Army review: Agents erred in UT conference investigation

Associated Press
March 15, 2004

AUSTIN — Army Intelligence and Security Command agents overstepped their authority when they sought information on civilian participants at a University of Texas conference, the Army reported.

Two counterintelligence agents from Fort Hood, near Killeen, went to the UT Law School on Feb. 9, seeking information on people who attended a conference titled "Islam and the Law: The Question of Sexism."

The Army is prohibited from investigating civilians unless the FBI waives its jurisdiction or requests assistance, said Deborah Parker, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, based in Fort Belvoir, Va.

"It was a lapse in judgment," Parker said Monday. "It was not something that was done maliciously."

The conference, which had taken place a week earlier, was open to the public. Conference organizers said they refused to give the agents a list of participants and a video of the event.

Conference organizers and Austin civil rights activists accused the Army of spying on the conference and using investigation tactics meant to stifle free speech.

Maunica Sthanki, co-chairwoman of the UT Chapter of the National Lawyer's Guild, said the conference was secular and did not merit military suspicion.

"The message I think that the Army and the government are sending is that anybody who chooses to learn about Islam is going to be investigated," she said. "I don't think the American public should accept that message of fear, and that's why the issue isn't over."

An official at the UT Law School said he was glad that the Army conducted the investigation.

"We think (the Army agents) overreacted," said Douglas Laycock, an associate dean for research. "You can't be suspicious of everyone who attends an academic conference."

A statement from the Army said that the agents were acting on a report by two Army lawyers who attended the conference. The lawyers attended the conference to prepare for a deployment to Southwest Asia, where they were assigned to deal with legal issues involving the American military and the local Muslim population, the statement said.

The lawyers reported suspicious behavior by a conference participant who persistently questioned their identity, occupation and status, the statement said. The lawyers also sought information on the conference participant's two associates at the conference.

Army rules require its members to report those types of suspicious incidents, Parker said.

But the Fort Hood detachment of the Intelligence and Security Command erred in investigating the incident without first reporting it to command headquarters in Virginia, she said.

The incident involved civilians, and officials at the command's headquarters would have reported it to the FBI, Parker said.

"This is where things went wrong," she said. "The procedure required that the FBI be notified before taking action, and that notification wasn't made."

FBI special agent Rene Salinas, a spokesman for the bureau's San Antonio field office, said the FBI is not investigating the conference.

"On the contrary; we're here to protect the rights of students and anybody else to duly assemble and practice freedom of speech," Salinas said.

Parker said the Army has responded to the mistake by providing additional training in counterintelligence investigative jurisdiction to agents across the country. The Army was still reviewing whether disciplinary action will be taken for any of the agents involved, she said.

Austin attorney Malcolm Greenstein, who is representing conference organizer Sahar Aziz, said the Army's review does not answer all of the critics' questions.

"What were Army people doing going to the conference in the first place?" he said. "The issue of sexism in Muslim law is an issue that they're going to deal with? I don't think so."


March 15, 2004 - 4:54 p.m. CST

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