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Ashcroft's America

On the heels of a report criticizing the Justice Department's treatment of post-Sept. 11 detainees, the attorney general is asking for even more power to hold suspected terrorists indefinitely.


Published June 8, 2003

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told the House Judiciary Committee Thursday that he wants new powers to hold people indefinitely if they are suspected of terrorist ties. The request was a brazen show of arrogance by a man who has little regard for the civil liberties that define our nation. It comes on the heels of a scathing report by the Justice Department's own inspector general that roundly condemns the department's actions against immigrants following the attacks of Sept. 11.

The nearly 200-page report describes serious abuses of immigrants swept up in the anti-terror investigation. It lays bare a "guilty until proven innocent" strategy of holding detainees for inordinately long periods in harsh conditions and systematically disrupting their ability to contact the outside world. And now Ashcroft wants to write these abuses into law.

Our attorney general is a dangerous man who has shown little interest in upholding the values and constitutional principles that make this nation great. He needs to be reined in by Congress, not granted wider authority to ruin more lives.

The report reviews the treatment of 762 immigrants detained in the course of the terrorism investigation. They were almost exclusively Muslim and Middle Eastern men with status violations - guilty of overstaying a visa or entering the country illegally - who certainly deserved to be deported. But the department established rules for this group that differed sharply from what other aliens, similarly charged, experienced.

The report meticulously details the way basic due process was denied: Many of the detainees were not told of the charges against them for weeks and sometimes months; they were designated a party "of interest" in the terrorism investigation when there was no proof to indicate any connection to terrorism; and a number were held long after they voluntarily agreed to leave the country. In the end, not one alien picked up on immigration violations following the terrorist attacks was charged with a terrorism-related crime. All of Ashcroft's shortcuts did nothing to make the country safer. (Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested prior to Sept. 11.)

The report makes substantial allowances for the situation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. It acknowledges the "monumental challenges" faced by the department but comes down hard on an investigative process in which facts and reasonable suspicion are thrown out the window and replaced with ethnicity. Immigrants, the report says, were deemed "of interest" in an "indiscriminate and haphazard manner." Aliens who happened to be in the vicinity of a terrorism lead would also be swept up and designated as Sept. 11 detainees. The problem was compounded when they were summarily denied bond and the FBI took an irresponsibly long time clearing them - 80 days on average.

Even more disturbing is the way the detainees were treated in custody. A number were physically and verbally abused. They were also blocked from contacting lawyers and family members. Detainees at one facility were allowed one call a week to a lawyer and one call a month to family. But if they responded "yes" to being asked, "Are you okay?" by a corrections counselor, they were deemed to have waived that week's phone call. They were also given lists of immigration lawyers with inaccurate phone numbers. Calling a wrong number counted as the week's call.

In conducting the internal probe, the inspector general's office interviewed virtually every key person in the department, from the attorney general down. From notes of meetings and phone calls taken by the participants, it is clear that what happened to the detainees was a direct consequence of policies put in place from the top.

The department's tactics did not make this country any safer, just decidedly less free. Now Ashcroft is asking for Congress' blessing to expand this repressive wave. This time it was immigrants; the next time it could be U.S. citizens.

[Last modified June 8, 2003, 01:33:29]

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