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FBI Clears Eight Detainees After Attacks

September 11, 2003

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) _ An FBI agent who helped arrest eight Egyptian men in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks became the driving force behind clearing their names, an arduous process that eventually led to a rare public apology from the FBI.

FBI Agent Thomas Van Wormer said he felt a responsibility to help the men, whose names cropped up on a far-reaching database _ paired with the word ``terrorism″ _ even after they were cleared of suspicion.

The database had nightmarish consequences for the men: One missed two flights home from an overseas trip when his name showed up on a no-fly list. Others had problems getting public housing and immigration cards.

``I want to commend them for the way they acted,″ Van Wormer said from his office in downtown Evansville. ``It made it so you wanted to help them. Their demeanor was to their benefit.″

Van Wormer began investigating the men after one of their wives called a law-enforcement hotline set up after Sept. 11, 2001. She said one of the men ``would be traveling to Chicago’s O’Hare airport, was going to engage in a suicide crash, and that he would be dead on Oct. 12, 2001,″ according to federal documents.

The woman passed a lie-detector test, but her husband _ using an interpreter to take the test _ showed some signs of deception, although he did not blatantly lie, Van Wormer said.

The woman then alleged other men were also involved. Authorities became more suspicious when they learned one of the men, Tarek Albasti, had taken pilot lessons.

The men were taken into custody on material-witness warrants and spent about a week in a Chicago detention center. Investigators released the group after deciding the woman’s statements were not true. Van Wormer said cultural and language barriers were likely to blame for the man’s lie-detector test results.

But the arrests continued to haunt the men because of the database.

Each time they ran into trouble, Van Wormer tried to help. ``I felt a sense of responsibility with it,″ he said.

The woman who made the allegation wasn’t charged with any crime, because authorities determined she believed she was telling the truth, based on the lie detector results.

It was unclear why the woman made the claim. One of the men who was detained has said he thinks she was angry when she found out her husband had children back in Egypt and called authorities to get even.

Thomas V. Fuentes, the FBI agent in charge of the bureau’s Indianapolis office, apologized to the men April 23 for the problems they experienced after their release.

Van Wormer credits Fuentes with getting a federal court order to clear the men’s names. Fuentes is now on assignment in Iraq.

``This is very, very unusual to have their records expunged like this,″ Van Wormer said.

At least two of the men have moved back to Egypt. Some who stayed have thanked Van Wormer.

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