In Portland, Ore., on March 20, the FBI arrested Maher "Mike" Hawash and raided his home and office. He has been held in solitary confinement without charge ever since.
The Justice Department will not confirm that he is being held as a material witness or even that he is in custody at all.
Like others whisked off to jail since Sept. 11, mostly Muslim noncitizens held for visa violations, Hawash might have dropped out of the public's sight to fates unknown except for some special circumstances.
Although born in the West Bank and reared in Kuwait, Hawash, 38, has lived in the United States since 1984 and been a citizen since 1988. He's a graduate of the University of Texas system and has worked in the computer industry ever since. He is married to an American and has three children.
Also, he is a contract software engineer for Intel, where his boss, Steven McGready, has taken up his cause. As a result, Hawash has a Web site, freemikehawash.org, and a legal defense fund. His case has attracted the interest of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, R-Ore. And there's even been a small courthouse demonstration on his behalf.
The Washington Post reports that Hawash is being held as a material witness in the local prosecution of six men charged with conspiring, unsuccessfully, to go to Afghanistan to train to fight the United States.
However, Hawash doesn't seem to fit the usual standards for incarcerating a witness of being a danger to the community or at risk of flight. And, in the period he's been held, he apparently hasn't been interrogated or brought before a grand jury. It is a scary exercise of power.
Civil libertarians believe flatly that the government should not be allowed to arrest and detain someone without charge. The Bush administration has exercised this power twice with regard to American citizens, one of them initially held as a material witness, holding them without charge or access to lawyers or a judge.
The federal courts have split on indefinite detention as a material witness; some saying it's a legitimate investigative tool, others that it's not. At some stage, the Supreme Court or Congress is going to have to draw the line between detention to compel testimony — the purpose of the material-witness statutes — and detention that's an abuse of power.
Attorney General John Ashcroft says it's "vital to preventing, disrupting or delaying new attacks." We'd like some proof that's so.