Name the Detainees
Who are the people the Justice Department has detained in its investigation into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and why are they being held? I have asked the Bush administration this question repeatedly, but to little avail. The Justice Department has provided scant information about the identities and basis for detention of more than 1,100 people who have been or are currently being detained, the vast majority of whom, Justice Department officials admit, have no link to Sept. 11 or the al Qaeda terrorist network.
The government has detained hundreds of men, most of them Arab and Muslim, for weeks or months, and we now know that at least some of these individuals have been denied their constitutional rights.
On Oct. 31, along with six other members of Congress, I sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft requesting basic information about the detention of individuals in connection with the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks. More than seven weeks later, the Justice Department has provided the identities of fewer than 100 people held on federal criminal charges. To date the department has offered no convincing legal justification for keeping secret the identities of more than 550 people held on immigration violations, nor has it identified hundreds of additional people who are being held on state charges or have been released.
There is no question that the United States must work to destroy the al Qaeda network and severely punish all those involved in the horrific attacks of Sept. 11. But by apparently denying some of the detainees their right to due process of law, the Justice Department, in its effort to protect the American people, is eroding our constitutional freedoms.
According to news reports and testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, some detainees have been held for days or weeks without access to counsel, and in certain cases have suffered death or serious injury. Muhammed Butt, a Pakistani national whom the FBI did not even suspect of involvement with terrorism, died Oct. 23 after being held for 33 days. Osama Awadallah, a Jordanian-born permanent resident of the United States, was held in detention for three monthsuntil his release on bond. He was kicked and beaten while in detention, according to his lawyer.
At one of the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, we heard testimony from Gerald Goldstein, an attorney for Dr. Al-Badr Al-Hazmi, a Saudi national detained for nearly two weeks. Goldstein told the committee that the department denied Dr. Al-Hazmi access to counsel for seven days. Another witness at our hearing, Ali Maqtari, a Yemeni national, was detained for nearly two months on a technical immigration violation that would normally be resolved with some additional paperwork. He testified that he was allowed only one phone call per week of no more than 15 minutes.
Our hearings showed that this is more than a theoretical debate about security vs. liberty in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. There is reason for real concern about the tragic impact on innocent lives of the indiscriminate and unchecked use of government power in thisinvestigation.
The Justice Department has given only flimsy and contradictory excuses for withholding information about the detainees. For example, department officials have argued that disclosing information about detainees will aid Osama bin Laden. But if that were true, the department would never have permitted the release of the names of the individuals charged with federal crimes, including Zacarias Moussaoui. Surely this justification does not apply to those who have been cleared of any connection to terrorism and are simply being held for visa violations.
Members of Congress and public interest organizations have been told that our effort to oversee the Justice Department's investigation is tantamount to aiding the terrorists. That accusation is not only untrue, it is offensive in a democracy, and a stunning example of the lengths to which some will go to deflect criticism about the way the Justice Department is conducting its investigation.
Instead of expending resources to prevent the release of information about the detainees, the administration should show that it has confidence in the Justice Department's investigation by opening the department's actions to public scrutiny. The administration can begin by identifying all those who have been or are still in custody and the basis for their detention. By insisting on keeping this information secret, the department only furthers suspicions that it is doing so to conceal abuses of innocent people.
The writer is a Democratic senator from Wisconsin.
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