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September 11 Attacks Spark US Civil Liberties Debate

Following last September's terrorist attacks, the U.S. government launched the largest criminal investigation in history. Hundreds of non-citizens were detained and thousands of other immigrants were questioned as investigators sought to prevent another attack. Civil liberties advocates say some of the tactics used by police and prosecutors threaten to undermine the very freedoms the United States says it is fighting for in the war on terrorism.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the American public was angry and frightened. It was during this time that Attorney General John Ashcroft became the most visible symbol of the Bush Administration's effort to make the United States secure from future attacks.

"Our fight against terrorism is not merely or primarily a criminal justice endeavor. It is defense of our nation and its citizens," Mr. Ashcroft announced.

Hundreds of non-citizens were detained in the months following the attacks. Many have been either released or deported, but some remain in custody as material witnesses, people who investigators believe may have information related to terrorist groups.

The round-up of non-citizens and the indefinite detention of at least two American citizens with alleged ties to al-Qaida sparked opposition from Arab-American groups and civil liberties organizations.

"The American people have the right to know who has been arrested, where and why they are detained," says Steven Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, "the conditions of their confinement, and whether they are being given proper access to [legal] counsel and the judicial process."

Investigators defend their actions by saying secrecy is needed in their efforts to detect and disrupt terrorist organizations.

There has been criticism from the far-right as well.

"I really do not need anybody to make me safe," says John Appelt, a community activist and gun rights supporter in Missoula, Montana. "I will make myself safe and I am not about to give up the rights that I helped to ensure when I was in the military, and people in my family died to win these rights for us."

Civil liberties activists are concerned about what they regard as the secretive nature of the government's crackdown on alleged terrorists operating inside the United States. "I do not think there is any legitimate claim that any judicial intervention is going to hinder their protection of us in any substantial way," says David Kairys, a Law Professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. "The main problem on this level is that they will not even agree that a court has any business at all inquiring into why they are holding people."

While there has been opposition and criticism from civil liberties groups, the public has, by and large, either supported the hunt for terrorists or reacted with ambivalence.

Pennsylvania State University Law Professor Gary Gildin believes that the public does not perceive the legal crackdown as a threat to personal freedoms, at least not yet.

"So I think we are at a stage now where the potential for that abuse is there, but we have not seen the actual abuses come to the fore just yet, which is why the public would be rather quiescent at the moment, because the costs are not apparent," he says.

Others argue that the U.S. image has already suffered abroad. Law professor David Kairys says federal law enforcement officials are using tactics that the United States has criticized other countries for employing in the past.

"Even if they are temporary, the context is that we are doing exactly what we accuse other countries of doing in a barbaric way, that has no respect for rights. We could not be more hypocritical," he says.

Civil liberties groups say they are encouraged by some recent federal court rulings that have been critical of the government's efforts to conduct court hearings in secret and to seek additional wiretaps on people who may be linked with terrorist networks.

Justice Department officials insist they will use every legal tool at their disposal to protect Americans from another terrorist attack.

Part of VOA's series on the September 11 terror attacks.