A U.S. federal appeals court has ruled the government does not have to release the names of hundreds of foreigners it has detained in the ongoing investigation of the September 11th terrorist attacks two years ago. The court says that doing so could impede the war on terrorism. A lower court had ordered the Justice Department to disclose the names of those being held.
This ruling accepts the government's view that disclosing the identities of the more than 7,000 foreigners held for questioning in connection with the 9/11 attacks would give al-Qaida or other terrorist groups a composite picture of the government's investigation and, in doing so, a chance to evade or obstruct it.
The case was brought by several public interest groups, which objected to the Justice Department decision not to disclose detailed information about those detained. But the appeals court ruled the United States is now facing an enemy just as real as it did during the Cold War, and said the judicial branch of government is not in a position to second guess top counter-terrorism experts on a matter involving the nation's security.
The controversial ruling, which is likely to be appealed, was immediately questioned by Steven Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"This is the first court decision that I know of that has ever upheld the concept of secret arrests in this country," he said. "In a democratic society, we do not pick people up and put them in jail in secret. And when you allow the government to arrest people and jail them in secret, you always increase the likelihood that they will be subject to abuse because nobody is watching."
One member of the three-judge appeals court panel apparently agreed and in a dissenting opinion, criticized the court for accepting what he called the government's vague and poorly explained arguments for withholding information about the detainees. Most of them have now been deported after being picked up on immigration violations.
But Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed the ruling, calling it a victory for the government's efforts to safeguard information related its investigation of terrorism.