The U.S. Justice Department is criticizing itself for the way it has handled the detention of hundreds of foreigners for immigration violations in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The practice has also been widely criticized by legal and human rights groups.
A report by the Justice Department's inspector general found significant problems with the way more than 700 immigrants were detained for violating immigration laws in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. The investigation, conducted by Justice's in-house watchdog, found many were held for long periods without charge, often in highly restrictive conditions, including round the clock handcuffs and leg irons, without access to lawyers, and in cells where the lights were never turned off.
Those in question were initially held on suspicion of having ties to the September 11 hijackers or to terrorism in general. But according to the Justice Department investigation, some detainees were not told why they were being held until more than a month after they were taken into custody.
The American Civil Liberties Union calls the findings evidence of its view that the rights of immigrants in the United States have been trampled on in the post 9/11 environment and is considering filing a lawsuit.
"What the report overall demonstrates is that long after the government knew or should have known that immigrants who had absolutely nothing to do with 9-11 or with terrorism at all, they continued to be subjected to these practices and policies and were detained not just for weeks but for months and months," said Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU's Immigrants Rights Project.
The investigation stops short of calling the detentions illegal and blames an understaffed FBI for taking much longer than expected to clear detainees of any connection to terrorism before they could be released or deported. And, a Justice Department spokeswoman defended the questionable detention practices by citing U.S. immigration law, which allows authorities to detain illegal aliens for up to 90 days, and even longer, if they are under investigation for terrorist connections. David Rivkin, a former Justice Department official, argues the government has the right to indefinitely detain enemy combatants picked up on the battlefield and foreigners charged with violating immigration law.
"Remember, we're talking about people who are in this country illegally," he said. "This is a long-standing problem, I remember it from my days at the Justice Department. You pick up an illegal alien, you put him in the deportation proceedings, he is 'being removed' and you allow this person to be released," he said. "What do you think is going to happen? This is a person who is in this country illegally in the first place. A huge percentage of those people, overwhelming, just never show up until they get picked up again. As a practical matter, prior to September 11, a lot of those things were not taken particularly seriously."
In another challenge to the government's legal handling of terrorism cases, a federal court in Richmond, Virginia, Tuesday will hear arguments over whether accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in a U.S. court with conspiring with the September 11 hijackers, has the right to question captured al-Qaida members about evidence that could help him defend himself against charges of conspiring to commit terrorism. A lower court judge has ruled he does. But the Justice Department believes allowing the French Moroccan that right could damage U.S. national security by divulging information crucial to the war on terrorism.