Shameful: FBI, INS Abused Sept. 11 Detainees
Published on Thursday, June 5, 2003 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Shameful: FBI, INS Abused Sept. 11 Detainees

Everyone understood, following Sept. 11, 2001, that many things had changed in America -- that, for example, law enforcement needed to move much more aggressively against possible terrorists. It stood to reason that agencies like the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) would be particularly interested in young men from Muslim countries, especially those whose visas had expired or who had never bothered to get one. But in New York and Newark, N.J., the FBI and INS stepped way over the line in how they treated their detainees. Thus says the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn Fine, and bless him for it.

Fine's powerful critique of federal actions didn't question the need to detain, interrogate, even deport more than 700 aliens rounded up following the 9/11 attacks. It challenged how the FBI and INS treated the detainees while they were in custody. Investigating possible links to terrorism didn't require keeping the detainees locked up for 23 hours a day, or shackling them in handcuffs and leg irons when they were moved. It didn't require keeping the lights on in detainees' cells 24 hours a day. It didn't require physical and verbal abuse.

Fine went further: The INS failed to tell the detainees within the required time why they were being held. They thus were handicapped in their ability to obtain legal assistance and in seeking a bond hearing. Those problems were exacerbated by the FBI's failure to make distinctions between legitimate terrorism suspects and immigration violators "encountered coincidentally" to the terrorism investigation. Detainees instead were lumped together.

And all were held for a very long time. The Justice Department established a no-bond policy for all those detained following Sept. 11. It then took the FBI an inordinate 80 days on average to clear a detainee for release.

Fine also says the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn "frequently -- and mistakenly -- told people who inquired about a specific Sept. 11 detainee that the detainee was not held at the facility when, in fact, the opposite was true."

So what was the Justice Department's response to this devastating critique? "We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks," said Barbara Comstock, department spokeswoman. Two problems with that: The legality of these behaviors isn't a given and will be a central question in numerous lawsuits against the department and its agencies; and the behaviors in question weren't at all necessary in the effort to protect the American people.

The United States frequently holds itself up as a model of democracy and human rights for the world. But look at the example set in this instance for despotic regimes seeking to justify repugnant behaviors. If the U.S. Justice Department behaves this way, why can't the government of Egypt, Pakistan or dozens of other countries less than fully committed to the rule of law?

Clearly, the Justice Department messed up. Its zealous effort to catch terrorists is commendable. But in the process it got sloppy, and it forgot what is central to the American system the terrorists sought to undermine: protection of individual rights, scrupulous attention to the rule of law and a desire to show the world that those values can be honored within the context of aggressive, professional law enforcement.

This wasn't a chapter in its history of which the Justice Department should be proud. Too bad that Attorney General John Ashcroft and his minions apparently fail to understand that.

© Copyright 2003 Star Tribune