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U.S. report faults the roundup of illegal immigrants after 9/11
( 2003-06-03 10:37) (7)

The Justice Department's roundup of hundreds of illegal immigrants in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks was plagued with "significant problems" that forced many people with no connection to terrorism to languish in jails in unduly harsh conditions, an internal report released Monday found.

The highly critical report from the Justice Department's inspector general concluded that F.B.I. officials, particularly in New York City, "made little attempt to distinguish" between immigrants who had possible ties to terrorism and those swept up by chance in the investigation.

Justice Department officials said they believed they had acted within the law in pursuing terrorist suspects. "We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks," said Barbara Comstock, a spokeswoman for the department.

But the inspector general's report found that some lawyers in the department raised concerns about the legality of the tactics, only to be overridden by senior officials.

The report validated the concerns raised by some members of Congress and civil rights groups who charge that the Justice Department has cast too wide a net in the campaign against terrorism. The findings will probably provide legal and political ammunition to those seeking to curb the department's counterterrorism tactics, officials said.

"It feels good to have someone saying that we shouldn't have had to go through all that we did," said Shanaz Mohammed, 39, who was held in Brooklyn for eight months on an immigration violation before being deported to Trinidad last year.

"I think America overreacted a great deal by singling out Arab-named men like myself," he said in a phone interview. "We were all looked at as terrorists. We were abused."

Justice Department officials said that despite their disagreements with some of the report's conclusions, they have already adopted some of the 21 recommendations made by Glenn A. Fine, the department's inspector general.

Mr. Fine, appointed in 2000 by President Bill Clinton to what is regarded as a largely nonpartisan position, said that while he recognized "the enormous challenges and difficult circumstances" that the department faced after Sept. 11, "we found significant problems in the way the detainees were handled."

The inspector general initiated the report last year, in part because of public reports of mistreatment of detainees. Most major agencies have inspectors general, who serve as independent watchdogs with periodic reports on internal matters.

A total of 762 illegal immigrants were jailed in the weeks and months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as authorities traced tens of thousands of leads and sought to prevent another attack. Most of the 762 immigrants have now been deported, and none have been charged as terrorists.

The Justice Department has sought to maintain the secrecy of the arrests, fighting news organizations' efforts to gain access to deportation proceedings and for disclosure of more information about the detainees. Public information about the arrests has been fragmented; the report offers the most detailed portrait to date of who was held, the delays many faced in being charged or gaining access to a lawyer, and the abuse that some faced in jail.

The report showed, for instance, that nearly three of every four jailed immigrants were from New York City or New Jersey, many were Pakistanis, and most were arrested within three months of Sept. 11.

The report also found that immigrants arrested in New York and housed at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn faced "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse" from some guards as well as "unduly harsh" detention policies.

A total of 84 inmates who were held in Brooklyn in terrorism investigations were subjected to highly restrictive, 23-hour "lockdown," the report found. They were limited to one phone call a week, and they were put in handcuffs, leg irons and heavy chains any time they moved outside their cells, according to the report.

And because of a "communication blackout" in the weeks after Sept. 11, families of some inmates in the Brooklyn facility were told their relatives were not housed there.

The highly restrictive conditions and long delays in processing cases and giving suspects access to lawyers appeared to differ markedly from policies before Sept. 11, according to government officials and advocates for immigrants. Prior to Sept. 11, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had 24 hours to decide about charging an illegal immigrant, but six days after the attacks, the Justice Department gave itself an indefinite time period because of the "extraordinary circumstances."

Immigration officials sometimes did not notify prisoners of the charges against them for more than a month, though the report said that the goal in the Sept. 11 investigation was to notify prisoners within three days. The average wait for those arrested in New York City and housed in Brooklyn was 15 days, the report said.

Early arrests after Sept. 11 included some "glaring errors" in how illegal immigrants were charged, leading immigration officials to route all charges through Washington for months in the fall of 2001, investigators found, which caused delays. A "disconnect" in communication between officials in New York and New Jersey added to those delays, the report said.

In addition, investigators found that the Federal Bureau of Investigation moved very slowly to determine whether a suspect rounded up as part of the Sept. 11 investigation was linked to terrorism. It took the bureau an average of 80 days to clear prisoners for removal or release because of understaffing and because the process was "not given sufficient priority," the report said.

Mr. Fine traced the problem to an unannounced policy shift soon after Sept. 11 giving the F.B.I. the final say over when and whether illegal immigrants detained in connection with the attacks could be released.

The policy shift ?moving authority away from immigration officials ?represented "uncharted territory," an unnamed department lawyer told investigators, because it assumed that a person in detention could have a link to terrorism unless and until the F.B.I. said otherwise.

Though this policy was apparently never written down, it was cleared "at the highest levels" of the Justice Department, the report found.

The report found that some lawyers at the naturalization service "argued vehemently" against giving the F.B.I. final authority to clear people in New York City because the process was moving so slowly. Some Justice Department lawyers raised concerns as well, with one unnamed lawyer in the fall of 2001 saying the F.B.I. "isn't getting the job done."

In New York City, anyone who was picked up as a result of a lead in the Sept. 11 investigation was held under this policy, "regardless of the strength of the evidence or the origin of the lead," the report said.

Had it not been for the attacks, "most if not all" of the arrests would probably have never been pursued, the report said. Some illegal immigrants were picked up at random traffic stops, others because of anonymous tips that they were Muslims with erratic schedules, officials said.

Department officials acknowledged to the inspector general's office that they realized soon after the roundups began "that many in the group of Sept. 11 detainees were not connected to the attacks or terrorism," the report said.

The report did not name any detainees, but it did give numerous examples of questionable treatment. It did not single out for criticism Attorney General John Ashcroft or specific senior department advisers, prosecutors or F.B.I. agents.

The report spotlighted cases of unfair treatment. A Muslim man, for instance, was arrested when an acquaintance wrote to officials that the man had made "anti-American statements." The statements "were very general and did not involve threats of violence or suggest any direct connection to terrorism," the report found, but the man had overstayed his visa and was held.

Though the bureau's New York office and the Central Intelligence Agency cleared the man of any terrorist connections by mid-November 2001, F.B.I. headquarters did not clear him for release from incarceration until more than three months later because of an "administrative oversight," the report said.

Law enforcement officials today defended their handling of the arrests, noting that the policy was in keeping with guidance from the department's Office of Legal Counsel about detaining illegal immigrants.

Moreover, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, whose aides handled some of the key policy decisions, was quoted in the report as saying that it was "unfair to criticize the conduct of members of my staff" during such an extraordinary period.

Critics of the Justice Department, however, said that the findings bolstered their concerns about the government's antiterrorism tactics.

The findings "confirm our long-held view that civil liberties and the rights of immigrants were trampled in the aftermath of 9/11," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said that the inspector general's office "should be applauded for releasing a report that isn't just a whitewash of the government's actions."

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