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FBI Calls Off Search for Five Men

FBI Calls Off Search for Five Men

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The FBI called off a nationwide search for five men Tuesday after determining a tipster's information was false, underscoring the government's dilemma in deciding whether to publicize information about a potential terrorist threat.

If the FBI keeps what it knows secret -- even if that information is tenuous as in the case of the five men -- it runs the risk of being blamed if something happens later. Yet if nothing occurs after many warnings, the public can become complacent or skeptical.

"I don't have to tell you about the boy who cried wolf," said Michael Tigar, an American University professor specializing in criminal law. "Anybody who is in charge of the security of a country or a city or a person has to make judgments about what are real and what are unreal threats."

The FBI began its search for the five foreign-born men after receiving a tip from a man jailed in Canada who said they entered the United States illegally on or around Christmas Eve. That led the FBI to issue an appeal on Dec. 29 asking for the public's help in finding the men for questioning.

The FBI posted the purported photos and names of the men on the agency's Web site, even though officials acknowledged they weren't sure the images and identities were correct, or even that the men actually entered the country.

The tipster was Michael John Hamdani, an accused immigrant smuggler held in Canada since October. U.S. authorities now believe Hamdani provided false information about the men in a bid for leniency on forgery charges he faces in the United States.

Hamdani is expected to be transported to New York on Wednesday to face those charges, which were brought in 1996 and allege he trafficked in fraudulent travel and identification documents.

Canadian charges of forging passports and traveler's checks were dropped against Hamdani last week, clearing the way for his extradition.

FBI officials say the decision to alert the public about the men was made to err on the side of caution, particularly with imminent New Year's celebrations providing possible targets for terrorists.

A federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were enough similarities between Hamdani's tip and other intelligence the bureau had gathered that it was decided a nationwide alert would be prudent.

Tigar questioned that reasoning. He said informants are particularly difficult to trust when they know release of a few choice tidbits might get them off a serious criminal charge.

"How many years does it take for us to learn that snitches who are trying to buy their way out of trouble are notoriously unreliable?" he said.

The FBI did decide last week that it should not release another batch of 14 names and faces provided by Hamdani because they were of dubious quality. That followed public appearances by a Pakistani jeweler, Mohammed Asghar, who said his picture was wrongly included in the original group of five wanted men.

Federal law enforcement officials say document forgery rings are key to the ability of terrorists to move freely from country to country undetected. The arrest of Hamdani in Canada disrupted one alleged ring, they say, and his transfer to U.S. custody will provide authorities a better opportunity to question him about its operations and others who might be involved.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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