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A Swift, Secretive Dragnet After Attacks

Arrests: Authorities cast their net largely out of public view, changing the lives of thousands of people but charging no one in the 9/11 carnage.


Bill Gore was at home shaving the morning of Sept. 11 when his FBI pager went off. He rushed to the bureau's San Diego office and launched an investigation that led to the questioning of about 5,000 residents across the southern end of California and the detention of scores of foreign nationals.

That same day Imad Hamad found himself stranded in Washington by the nationwide shutdown of airports. A week passed before he made it home to Dearborn, Mich., where he is a leader in the nation's largest Arab American community, and he was besieged with requests for help by families whose sons and husbands had been spirited away by federal agents.

At the county jail in Kearny, N.J., across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center, warden Ralph W. Green watched the north tower collapse. Within days, he was passing out prayer rugs and copies of the Koran to a new wave of prisoners delivered without explanation by the federal government.


The FBI man, the community activist and the jailer were among tens of thousands of people drawn into a still-unfolding American drama touched off by Sept. 11. A year later, the episode remains largely hidden from public view, awaiting the judgment of history.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 14 inches; 507 words Type of Material: Correction
Detainees--A story in Tuesday's A section on the detention of terrorism suspects reported that Japanese Americans placed in U.S. internment camps were held for the duration of World War II. In fact, the U.S. government issued a proclamation Dec. 17, 1944, ending the mass imprisonment. However, according to the Japanese American National Museum, only one of the 10 main camps, in Denson, Ariz., was closed before the war ended with Japan's surrender on Aug. 14, 1945. The rest of the camps closed over the period from October 1945 to March 1946.

Washington ordered law enforcement officers across the country to detain and arrest anyone with potential knowledge of the Sept. 11 hijackers or involvement in any other terrorist plots that might be in the works.

"We moved quickly. We moved really quickly," said a high-level Justice Department official. "We didn't have the luxury of taking our time."

In the panic of those initial days, with the arrests of men who knew the hijackers, who worked at airports, who were caught with box cutters, it seemed at first they might all be enemies of America.

As it turned out, very few have been charged with any terrorism-related offenses. Indeed, as far as is known, none of those arrested since Sept. 11 has been charged in the destruction at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.

Although the arrests were widespread, criticism has mounted only slowly with the passage of time. Many detainees were held for months without criminal charges or legal representation. Most apparently were young Muslim men who came here on various kinds of visas and are not U.S. citizens.

It was not the most severe restriction of constitutional rights in U.S. history. President Lincoln detained Confederate supporters and suspended habeas corpus--the right to a court hearing--during the Civil War. Most dramatically, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rounded up more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent and held them in camps for the duration of World War II.

But the latest episode stands out for its secrecy and because it goes against the legal grain of recent decades, a period when an untold number of illegal immigrants have won amnesty, the rights of women and minorities have been explicitly assured, criminal defendants have won extraordinary legal protections and the Japanese American internment camps themselves have been deemed repugnant.

Since Sept. 11, federal judges in at least three cities have tried to open the proceedings; one derided the secrecy of the detentions as a "concept odious to a democratic society." The American Bar Assn. condemned the "incommunicado detention of foreign nationals in undisclosed locations."

In perhaps the most serious setback for the government, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati recently ruled that most immigration hearings must be open to the public.

But the government is appealing these rulings, insisting that the nation's security is at stake and that authorities need time to determine whether detainees are dangerous.

For example, several men were arrested in the Detroit area in September 2001 on visa fraud charges, but it wasn't until last month that they were named in a terrorism-related indictment.

Justice Department officials insist they are not conducting an ethnic or religious witch hunt.

"I didn't see any case where someone was a Muslim or an Arab, and was detained just for that," said a top federal prosecutor in San Diego.

But the very secrecy that the government has insisted upon has made it difficult to judge its actions. It is not possible, for example, to refute claims by some Arab Americans that 1,000 were taken into custody in Michigan alone.

By Washington's most recent count, on May 10, 752 of the 1,200 detainees remained in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. By the end of June, all but 81 of them had been deported, often with wives and children in tow.

There were also criminal charges filed against 129 of the detainees. They included a handful of material witness warrants, alleging some knowledge of circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. Most covered federal and state crimes, such as credit card schemes, forgeries and the illegal possession of firearms.

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