Nov. 1, 2006 - President Bush's top emissary for public diplomacy has privately complained that recent moves by the Department of Homeland Security to block prominent Muslim clerics and scholars from entering the United States has damaged her efforts to bolster America's image in the Islamic world.
In recent weeks, Karen Hughes, under secretary of State for public diplomacy and the president's former communications adviser, has protested directly to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that an increase in the number of high-profile "exclusions" of Muslim figures is creating major public-relations problems for the United States overseas.
"There's no question that some of these incidents have created serious problems for us," Dan Smith, Hughes's chief of staff told NEWSWEEK. "She wants to find a way to fix this consistent with national security."
Hughes's behind-the-scenes complaints reflect growing tensions between State and Homeland Security officials over an increasingly aggressive no-entry policy that critics say has caused a wave of criticism in the Muslim world even if it has been barely noticed inside the United States.
While Homeland Security officials claim they are vigilantly guarding the borders against possible terrorists and their sympathizers, one State Department source (who asked not to be identified because of political sensitivities) charged there has been a "kind of hysteria" on the part of Homeland Security officials in the way they have been barring individuals from entering the United States on the basis of vague and in many cases unsubstantiated allegations.
"It's no secret that there have been incidents where distinguished speakers and others who should have been allowed into the United States have run into difficulties," said Sean McCormack, assistant secretary for public affairs, and Rice's chief spokesman, told NEWSWEEK. He said that Rice and State Department officials are trying to work with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to refine the process by which exclusions are made. Rice "couldn't agree more that we still want to be a welcoming society all the while we keep the right people out," he said.
Yet the process by which exclusions are made remains murky and, according to critics, subject to widespread abuse. Internal documents recently released under the Freedom of Information Act show that Homeland Security and State officials are using the Patriot Act and other post-September 11 laws to deny U.S. entry to non-Americans on such loosely defined grounds as having engaged in "irresponsible expressions of opinion."
"We're seeing increasing numbers of people excluded simply because of their speech or political beliefs," charges Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which obtained the documents. Jaffer counts more than 25 of what the ACLU considers "ideological exclusions" since 9/11. "They are using these to censor and manipulate political and academic debate inside the country," he said.
Other documents obtained by the ACLU refer to what is an apparently new category of organizations—known as "type III terrorist organizations"—that don't meet the standards for official (and public) State Department designations as a terror group. Yet alleged membership, affiliation or financial contribution to such "type III" groups—the names of which have not been made public—are deemed grounds for denying individuals entry to the country. "It's a ‘looks like a duck, walks like a duck' thing," said one State Department official when asked what the criteria were for deeming an organization to be a "type III" terror group.
One recent case that prompted Hughes's concern—first reported by NEWSWEEK—involved the well-known British Muslim leader, Kamal Helbawy, who was ordered off his American Airlines flight at London's Heathrow Airport on Oct. 18. Helbawy was forced to leave the flight just minutes before he was due to take off for New York, where he was slated to speak at a New York University Law School conference on the Muslim Brotherhood.
The move outraged sponsors of the NYU event, who insisted that Helbawy, although a longtime member of the radical Muslim Brotherhood, was a relatively moderate figure in British Islamic circles who has renounced violence and served as an adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair's government. Helbawy was not on a no-fly list maintained by U.S. intelligence agencies of persons deemed to be possible terror threats, according to a senior U.S. counterterrorism official.
That incident was followed within days by two other cases in which well-known South Africans were detained by Homeland Security officials and then removed from the country. One of them, a Muslim academic named Adam Habib, who serves as the director of a South African government-funded research program, had landed in New York last week for a series of scheduled meetings with officials of the World Bank, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health.
Although Habib had traveled to the United States on numerous occasions in recent years and had a multiple-entry visa, the scientist was questioned for more than seven hours and then escorted by armed guards back onto an airplane and flown back to South Africa. Habib, who acknowledged he had once been arrested as a political dissident under South Africa's former apartheid government but denied any links to terrorism, expressed indignation over his treatment by U.S. authorities. "You can't just deny someone access to a country and not give any reasons why," he told The Dispatch newspaper in South Africa. "It's like you accuse someone, but you don't tell them what for."
U.S. Homeland Security officials have refused to provide any public explanations for their actions, although in the case of Helbawy, some supporters of the action have pointed to past radical statements in which he appears to endorse the violent activities of the militant Palestinian group Hamas. (Helbawy distributed an e-mail this week saying his words were being taken out of context.) Still, government officials say they had some basis for all their exclusions—even if they are not free by law to say what their reasons are. "Despite their claims of innocence, all of these people are problematic in some ways, and some of them are actual terrorists," said one State Department consular official.
A Homeland Security spokesman defended the agency's actions, telling NEWSWEEK that "we're always going to err on the side of caution and security to secure our borders and protect the homeland." The spokesman added that Homeland Security and State are working on new procedures to vet those entering the country and offer a streamlined appeals process for those denied entry to the United States.
But regardless of the merits, other senior State Department officials say the high-profile exclusions have created a public-relations nightmare for U.S. diplomats overseas. In the past few days, for example, Habib's exclusion—barely reported inside the United States—produced a rash of headlines in South Africa. TOP MUSLIM KICKED OUT OF THE US, read the headline in The Dispatch, over the subheadline SEVEN-HOUR ORDEAL IN NEW YORK CASES ANGRY BACKLASH.
The spate of headlines was particularly troubling to Hughes, who has been in an uphill struggle to improve America's image in an Islamic world almost completely united in its opposition to the war in Iraq and other Bush administration policies. "There is a disconnect between the security-intel side of the house and the political side of the house," said one State Department official. "Hughes's office is very much aware of these self-inflected wounds. She realizes this a big problem."
One Homeland Security official said that he believed that Yusuf Islam, the pop singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, was banned from entering the United States in 2004 on the grounds that he donated money to Islamic charities that possibly qualified as "type III" terrorist organizations. As NEWSWEEK reported at the time, security experts in Britain said that Yusuf Islam once helped set up an Islamic charity that campaigned to bar non-Muslims from Jerusalem. He also allegedly provided funds to Hamas. In 1994, according to German police records, the singer also met a German Islamic militant who later was in contact with the 9/11 hijackers.
After 9/11, however, Yusuf Islam is reported to have turned his back on Islamic militants, condemning extremism and pledging proceeds from a CD set to families of 9/11 victims. Leaders of Britain's Jewish community today praise Yusuf Islam's more measured approach. "We have no reason to believe that he's anything other than a moderate Muslim now," Michael Whine of the Board of Deputies of British Jews said earlier today.
U.K. officials familiar with the views of British law-enforcement and intelligence agencies indicated that U.K. agencies had nothing to do with the U.S. decision to ban Helbawy from entering the country. According to one source who keeps tabs on militant Islamic groups that operate in the U.K., Helbawy made public remarks hostile to Jews and Israel, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, as recently as two years ago. By the same token, the same source says that Helbawy in recent years fell out with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian-based militant movement with which he once served as official representative in both Pakistan and Britain, because Brotherhood leaders regarded him as "too moderate."