Los Angeles Times
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
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.
"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
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
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
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
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
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times