Published on Monday, July 21, 2003 by the New York Times
Report on USA Patriot Act Alleges Civil Rights Violations
by Philip Shehon
A report by internal investigators at the Justice Department has identified dozens of recent cases in which department employees have been accused of serious civil rights and civil liberties violations involving enforcement of the sweeping federal antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act.
The inspector general's report, which was presented to Congress last week and is awaiting public release, is likely to raise new concern among lawmakers about whether the Justice Department can police itself when its employees are accused of violating the rights of Muslim and Arab immigrants and others swept up in terrorism investigations under the 2001 law.
The report said that in the six-month period that ended on June 15, the inspector general's office had received 34 complaints of civil rights and civil liberties violations by department employees that it considered credible, including accusations that Muslim and Arab immigrants in federal detention centers had been beaten.
The accused workers are employed in several of the agencies that make up the Justice Department, with most of them assigned to the Bureau of Prisons, which oversees federal penitentiaries and detention centers.
The report said that credible accusations were also made against employees of the F.B.I., the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service; most of the immigration agency was consolidated earlier this year into the Department of Homeland Security.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Barbara Comstock, said tonight that the department "takes its obligations very seriously to protect civil rights and civil liberties, and the small number of credible allegations will be thoroughly investigated."
Ms. Comstock noted that the department was continuing to review accusations made last month in a separate report by the inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, that found broader problems in the department's treatment of hundreds of illegal immigrants rounded up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
While most of the accusations in the report are still under investigation, the report said a handful had been substantiated, including those against a federal prison doctor who was reprimanded after reportedly telling an inmate during a physical examination that "if I was in charge, I would execute every one of you" because of "the crimes you all did."
The report did not otherwise identify the doctor or name the federal detention center where he worked. The doctor, it said, had "allegedly treated other inmates in a cruel and unprofessional manner."
The report said that the inspector general's office was continuing to investigate a separate case in which about 20 inmates at a federal detention center, which was not identified, had recently accused a corrections officer of abusive behavior, including ordering a Muslim inmate to remove his shirt "so the officer could use it to shine his shoes."
In that case, the report said, the inspector general's office was able to obtain a statement from the officer admitting that he had verbally abused the Muslim inmate and that he had been "less that completely candid" with internal investigators from the Bureau of Prisons. The inspector general's office said it had also obtained a sworn statement from another prison worker confirming the inmates' accusations.
The report did not directly criticize the Bureau of Prisons for its handling of an earlier internal investigation of the officer, but the report noted that the earlier inquiry had been closed — and the accused officer initially cleared — without anyone interviewing the inmates or the officer.
The report is the second in recent weeks from the inspector general to focus on the way the Justice Department is carrying out the broad new surveillance and detention powers it gained under the Patriot Act, which was passed by Congress a month after the 9/11 attacks.
In the first report, which was made public on June 2, Mr. Fine, whose job is to act as the department's internal watchdog, found that hundreds of illegal immigrants had been mistreated after they were detained following the attacks.
That report found that many inmates languished in unduly harsh conditions for months, and that the department had made little effort to distinguish legitimate terrorist suspects from others picked up in roundups of illegal immigrants.
The first report brought widespread, bipartisan criticism of the Justice Department, which defended its conduct at the time, saying that it "made no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further attacks."
Ms. Comstock, the spokeswoman, said tonight that the department had been sensitive to concerns about civil rights and civil liberties after the 9/11 attacks, and that the department had been aggressive in investigating more that 500 cases of complaints of ethnic "hate crimes" linked to backlash from the attacks.
"We've had 13 federal prosecutions of 18 defendants to date, with a 100 percent conviction rate," she said. "We have a very aggressive effort against post-9/11 discrimination." A copy of the report, which was dated July 17 and provided to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, was made available to The New York Times by the office of Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House panel.
"This report shows that we have only begun to scratch the surface with respect to the Justice Department's disregard of constitutional rights and civil liberties," Mr. Conyers said in a statement. "I commend the inspector general for having the courage and independence to highlight the degree to which the administration's war on terror has misfired and harmed innocent victims with no ties to terror whatsoever.`
The report is Mr. Fine's evaluation of his efforts to enforce provisions of the Patriot Act that require his office to investigate complaints of abuses of civil rights and civil liberties by Justice Department employees. The provision was inserted into the law by members of Congress who said they feared that the Patriot Act might lead to widespread law enforcement abuses.
The report draws no broad conclusions about the extent of abuses by Justice Department employees, although it suggests that the relatively small staff of the inspector general's office has been overwhelmed by accusations of abuse, many filed by Muslim or Arab inmates in federal detention centers.
The inspector general said that from Dec. 16 through June 15, his office received 1,073 complaints "suggesting a Patriot Act-related" abuse of civil rights or civil liberties.
The report suggested that hundreds of the accusations were easily dismissed as not credible or impossible to prove. But of the remainder, 272 were determined to fall within the inspector general's jurisdiction, with 34 raising "credible Patriot Act violations on their face."
In those 34 cases, it said, the accusations "ranged in seriousness from alleged beatings of immigration detainees to B.O.P. correctional officers allegedly verbally abusing inmates."
The report said that two of the cases were referred to internal investigators at the Federal Bureau of Investigation because they involved bureau employees. In one case, the report said, the bureau investigated — and determined to be unsubstantiated — a complaint that an F.B.I. agent had "displayed aggressive, hostile and demeaning behavior while administering a pre-employment polygraph examination."
The report said that the second case involved accusations from a naturalized citizen of Lebanese descent that the F.B.I. had invaded his home based on false information and wrongly accused him of possessing an AK-47 rifle. That case, it said, is still under investigation by the bureau.
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