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U.S. Finds Abuses of 9/11 Detainees

Justice Dept. inquiry reveals many violations of immigrants' rights. Report shows officials early on feared people were being held unjustly.

June 03, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt and Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Internal investigators at the Justice Department found "significant problems" in the way that scores of immigrants were detained after the Sept. 11 attacks, from excessive delays in the release of suspects to "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse" by some federal correctional officers.

The long-awaited report by the department's Office of the Inspector General found that immigration authorities and some midlevel Justice Department attorneys had concerns as early as the end of September 2001 that people without ties to terrorism were being held unnecessarily.

It portrayed some Justice Department officials as being either misinformed or indifferent to those concerns, with some operating under a "misperception" that immigrants were being cleared for release within a few days. The reality, the report found, was that it took an average of 80 days for the 762 people detained as part of the Sept. 11 probes to be released; for some, the process dragged on for as long as six months.

That left people in legal limbo, often without immediate access to lawyers, in a high-security federal facility under sometimes harsh conditions. Ultimately, nearly all were deported, after being charged with various immigration-law violations. Only a small fraction was charged with crimes. The report found that only 60% of the detainees were charged within an INS goal of 72 hours.

"Even in the hectic aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, we believe the FBI should have taken more care to distinguish between aliens who it actually suspected of having a connection to terrorism as opposed to aliens who, while possibly guilty of violating federal immigration law, had no connection to terrorism," Glenn A. Fine, the inspector general, said in the 198-page document.

Justice officials took strong exception to the report, and defended the terrorism investigation as proper and lawful.

"Under these unprecedented and extraordinary circumstances, the law was scrupulously followed and respected while aggressively protecting innocent Americans from another terrorist attack," Barbara Comstock, the department's public affairs director, said in a prepared statement.

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'Detention Is Lawful'

"Those detained were illegal aliens. They were all charged with criminal violations or civil violations of federal immigration law," Comstock continued. "Detention of illegal aliens is lawful. We detained illegal aliens until it was determined they were not involved in terrorist activity, did not have relevant knowledge of terrorist activity, or it was determined that their removal was appropriate."

The report recommended a series of changes in policies ranging from ranking detainees by the threat they posed to developing special procedures for confining immigrants with suspected terrorist ties. Justice Department officials said some of the recommendations are already being put into effect.

The inspector's office is the department's investigative arm, probing alleged violations of fraud, abuse and integrity laws that govern operations and employees. Although its work most often results in suggested policy changes, it also is empowered to bring criminal cases. In its latest report, the office said it considered bringing criminal charges against certain unidentified prison guards, but declined to do so. Officials are considering administrative action against them.

To immigrant and civil rights groups, the report vindicated allegations -- now pending in civil suits against the government -- that in the bid to root out the Sept. 11 culprits and to avoid other disastrous attacks, officials often ignored immigrants' civil liberties.

"The detain-first, ask-questions-later approach resulted in unjust treatment of detainees and tied the bureaucracy in knots," said Elisa Massimino, director of the Washington office of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "It is not an effective way to combat terrorism."

The American Civil Liberties Union said the report marked "a major scandal for the Bush administration."

The report was launched in March 2002 and included interviews with more than 50 top officials. It focused on INS detainees at two facilities -- the Metropolitan Detention Center federal prison in Brooklyn, and the Passaic County Jail in Paterson, N.J. Compared with the Brooklyn facility, aliens housed at the Passaic jail in New Jersey, which had prior experience with immigrants, received generally far better treatment, the report found.

The two facilities held 475 of the 762 aliens detained after the Sept. 11 attacks. At one point, Justice officials estimated that as many as 1,200 "citizens and aliens" were detained for questioning.

The detainees -- none of whom were identified -- came from 20 countries, with Pakistan being the country of origin of about one-third. Most were from 26 to 40 years old and were arrested in the first three months after the terrorist attacks. The maximum time served was 244 days.

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