Justice Crosses a Line

In those raw first weeks after Sept. 11, Americans were caught up in swirling fear and vulnerability. But soon, fear began to give way in many quarters to alarm at reports that federal agents had rounded up hundreds of immigrants, spiriting them away to detention centers out of reach of lawyers and even their families. A report Monday by the Justice Department’s internal watchdog confirms the fragmentary reports of the time: The U.S. held most for months without charges and guards harassed them and sometimes roughed them up. All the while, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft slammed as near-traitors those Americans who questioned his tactics.

The inspector general’s report validates the early alarm bells. If there’s a silver lining in this gloomy catalog of government abuses, it’s that the agency’s own investigative arm had the courage to tell the truth.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 13, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 13, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 14 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Justice Department report -- A June 4 editorial on a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general incorrectly stated that most post-Sept. 11 detainees were held for months without charges. In fact, 60% of the 762 immigrants detained after the 9/11 attacks were charged within 72 hours.

There were “significant problems,” the report concludes, with how the government targeted the 762 people it grabbed on immigration violations, the conditions of their detention and the time they were incarcerated before their deportation or release. In some cases, for example, Middle Eastern men were rounded up just because an anonymous tipster reported they had made an “anti-American statement” or photographed a “sensitive” location.


Despite the 198 pages of documentation, the Justice Department’s response -- in essence, “we don’t care” -- simply brushes off the idea that there should be a line between waging war on terrorists and waging war on this nation’s commitment to due process.

“We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks,” a defensive spokeswoman said.

But was it legal or moral to throw immigrant detainees -- none of whom had been charged as a terrorist -- against walls, drag them by ankle chains, twist their hands and fingers and hold them in cells brightly lighted day and night? How could it be legal to hold individuals, only a fraction of whom were charged with any crime, behind bars for an average of 80 days, with some imprisoned as long as six months? Or deny them access to a lawyer?

The report must come as little surprise to Congress members, whose repeated requests for information on detainees and other terrorism-related activities have largely been dismissed by Ashcroft.

At the very least, this report should embolden lawmakers to insist that the attorney general honor the Constitution and established law -- even for immigrant detainees. Next week’s House Judiciary Committee oversight hearings would be a good place to start, by demanding that Ashcroft better respect the rights of the unaccused -- and protect the jobs of the inspectors who dared criticize his tactics.