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Hunting Saddam’s Torturers…in America By: Bill West
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Within the past few weeks, the US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested two suspected modern day war criminals.  One a Vietnamese who is alleged to have tortured political prisoners under the Vietnamese Communist regime and the other a Rwandan alleged to have been a local leader of the inter-tribal genocide committed in that war-torn country in 1994, and wanted by the UN international Rwandan war crimes tribunal.  Both these suspects were arrested on felony immigration fraud violations under ICE’s evolving but increasingly aggressive Operation No Safe Haven, which seeks to identify, investigate and apprehend foreign human rights violators and war criminals who find their way into the United States.

These two arrests, ironically coinciding with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, are demonstrative of the US Government’s genuine commitment to doing the right thing in the arena of human rights.  The timing of the events also highlights what may be an important and perhaps previously unconsidered area of targeting for Operation No Safe Haven…Iraqi human rights violators who may have entered and settled in the United States.     

Statistics from the Bureau of US Citizenship and Immigration Services website reveals that between 1989 and 2000, nearly 23,000 Iraqis refugees and asylum seekers were granted Lawful Alien Permanent Resident status within the United States.  That number, of course, does not include those who may have entered the US as immigrants based on regular family status or employment permanent visas, nor those who entered as nonimmigrant visitors or students and subsequently overstayed their time or perhaps “adjusted” to permanent legal status via the tried and true method of marrying an American citizen or finding a willing American employer to file a visa petition.  Even so, those 23,000 refugee immigrants, given the chain migration multiplier effect (spouses, children and siblings) would likely at least double the original number in real terms.  The true picture of the number Iraqis in the United States over the past fifteen years or so is significant.


The predecessor effort to Operation No Safe Haven was the INS’ human rights violator apprehension program primarily focused in the Miami field office from late 1999 until INS was abolished and merged into the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003.  That Miami program, with limited investigative and prosecution resources, realized the arrest of human rights violators from a variety of countries including Cuba, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras.  The lessons learned from the Miami INS experience, combined with reputable reports from the United Nations and various non-governmental organizations over the years, indicate that if a foreign country has experienced serious internal strife and human rights abuses, it is almost certain that some of the perpetrators of those abuses will find their way to America’s shores.  Operation No Safe Haven is national in scope and brings the broader resources of ICE to the effort, and the most recent arrests demonstrate the agency seems to be serious about pursuing this mission, although ICE is an agency saturated with missions and so far has only been able to devote a limited number of agents, and focus on the program in a primarily reactive mode, mostly pursuing leads already known.


For better or worse, the United States now owns Iraq.  Which means the US Government owns what had been the personnel records of Saddam’s military, intelligence and security services.  Undoubtedly, those records are being reviewed and analyzed by US military and intelligence services.  Presumably, the worst of the worst among Saddam’s rank and file operatives have been identified.  These would be people beyond the infamous deck of cards - those who served in ranking positions in the intelligence and security services and “special” units of the military.  But what of the lower level personnel in those same organizations?  Those who, like our own accused privates and specialists in Abu Ghraib, may have been “only following orders” and, like the Nazis in WW II, have no defense with that defense.  Are these people accounted for in Iraq?  Likely not.  Surely not all the senior commanders have been found, and the lower down the chain of command, the less likely they will be found, or even sought.  And, the further back in time considered, the less likely our forces will even be concerned with looking.  But, those are precisely the people who are most likely to have found their way into America. 


Could a former Iraqi prison guard, one who routinely tortured prisoners, tired of living under the depravity that was Saddam’s regime, sneak out of Iraq and find his way to another country where he perhaps posed as a refugee before a US Consulate Officer?  Of course he could.  Would such a person necessarily be fully candid about his past?  Would he claim he was a person persecuted by Saddam or one of Saddam’s persecutors?  Unfortunately, the refugee processing system was (and still is) full of holes, relying too heavily on the claims of the alien applicants themselves absent any affirmative “hits” in the various Government lookout systems.  That’s one reason so many undesirable aliens manage to penetrate our so-called border defenses.  How many times did such a scenario occur with Iraqis over the years…Iraqi intelligence officers, prison officials, secret police, Ba’ath Party officials, military interrogators and the like?  How many of these people who served as Saddam’s henchmen and torturers left Iraq for whatever reasons, found their way to the US, lied about their backgrounds to get here and remain here, and have been living among us unmolested for years?  The answer is we don’t know.  However, the answer is there for the Government’s taking, if it chooses to take it.


A comparison of those Iraqi military and intelligence personnel records, at least those for people known or strongly suspected to have engaged in atrocities or to have served in positions overseeing such activities, and who are not already accounted for in Iraq, against US immigration records should be made.  And the timeframe should be significant, at least going back to the first Gulf War period, though immigration statistics indicate large influxes of Iraqis into the US beginning in the early 1990s.  As suspects are identified, with US immigration records linked to those suspects, cases can be opened and aggressively pursued for criminal prosecution on fraud or related violations where possible or alternatively deportation proceedings initiated.  Another aspect to the US Government’s ownership of the Iraqi records is that we know who were Saddam’s political prisoners, and therefore who were the victims, virtually all Iraqis.  Those who survived and can be located are potential witnesses against their former tormentors, bringing some justice for those victims and their families.  All this will take is the will to investigate and investigators with will.                      


A senior ICE official familiar with No Safe Haven stated those limited resources were currently devoted to reviewing and analyzing a nationwide backlog of several hundred existing case leads from years past, and that no consideration has been given to proactively engaging in a major human rights violator initiative targeting one group, such as Iraqis.  Given the war in Iraq and how that affects world events and our national security, and the current furor over how Americans approach human rights, the time may be just right to launch such an initiative.       


Bill West is a retired INS Supervisory Special Agent.  He is now a consultant on counter-terrorism matters and a freelance writer.     

Bill West is a retired INS/ICE Supervisory Special Agent who ran organized crime and national security investigations. He is now a counter-terrorism consultant and freelance writer.

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