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FBI Director: Handling of Immigrants Held in Terror War to Change

June 14, 2003|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on Friday promised changes in the handling of illegal immigrants suspected of having links to terrorism.

In a speech to an American Civil Liberties Union conference, Mueller said a report last week from the Justice Department's inspector general "did a very good job of pointing out areas where we can do better."

The inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, criticized the lengthy detentions -- some up to eight months -- of many of the 762 immigrants held after the Sept. 11 attacks and the FBI's assumption of sole authority to decide whether individuals remain a threat. Conditions of custody were deemed often unduly harsh.

Among the planned changes, Mueller said, are better criteria for deciding when an illegal immigrant is a suspect of special concern, improved communication between agencies to speed disposition of cases and more personnel devoted to the investigations.

In addition, federal immigration officials will have greater authority over custody of these illegal immigrants, with the FBI taking over only if the case is made in writing that release of an individual would pose a threat or disrupt an investigation.

Assistant Atty. Gen. Michael Chertoff, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said in a recent letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the FBI and the Homeland Security Department -- which now handles most immigration matters -- are working to implement these changes.

"These enhancements would further reduce the potential for impinging on civil liberties," Chertoff said in the June 4 letter, which he said stated his personal views and not official government policy. Chertoff leaves his post Monday to become a judge on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

The fate of detainees was only one of the issues that has drawn criticism from the ACLU in the war against terrorism. The ACLU has fought against government secrecy, questioned the increased surveillance powers under the USA Patriot Act and raised concern that the FBI has singled out Muslims for investigation since Sept. 11.

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero praised Mueller for his willingness to appear before such a critical crowd, albeit one that received him warmly. But Romero added that "the areas of disagreement outnumber the areas of agreement" between his group and the FBI.

Mueller said the FBI had redoubled its dedication to upholding citizens' rights under the Constitution, even as it retools to make counter-terrorism its top priority. Some secrecy is necessary in combating terrorism, he said, but many concerns about infringement of rights have been overblown.

For instance, Mueller said the FBI has investigated patrons' use of library books and computers only when probing specific individuals with court-approved warrants.

"The FBI will be judged not just on how we effectively disrupt and deter terrorism, but also on how we protect the civil liberties and constitutional rights of all Americans," Mueller said. "We must accomplish both, so that future generations can enjoy lives that are both safe and free."

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