Justice inspector general raps FBI, INS over post-Sept. 11 detentions

A new report from the Justice Department's inspector general blames poor information sharing among agencies and an inefficient process for the mistreatment of some foreigners detained after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The government detained 762 foreigners between September 2001 and August 2002 in connection with its investigation of terrorism. The detainees were housed in various facilities across the country, though the IG report only studied the treatment of 119 aliens held in the Bureau of Prisons' Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Passaic County Jail in Paterson, N.J. The IG's office focused on these two facilities because they housed most of the detainees, and they received widespread coverage in the news media after Sept. 11 for allegedly mistreating detainees, according to the report.

The IG report concluded that the FBI in New York should have made more of an effort to distinguish between illegal aliens the agency suspected of having a connection to terrorism from those who may have violated immigration laws unrelated to terrorism.

A complicated and lengthy process of clearing detainees compounded this problem, according to the report. The department operated under a "hold until cleared" policy, which required detainees to be held without bond until the FBI cleared them of any connections to terrorism. According to the report, the average length of time from the arrest of a detainee to clearance by the FBI was 80 days.

One example of poor information sharing involved the failure of the INS' New York District office to inform INS headquarters of the arrest of foreigners "of interest," and the discovery of a separate list of approximately 300 detainees kept by the FBI's New York office, which FBI and INS officials in Washington were unaware of. "By the time officials at INS headquarters became aware of these additional detainees, many already had been detained for several weeks," the report said.

According to the report, witnesses interviewed by the IG's office said poor information sharing among agencies could have stemmed from the culture of the New York field offices of the FBI and INS, which have a "long history of taking actions independent of direction from their Washington, D.C. headquarters."

According to the report, former INS Commissioner James Ziglar repeatedly contacted the FBI and the Justice Department to discuss his concerns over delays in the clearance process. FBI Director Robert Mueller told the IG he did not recall hearing about any problems with the clearance policy until spring or summer 2002. And Attorney General John Ashcroft "stated that he had no recollection of being advised that the clearance process was taking months, nor did he recall hearing any complaints about the timeliness of the clearance process or a lack of resources dedicated to the effort to clear detainees," the report said.

In a written response to the report, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson defended the actions of department employees after the Sept. 11 attacks and said that it was "unfair to criticize the conduct of my members of staff during this period."

"In light of the imperative placed on these detentions by the department, I would not have expected them to reconsider the detention policy in the absence of a clear warning that the law was being violated. It was clear from the draft report that that did not occur until January 2002. When the issue was squarely presented, it is apparent that they promptly did the right thing: They changed the policy."

Justice IG Glenn Fine acknowledged the pressure Justice Department employees faced in meeting their mission after Sept. 11 and praised them for rising to those challenges.

"The Justice Department faced enormous challenges as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and its employees worked with dedication to meet these challenges," Fine said in a statement accompanying the report. "The findings of our review should in no way diminish their work."

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