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When they tried to pass through INS, the inspector found their names on a federal watch list and sent the couple to "hard secondary," where an investigation began under the direction of Frank Gonzalez, a former member of the INS Terrorism, Drugs, and Fraud Unit. "The [watch lists] said they were involved in terrorist attacks and that they were very dangerous," Gonzalez recalls.
The investigation was overseen by immigration officials at headquarters in Washington, D.C., Gonzalez reports. An agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, which was automatically alerted to the hit on the watch lists, contacted Gonzalez, who remembers that an agent told him: "Don't let them into this country." And the FBI sent an agent to interview the couple shortly after they were detained. Gonzalez says both El Reda and Bazzi were calm under pressure, especially the woman.
"She was very professional and cold -- she'd obviously been trained and knew exactly what she was doing," Gonzalez recounts. "She said she didn't know anything about it, terrorism or bomb-making or anything. Both of them were very cool, very sophisticated people."
Former inspector José Martinez assisted Gonzalez and processed the couple's belongings. "There was close to half a million dollars in hundred-dollar bills in their handbags," he says. "It was a huge amount of money. I had to make copies of all the hundred-dollar bills, and it took a very long time. We also found several, at least six or seven, powerful lenses for cameras."
Gonzalez says headquarters instructed him to charge the couple with terrorism and put them on the next flight back to Venezuela.
Martinez still wonders why the pair wasn't investigated further. He says there wasn't time to trace the cash and camera equipment, which he believes were simply returned to them. "That's one of the reasons I left," says Martinez, who retired from the INS in 1998 after eleven years. "INS, to me, stands for "I'm Not Sure.' Every day there were stupidities and mistreatment of cases. Nobody seems to know anything. You can't do your job."
Gonzalez echoes those sentiments. He says he learned that the two were using stolen South American passports, which could have led to criminal charges. He also says he thinks they should have been held for questioning by Argentine officials. "I would imagine that if you have these people in your hands, who are supposed to be slick terrorists, you would want to hold onto them," he says. "But [the INS] never followed up on any of these things. They never bothered. They just blew it off."
By the time Gonzalez and Martinez finished the paperwork on the case, the day's last flight to Venezuela had already departed. So the family was held overnight at the Krome Detention Center. The next morning, before escorting the suspected terrorists to the airplane, Gonzalez was confronted by INS supervisor Angel Barbosa, who asked him if there "was a mistake," Gonzalez wrote in a complaint shortly after the incident. Barbosa, Gonzalez continued, told him that "these people were not terrorists." (The INS denied a New Timesrequest to interview Barbosa.)
Gonzalez says he assured Barbosa that the pair had been positively identified as suspects in a deadly terrorist attack. While Gonzalez was escorting El Reda and Bazzi to the plane, "they said that an officer, Barbosa, had told them that morning how mistaken INS had been in charging them with this, and... that they had to clear up this grave mistake," Gonzalez wrote in the complaint.
Gonzalez was incensed that his supervisor had apologized and told the couple the federal government had erred in stopping them. But the worst was yet to come. After Gonzalez had escorted El Reda and Bazzi onto the plane, El Reda ran off the aircraft and complained to Gonzalez that documents Barbosa had given him were no longer in his briefcase. Gonzalez ordered El Reda back onto the plane, and the alleged terrorists were soon on their way to Venezuela.
The documents El Reda had demanded, Gonzalez later learned, had been confiscated during a customs search of the couple's bags that morning. Among them were sensitive INS records and the State Department revocation of El Reda's visa. On that document was Gonzalez's full name, which Gonzalez didn't want in the hands of a terrorist organization. "I looked at that as possibly putting me in danger," he comments.
Barbosa also allowed the couple to obtain secret police information, says Jim Alger, former INS assistant port director in Miami. Alger, who was in charge of INS airport operations the day El Reda and Bazzi arrived, says he gave Barbosa a copy of information about the couple from a federal law enforcement watch list. Later, he found that same information in El Reda's possession. "These lookouts are classified, and at the time we were not even permitted to inform the subject of the existence of a lookout, much less the contents," says Alger, who retired in 1998 after 20 years at INS. "I viewed this as a serious breach of security."
Alger urged the INS to criminally investigate the matter. "It's aiding and abetting criminal suspects," he avers.