Today, the court hears Abdullah al-Kidd's case against John Ashcroft over the Bush administration's detention practices
Abdullah al-Kidd wasn't what I expected when I met him on February 14 in a conference room at a legal firm in downtown Los Angeles. Al-Kidd's name may not be readily familiar, but his civil rights lawsuit against former Attorney General John Ashcroft has become one of the most politically charged cases of the post-September 11 era to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed in October to hear the case.
The 39-year old Al-Kidd was born Lavoni Kidd but changed his name after converting to Islam while a student -- and star football running back -- at the University of Idaho. He met with me after flying in from Saudi Arabia, where he currently lives and teaches English, to finally tell his side of the story -- and the timing was propitious. Today, March 2, the Supreme Court hears arguments in this closely watched national security case, the ruling on which could determine, for the first time, whether a senior official of the Bush Administration can be held personally liable for U.S. detention practices adopted in the wake of September 11.
In the spring of 2002, al-Kidd found himself under FBI surveillance. Agents came to his home three times, questioning him about his "activities" and about a former co-worker, Sami Omar al-Hussayen, who was later indicted for visa fraud and tried in 2004 for, among other charges, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
Before long, the FBI stopped coming around and al-Kidd thought the matter was closed. Meanwhile, FBI agents prepared an affidavit for his arrest as a material witness in al-Hussayen's case. The agents cinched an arrest warrant by telling a judge that al-Kidd had purchased a one-way, first class ticket to Saudi Arabia. In fact, he had purchased a round-trip, coach class seat to the country, where he planned to continue his religious studies.
At Dulles International Airport on March 16, 2003, as al-Kidd checked in for his flight, FBI agents arrested and again interrogated him. He was transferred on Con Air flights with convicted murderers and rapists, at gunpoint and in shackles and handcuffs, to prison facilities in three different states. Strip-searches were routine; guards at one prison left him sitting naked without privacy for hours.
Once released, he was ordered to live with his in-laws in Nevada and regularly to report to a probation officer, in addition to which he consented to unannounced home visits throughout the year he was under federal supervision. Having surrendered his passport, al-Kidd could not leave the country and travel within the U.S. was limited to four states. In July 2004, he lost his job with a Las Vegas defense contractor once they learned of his arrest, al-Kidd claims. In the end, he was never called to testify at al-Hussayen's trial, which ended without a single conviction.
Al-Kidd's attorneys argue that the material witness law adopted by the Justice Department and FBI after September 11 "was used in a sweeping and abusive manner." Like other Muslim men during that time, al-Kidd was put under surveillance, questioned repeatedly by the FBI and, without any evidence of criminal activity, arrested and detained for days in harsh conditions. The ordeal, al-Kidd told me, "crushed me and nearly ruined my life."
Ashcroft's position is that the case should be dismissed. In legal briefs he claims to have adhered to the Constitution in applying the material witness law, and that, as a government official, he is protected from prosecution by immunity.
Knowing al-Kidd's story well, meeting him I expected to see traces of anger or bitterness, or at least find a man who had become politicized. Instead, he was calm and polite, at times even humble. For his U.S. visit, he abandoned his long, flowing robe, and dressed conservatively in black pants and a green shirt and tie, his bald head and bushy beard a tribute to his religious beliefs.
"I've never been a big political person," he told me. "I never tried to fit into any political box." Here is my interview with him.
Q: If [FBI Director] Robert Mueller and John Ashcroft were sitting here, what would you say to them?
A: I'd like to tell them my side of the story. That's all. My main goal of this case is vindication, of my name, and I want the government to apologize and acknowledge their mistakes and right the wrongs so this won't happen to other people.
Q: What is your opinion of the Bush and Obama administrations?
A: Interjected by al-Kidd's ACLU attorney, Lee Gelernt, who was present. He's not going to get into any of that right now. He's here to talk about what happened to him.
Q: Why did you convert to Islam?
A: Religion has always mattered in my life, always, but I was missing structure and kind of concerned about being a young man without any direction. I had changed my major in college three times--from psychology to anthropology and then PR, but really wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I was on my own for the first time away from my parents, and in a period of soul searching, I studied the teachings of Islam and certain things really appealed to me. I liked that my day would be structured around prayer and that I could have a direct connection to God without necessarily having an intermediary.
Q: What was your experience of being a Muslim in America?
