to the aid of international students interrogated by federal agents.
“The whole first group cooperated,” says Brandt. “They were too afraid not to. But by the second group of interrogations, those students had lawyers present and did cooperate, but with lawyers present.”
The prospect that law enforcement will look at others in the neighborhood has put the ACLU board member on her toes.
“Right now, I think all the students in Idaho who were interrogated have independent representation,” she says. “But right across the border is Washington State University and there haven’t really been any interrogations there…But my own view is that there will be more.”
Brandt wonders why so many agents were needed when the FBI had been monitoring Al-Hussayen for over a year and didn’t consider him dangerous.
“We had an arrest warrant for Mr. Al-Hussayen and I think we used about four or five agents to do the arrest,” says Special Agent Dougherty. “Once we were done with the arrest we had three searches to do and we had to take as many resources as we had to do that as quickly and thoroughly as we could to get out of the community and let people get on with their lives and not be hanging around knocking on doors for weeks.”
After the event, Brandt sent out an indignant e-mail detailing the raid that has since bounced across America and back. In it she claims that the FBI flew in 120 fully-armed agents in riot gear. Dougherty says Brandt’s numbers and descriptions are exaggerated and points out that the vast majority of the agents weren’t from the FBI. Washington and Idaho State Police and local law enforcement were also used, he says.
“This raid was huge overkill,” says Brandt. “A raid of this size in this town can only have one purpose and that is to just scare everybody.”
Al-Hussayen is in custody in Boise, Idaho awaiting an April 15 trial date. In addition to alleged visa violations, he is also charged with lying to government officials.