N.J. Judge Unseals Transcript In Controversial Terror Case

By Dale Russakoff, The Washington Post, Wednesday 25 June 2003; Page A03

PATERSON, N.J., June 24—Mohamed Atriss spent six months here in the Passaic County Jail based on accusations by county prosecutors that he had ties to terrorism—allegations prosecutors called so sensitive that they had to be kept secret from Atriss despite his constitutional right to confront evidence against him.

Today, the superior court judge who took the secret evidence last November unsealed the hearing transcript, revealing that the allegations were based largely on inaccurate information that Atriss and his lawyer said they could have rebutted, if only they had been allowed to see it.

“We are glad to expose these transcripts for what they are—slanderous, hearsay, double- and triple-hearsay, unsubstantiated allegations,” said attorney Miles Feinstein, with Atriss at his side in his law office. “It illustrates the dangers and irreparable harm that comes from secret evidence.”

Atriss said he may file a civil suit against county authorities. “To think they kept me in jail on this!” he said with tears in his eyes.

According to the transcript, prosecutors told Judge Marilyn Clark that Atriss co-owned a check-cashing business in Jersey City with a man “classified by the FBI as a terrorist.” In an interview today, U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said the man named in the transcript was never classified as a terrorist but was a subject in a 1996 FBI investigation of a terrorist group.

Atriss said he and the man were in business together for a brief time in 1987. He said prosecutors would have discovered that if they had searched state business records.

According to the transcript, prosecutors told Clark that Atriss, who ran a travel services business, ordered travel documents from a Brooklyn company that the FBI said was known for selling documents to terrorists and had ties to the “Russian Mafia.”

Christie said that federal authorities have “no information” that the company named in the transcript has terrorist ties.

Passaic County Prosecutor James Avigliano declined today to discuss the accuracy of the claims in the transcript. “I would absolutely do it over again based on the information I had,” he said.

The transcript was released after a lawsuit was filed by several newspapers, including The Washington Post.

The Atriss case drew international attention last July 31 when Passaic County Sheriff Jerry Speziale led television news crews on a raid of Atriss's travel services business here, and revealed that Atriss had sold fake identification documents to two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers. Federal authorities denounced the raid, saying they had investigated the ID sales and found no evidence linking Atriss to terrorists.

County authorities charged Atriss with 26 counts of selling fraudulent identification documents to Hispanic immigrants and conspiring to do so. They still alleged that Atriss had terrorist ties, and Clark set bail at $500,000—consistent with a charge of first-degree murder—after the secret hearing. That proceeding marked the only criminal case in the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks in which secret evidence was presented against the defendant.

The allegations began to fall apart in January, when a state appellate judge ruled that Clark had not shown that Atriss posed a risk to national security. Soon afterward, prosecutors met with Atriss, Feinstein and FBI agents, and dropped all but one felony charge of selling fake documents. Atriss pleaded guilty and went free in March.

The newly released documents show that the case was rife with miscommunication. County prosecutors told Clark they believed the FBI was still investigating Atriss for terrorist ties, though they hadn’t been able to get through to the FBI to confirm this, according to the transcript. Christie said that he and the FBI had made clear that they had no interest in Atriss.