The Federal Bureau of Investigation has begun questioning Libyans living in the U.S., part of an effort to identify any Libyan-backed spies or terrorists, and collect any information that might help allied military operations.
The move reflects concerns among U.S. officials—in the wake of an allied bombing campaign that established a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the massacre of antigovernment rebels—that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi might try to orchestrate revenge attacks against U.S. citizens.
U.S. counterterrorism officials believe that the threat of Libyan-backed terrorism is slightly higher for Europe than for the U.S. Officials on both sides of the Atlantic are searching for signs of nascent terror plots directed or encouraged from Tripoli.
FBI officials declined to comment Monday on the program.
A similar intelligence-gathering effort in 2003, called Operation Darkening Clouds, led to strong objections from the New York Civil Liberties Union. The organization sued in 2008 over that secret operation, calling it invasive and coercive in its questioning of Iraqi-born people in the U.S.
FBI agents began conducting the interviews this week, according to several people familiar with the matter. The agency’s initial focus is on people with personal or professional ties to Libya, which could lead to thousands of interviews. Officials cautioned that figure was a very early estimate.
The FBI is particularly interested in Libyans staying in the U.S. on visas, according to several people who are involved in the matter.
The FBI isn’t responding to intelligence pointing to any specific plot or plots, according to people familiar with the matter. Instead, the FBI is trying to determine whether there is a threat to Americans in the U.S. or overseas. FBI agents hope to gain enough information from the interviews to understand how much of a threat Libya poses.
The FBI effort has other objectives as well. The agency wants to find anyone trying to gather intelligence in the U.S. on behalf of Mr. Gadhafi. The FBI also wants to gather information about Libya that might be of value to U.S. and allied military personnel engaged in Libya.
The intelligence work is another example of U.S. government resources being used to support the mission in Libya. Central Intelligence Agency personnel are in Libya gathering intelligence about the Gadhafi regime’s forces and about opposition parties.
People familiar with the effort said it was similar in its goals and methods to Operation Darkening Clouds, which was launched by the FBI at the outset of the invasion of Iraq. That effort led to the compilation of information on more than 130,000 people, prompting the lawsuit from the New York organization, which criticized what it called the “data mining” effort by the government and the subsequent interviews.
The existence and details of Operation Darkening Clouds stayed secret for years. A 2008 Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the New York group forced the bureau to turn over internal documents about the operation.
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