A: Prior to 9-11, there was no stigma attached to being a Muslim and I felt comfortable living here. When I watched the terrorist attacks on television, I knew immediately that life would be very different for Muslims and for people in general, and almost right away, people began staring at me, I suppose because I had a beard. I felt a lot of pressure interacting with people because I could see the question mark in their eyes and tone of voice: who is this guy? I went out of my way to make people feel comfortable so I would be accepted.
Q: How would you describe your experiences with the FBI?
A: I met with FBI agents three times in 2002. The first time they interviewed me at my mother's house in Seattle where I was staying. They were direct but polite, and the majority of their questions centered on me; who do you know, have you been to this or that mosque, why did you travel to Saudi Arabia? They asked only a few questions about the al-Hussayen case. Then I figured the interviews were done because I heard nothing from them for six months.
Q: What did you think when FBI agents arrested you at Dulles International Airport?
A: I was totally surprised and humiliated. I was at the ticket counter, dressed in a long [religious] robe, and they handcuffed me and paraded me back through airport. I was really embarrassed because I could imagine what the people who saw me were thinking: 'Oh, there goes another one of those terrorist guys they just arrested on the plane.' At the time, the agents weren't clear why I was being arrested, but they told me if I talked to them I could probably continue my trip, so that's why I talked to them. But I had a lot of emotions, frustration and fear, not knowing what the future held for me.
Q: Once it was explained to you that you'd been arrested as a material witness to secure your testimony at al-Hussayen's trial, what was your treatment like?
A: I can't imagine that a person who's just a witness would be treated like I was. Through the whole ordeal, they treated me like a convicted criminal and I was singled out, because of what guards and others called 'my situation.' It made me feel like I was being singled out as a terrorist.
At the end of my detention in Alexandria [Virginia], U.S. Marshals drove me three hours to a tarmac with planes, cars and hundreds and hundreds of prisoners. It was such a surreal event because I saw all these convicted criminals, some obviously extremely dangerous because guards surrounded them at gunpoint.
They took off my chains and applied others as they escorted me, at gunpoint, onto a plane full of convicts headed for the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City. There I was, with all these convicts, and I didn't belong. I heard bits and pieces of conversations, like this person got 20 years for rape, this person's doing life for murder. When convicts asked to use the restroom, marshals escorted them, but when I asked to go, the marshal told me he couldn't unlock my restraints because of 'my situation.'
Q: Did you ever speak up about your treatment? After all, as you said, you were just a witness.
A: A few times I did, like in Oklahoma, when I was singled out and left sitting naked in a stall, with no curtain, for three or four hours. I asked the guard when I would get my prison clothes, but he had no answer. When I was transferred to Boise, and met with FBI agents again, I was really scared because it seemed like their focus was on me now. They were trying to push me in a direction and get me to change my story. At one point, the federal prosecutor pulled his chair close to me and threw down a stack of papers on the table. Mr. al-Kidd, he said, I know everything you said in these documents isn't true.
And I said: If what's in there isn't true, it's not because I told a lie, it's because you guys made mistakes.
Q: How has this experience changed you?
A: It's changed me tremendously because I had to pick myself up from a very low point. This crushed me. It was like a big snowball that kept getting bigger and bigger. This case is not as simple as my being labeled a material witness. I've had relationships and friendships end because of this case and I call what happened to me a social assassination.
I had a very painful situation with a really good friend of mine who I played football with and looked up to like a mentor. He stuck by me the whole time and told me: 'I don't know any person on earth besides you who could have survived this.' Then people warned him to leave me alone, 'or they [federal agents] will start watching you, too.' So he did pull away and that really hurt me.
After I was released, I was ordered to live with my in-laws, in Nevada, and once a month someone came to their home to make sure I was living there. I had no passport and had to check in with pretrial probation officer once a month. I felt so much pressure. I had a newborn child and was trying to provide for my family, but I couldn't find work and the marriage started going down the drain. [The couple eventually separated.]
Q: What are your plans now? On March 2, will you be in Washington, to sit in on the Supreme Court arguments in your case?
A: No, I won't be staying that long. I'll be on my way back to Saudi Arabia then. I have a good job there, teaching English at a university, and I don't want to be away for long. While I don't feel like Saudi Arabia is my home now, my financial situation there is good, but one day I definitely want to live in the U.S. again.
Photo: Abdullah al-Kidd with his ACLU attorney, Lee Gelernt