WASHINGTON -- Hats off to Justice Department inspector general Glenn Fine for nailing the department's abuse of illegal immigrants in the name of fighting terrorism.
Fine, an appointee of former President Clinton to the non-partisan post, issued a scathing 198-page report on the brutal handling of some of the 762 detainees rounded up in the early aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Most of them have now been deported or released.
Only one detainee, Zacarias Moussaoui, who was in custody before 9/11, has been charged with a terrorism-related crime.
The immigrants, predominantly Pakistani, as well as Arab and South Asian, had overstayed visas or entered the country illegally. There were citizens of 20 countries among them.
Under ordinary circumstances, they would have been given due process and the right to a lawyer and a chance to go free on bond. But those legalities were suspended in the atmosphere of fear and anxiety that followed the 9/11 catastrophe.
The immigrants swept up by the FBI's hunt for Osama bin Laden's homicidal disciples were subjected to a Kafka-esque justice system. It was reminiscent of fascist and communist dictatorships. They were treated as guilty before proven innocent.
The detainees were held at the federal Bureau of Prisons Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Passaic County Jail in Paterson, N.J.
Fine's report said the civil rights of hundreds of the detainees were violated. Many were held under harsh conditions for weeks or months. There were complaints of verbal and physical abuse at the Brooklyn center.
Some of the prisoners were held in lighted cells for 23 hours a day and were allowed outside their cells only in handcuffs, leg irons and waist chains. The detainees held in the Passaic County jail were treated with more civility, according to the report.
The detainees were allowed one telephone call a week, but the guards often interfered with calls to lawyers or gave them wrong numbers to call.
The report said prison officials imposed communications blackouts that severely limited attempts of detainees to contact family members and attorneys.
The report was sympathetic -- but not too forgiving -- of government agencies like the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI and the Justice Department, noting that they faced monumental problems and "enormous challenges" in those stricken days following the terrorist attacks.
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Fine did not accuse Attorney General John Ashcroft or the department's senior officials of acting unlawfully or overstepping their bounds. But the report indicates that those in charge of the detainees stretched their authority and were gratuitously cruel.
The report found that some department lawyers were concerned about the legality of treatment of the detainees but that senior officials overrode their objections
So where were the civil rights lawyers, the news media and the human rights groups -- who usually weigh in at gross violations of individual rights -- while all this was going on? Almost nowhere. But the department blocked efforts of some news organizations to find out about the detainees or to cover deportation hearings.
There was one brief shining moment when U.S. District Court Judge Damon Keith agreed with the Detroit newspapers, which had sued to open up a deportation hearing. In allowing press coverage of the hearings, Keith said in a memorable quote: "Democracy dies behind closed doors."
Don't imagine the department chieftains were embarrassed or remorseful over their panicky reaction to the attacks as exposed in the report.
Get this: Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said the report was "fully consistent with what courts have ruled over and over -- that our actions are fully within the law and necessary to protect the American people. We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks."
And in a dissenting letter attached to Fine's report, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said:
"The detention of those illegal aliens suspected of involvement with terrorism was paramount." He complained that it was "unfair to criticize the conduct of my staff during this period."
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "The war on terror quickly turned into a war on immigrants."
It seems Americans are beginning to come out of their coma and to begin to question the harm that has been done to civil liberties under the huge umbrella of national security. No one can argue that we need all the foresight and protection we can get to remain a safe and secure nation.
But this is a land created by immigrants and we will be renouncing our great legacy if we allow our fears to close the doors of our open society.