It was vital after the terrorism of Sept. 11 that the nation protect itself, arresting and investigating those who might have had a role. But it was equally vital that it avoid doing things we would later regret, like failing to grant detainees due process or abusing them either mentally and physically. Sadly, such caution was not exercised, according to a frank and blistering report by the inspector general of the Justice Department.
The report, released yesterday, criticizes an array of practices, like holding suspects in 23-hour "lockdowns" and interfering with their access to lawyers. This stern indictment should lead the department to change its policies for handling terrorism detainees, and it should cause Congress to end its timidity in exercising its oversight of antiterrorism practices.
In the 11 months after Sept. 11, the Justice Department detained 762 noncitizens in connection with terrorism inquiries, many on charges of entering the country illegally or overstaying visas. The inspector general found that while the Justice Department had faced "enormous challenges and difficult circumstances," it had nevertheless engaged in a significant amount of unacceptable activity.
The F.B.I. did a poor job of separating detainees who were subjects of terrorism inquiries and those picked up on bad leads. The government had a goal of informing detainees within 72 hours of the charges against them, but some detainees went a month or more without being told why they were being held. Many were needlessly held for weeks or months, often in harsh conditions, while the F.B.I. took longer than it should have to investigate and clear them.
The conditions of confinement were also not proper, the inspector general found. Detention centers routinely blocked efforts by detainees' families and lawyers to locate them. Detainees who did not have legal counsel were often made to wait weeks or months before receiving a list of lawyers who could represent them. The report also identified a "pattern of physical and verbal abuse" against some detainees. Some were held in lockdowns for 23 hours a day and taken outside their cells in a "four-man hold," using handcuffs, leg irons and heavy chains. Detainees reported being slammed against the wall, or being subjected to such verbal taunts as "You're going to die here."
The inspector general's findings are particularly powerful because they come not from politicians or advocacy groups, but from a unit of the Bush administration itself. This administration has been notably unwilling to accept criticism of the war on terrorism, and its response yesterday was true to form. The Justice Department declared through a spokeswoman that it made "no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks."
No one wants the government to stop protecting the nation. But yesterday an important watchdog added its voice to those who insist that while doing so, the government must do a better job of protecting the rights of the suspects, many of them completely innocent, who are caught up in the net. Immigrants, legal or illegal, deserve due process and decent treatment.