Los Angeles Times

U.S. Finds Abuses of 9/11 Detainees

Justice Dept. inquiry reveals many violations of immigrants' rights. Report shows officials early on feared people were being held unjustly.

By Richard B. Schmitt and Richard A. Serrano
Times Staff Writers

June 3, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Internal investigators at the Justice Department found "significant problems" in the way that scores of immigrants were detained after the Sept. 11 attacks, from excessive delays in the release of suspects to "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse" by some federal correctional officers.

The long-awaited report by the department's Office of the Inspector General found that immigration authorities and some midlevel Justice Department attorneys had concerns as early as the end of September 2001 that people without ties to terrorism were being held unnecessarily.

It portrayed some Justice Department officials as being either misinformed or indifferent to those concerns, with some operating under a "misperception" that immigrants were being cleared for release within a few days. The reality, the report found, was that it took an average of 80 days for the 762 people detained as part of the Sept. 11 probes to be released; for some, the process dragged on for as long as six months.

That left people in legal limbo, often without immediate access to lawyers, in a high-security federal facility under sometimes harsh conditions. Ultimately, nearly all were deported, after being charged with various immigration-law violations. Only a small fraction was charged with crimes. The report found that only 60% of the detainees were charged within an INS goal of 72 hours.

"Even in the hectic aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, we believe the FBI should have taken more care to distinguish between aliens who it actually suspected of having a connection to terrorism as opposed to aliens who, while possibly guilty of violating federal immigration law, had no connection to terrorism," Glenn A. Fine, the inspector general, said in the 198-page document.

Justice officials took strong exception to the report, and defended the terrorism investigation as proper and lawful.

"Under these unprecedented and extraordinary circumstances, the law was scrupulously followed and respected while aggressively protecting innocent Americans from another terrorist attack," Barbara Comstock, the department's public affairs director, said in a prepared statement.

'Detention Lawful'

"Those detained were illegal aliens. They were all charged with criminal violations or civil violations of federal immigration law," Comstock continued. "Detention of illegal aliens is lawful. We detained illegal aliens until it was determined they were not involved in terrorist activity, did not have relevant knowledge of terrorist activity, or it was determined that their removal was appropriate."

The report recommended a series of changes in policies ranging from ranking detainees by the threat they posed to developing special procedures for confining immigrants with suspected terrorist ties. Justice Department officials said some of the recommendations are already being put into effect.

The inspector's office is the department's investigative arm, probing alleged violations of fraud, abuse and integrity laws that govern operations and employees. Although its work most often results in suggested policy changes, it also is empowered to bring criminal cases. In its latest report, the office said it considered bringing criminal charges against certain unidentified prison guards, but declined to do so. Officials are considering administrative action against them.

To immigrant and civil rights groups, the report vindicated allegations — now pending in civil suits against the government — that in the bid to root out the Sept. 11 culprits and to avoid other disastrous attacks, officials often ignored immigrants' civil liberties.

"The detain-first, ask-questions-later approach resulted in unjust treatment of detainees and tied the bureaucracy in knots," said Elisa Massimino, director of the Washington office of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "It is not an effective way to combat terrorism."

The American Civil Liberties Union said the report marked "a major scandal for the Bush administration."

The report was launched in March 2002 and included interviews with more than 50 top officials. It focused on INS detainees at two facilities — the Metropolitan Detention Center federal prison in Brooklyn, and the Passaic County Jail in Paterson, N.J. Compared with the Brooklyn facility, aliens housed at the Passaic jail in New Jersey, which had prior experience with immigrants, received generally far better treatment, the report found.

The two facilities held 475 of the 762 aliens detained after the Sept. 11 attacks. At one point, Justice officials estimated that as many as 1,200 "citizens and aliens" were detained for questioning.

The detainees — none of whom were identified — came from 20 countries, with Pakistan being the country of origin of about one-third. Most were from 26 to 40 years old and were arrested in the first three months after the terrorist attacks. The maximum time served was 244 days.

One problem, the report found, was that investigators tended to group all "Sept. 11 detainees" together without differentiating them for treatment purposes. Early on, the report found, some government officials were having doubts about how the detentions were being handled.

The report cites a late-September 2001 memo from a Justice Department attorney expressing concerns that the "overwhelming majority" of people being detained were "simple immigration violators ... and had no connection to the terrorism investigation."

In addition, then-INS Commissioner James Ziglar, according to the report, expressed concerns in October and November 2001 to senior FBI officials and to a top aide to U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft that the detainee process was not being managed properly.

Long Clearing Process

A root problem, investigators found, was a requirement that the FBI clear suspects of any involvement in terrorism before the Immigration and Naturalization Service could release them. Originally envisioned as taking just a few days, the clearing process ended up taking weeks and months because, the report found, it was understaffed and given a low priority by the FBI.

The delays often put Justice officials at odds with immigration officials. The report found, for example, that 54 people were detained for more than 90 days, which INS officials said violated federal law. In the report, the INS officials said they began relaying their concerns in meetings starting in the fall of 2001, including with top officials in the office of Deputy Atty. General Larry Thompson. Justice officials, according to the report, said they were unaware of INS' concerns until January 2002 — when they said they changed their position to start allowing detainees to be deported without FBI clearance. Eventually — in February of this year — the department's Office of Legal Counsel wrote a legal opinion finding that the delays beyond 90 days were justified in terrorism cases.

The report takes the INS to task for not pressing their concerns more forcefully, but also concludes that attorneys in Thompson's office responsible for immigration issues should have acted sooner.

Also covered is a series of incidents where detainees complained of being physically and mentally abused, of being made to wait weeks and months to see a lawyer or a family member, and other episodes of harassment.

It demonstrated how many detainees, originally picked up on immigration violations, were held for long periods of time simply because they were deemed "of interest" to the 9/11 probe.

FBI Leads 'General'

The report noted that FBI leads often were "quite general in nature" about immigrants living in this country, such as "a landlord reporting suspicious activity by an Arab tenant."

Several Middle Eastern men were "arrested and treated as connected to the Sept. 11 investigation" merely because agents found "suspicious items" such as World Trade Center pictures during traffic stops. Three Russian tourists were stopped for photographing "sensitive" locations in New York.

In fact, the report found that delays in clearing detainees dragged on.

For instance, a Middle Eastern man in his 20s was arrested on Aug. 30, 2001 — more than a week before the terrorist attacks — for illegally crossing the Canadian border into the United States. After the attacks, he was placed on a New York "special interest" list, even though the FBI in New York had "no knowledge" of the basis for his detention.

In Washington, FBI headquarters did not request a CIA name check on the detainee until Nov. 8, 2001. It came back negative 13 days later. Still, his clearance letter was not issued until Dec. 7, 2001, and he was not released and deported until late February 2002.

According to the report, detainees often were kept incommunicado, unable to reach their families or attorneys. Some protested by staging hunger strikes, all to little avail.

Inside the jails, the inspector general found a "pattern of physical and verbal abuse" against some detainees. Some were taunted with epithets like "Bin Laden Junior," or threatened with "you're going to die here."

Others complained that they were slammed up against walls, dragged by the handcuffs and ankle chains, and that their arms, hands, wrists and fingers were twisted. "You will feel pain," some said they were told.

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times