The Strange Case of Abdallah Higazy
By Jon Carroll
The amazing but true story of Abdallah Higazy should give us pause, had we not already hit the pause button some time ago, about the tactics our government has used in pursuit of alleged al Qaeda members in the United States.
Said tactics are possibly illegal and definitely unethical. Worse yet, they are incompetent, showing a pathetic eagerness for a quick bust no matter how flimsy or just plain weird the evidence.
This story has been reportedBenjamin Weiser recently had an account in the New York Times, from which details in this column are takenbut it has not received much attention. Just a drop in the old Ashcroft bucket.
So: Abdallah Higazy is an Egyptian student currently resident in New York City. He was first picked up in December after a security guard at the hotel where Higazy was staying on Sept. 11 told authorities that he found an aviation radio in a safe in Higazys room. The radio, it was said, was capable of communicating with the airplanes used in the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Shortly thereafter, Higazy was given a polygraph test by an FBI agent. Higazy had no lawyer in the room, nor had he been given the opportunity to consult one beforehand. The polygraph test turned into an intense interrogation, with Higazy strapped to a machine. After a while, Higazy admitted that he owned the radio. He said he had found it in a subway station near City Hall; he said he had found it underneath the Brooklyn Bridge; he said he had stolen it from the Egyptian Air Corps, in which he had once served.
Seems like a reliable enough guy, right?
Higazy was charged with lyingsome of those stories had to be liesand thrown into solitary confinement for a month. He was released in late January after the security guard admitted that he had made the whole story up.
The tale might have gone entirely unnoticed were it not for Judge Jed S. Rakoff of federal District Court, who had approved the detention in the first place. He became concerned that the FBI had misrepresented the case and the confession. The judge said he had been seriously misled into believing that the confession was true.
Judges hate being misled.
The thing that bothered the judge was not so much the conflicting stories; it was the apparent impropriety of the FBIs conducting an interrogation without a lawyer present and failing to reveal that to the court. Rakoff apparently believes in the old presumption of innocence thing, something the Justice Department abandoned on Sept. 12.
Why would Higazy confess if he were innocent? He complained to his lawyer, Robert S. Dunn, that the FBI agent had threatened the safety and security of his family in Egypt as well as his younger brother who was attending school in upstate New York.
Given the circumstances of his arrest and detention, Higazy might very well have felt that at least the second part of the alleged threat was credible. Heck, maybe it was credible. Its getting harder all the time to know what lines our government would refuse to cross in pursuit of terrorists.
Judge Rakoff suggested in court that he might seek a special prosecutor to investigate the actions of the FBI in this matter. The government opposed the suggestion. Rakoff relented and accepted an intradepartmental investigation of the incident, with the report due Oct. 31.
The government is terribly troubled by how this case unfolded, said one government lawyer. Its a nightmare we have all experienced as prosecutors. No government lawyers, however, spent a month in solitary confinement. That sacrifice was the sole burden of Abdallah Higazy.
No, wait, the radio was given to me by Michael Jackson in Times Square.
Well, we must face a new reality. No more carefree days of chasing squirrels, running through the park or howling at the moon. On the other hand, no more Fetch the stick, boy, fetch the firstname.lastname@example.org.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 20, 2002