U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says the Justice Department continues to detain more than 550 people in connection with the investigation into the September 11 terrorist attacks. Mr. Ashcroft defends the detention as an essential part of an effort to prevent further terrorist attacks.
For the first time in weeks, Attorney General Ashcroft briefed the news media on those arrested or detained since the September 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington.
The government previously had said it had arrested or detained more than 1,000 people but refused to say how many remained in custody.
But while the attorney general was willing to discuss the numbers of those detained, he was not willing to disclose names out of concern that might help those planning further attacks. "When the United States is at war," he said, "I will not share valuable intelligence with our enemies. We might as well mail this list to the Osama bin Laden al-Qaida network as to release it. The al-Qaida network may be able to get information about which terrorists we have in our custody, but they will have to get it on their own and get it from someone other than me."
Mr. Ashcroft says so far the Justice Department has charged 104 people with federal crimes and that 55 of those remain in federal custody. Another 548 people remain in custody on immigration charges, though some of them have also been charged with federal crimes.
The attorney general says he believes some of those now in detention are al-Qaida members and says the arrests and detentions have made America's defenses against terrorism stronger.
Mr. Ashcroft says he will not release the names of those detained because he wants to protect the privacy of those who may be innocent.
The attorney general also defended his decision directing law enforcement officials to seek interviews with an estimated 5,000 non-citizens nationwide, most of them men of Middle Eastern descent, to see if they know anything about terrorists operating inside the United States.
A question has to be askedare people going to accept their responsibility to help us prevent additional terrorist attacks or not? And I believe that is everyone's responsibility. Now, we are being as kind and fair and gentle as we can in terms of inviting people to participate in helping us.
Some civil liberties groups have criticized the attorney general for the way in which he has directed the roundup of suspected terrorists since September 11.
The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrat Patrick Leahy, says he expects to closely question Attorney General Ashcroft about the detainees and other issues when he appears before the committee next week. "It is bothering a great number of people, Republicans and Democrats," he said. "I think the attorney general owes the country, certainly owes the Congress, an explanation."
In recent weeks, some civil liberties groups have complained that some of the detainees have been denied access to legal help. But Attorney General Ashcroft said Tuesday that those being held have been given access to lawyers and are allowed to call their families.