America's New War?
By Amy Goldstein and Dan
November 9, 2001; Page A16
The Justice Department announced yesterday it will no longer issue a running tally of the number of people detained around the country as law enforcement officials investigate the Sept. 11 hijackings and try to prevent further terrorist attacks.
An official said the department will instead provide two, smaller pieces of information about its campaign of detentions -- identifying how many people are being held on charges of violating immigration laws and how many are in federal custody.
The revised information policy will narrow the picture of the detentions in two ways. It will omit what federal officials have described as the largest group of detainees: people who have been apprehended by FBI agents or police on unrelated state or local criminal charges, some of them minor. In addition, the figures will reflect only the number of people held on INS or federal charges at any given time -- not the cumulative total who have been arrested and, in an unknown number of cases, released.
The decision to narrow the visible picture of the terrorism investigation comes after senior government spokesmen have in recent days offered conflicting statements about the pattern of detentions. It also comes as legal, civil liberties and immigration groups have begun to protest, contending the Bush administration is being so secretive that it is unclear whether the detentions are constitutional.
Until now, Justice has given frequent updates on the tally, saying that 1,182 people had been apprehended as of early this week. The department has not disclosed other basic information, including detainees' names, where they are being held or the reason for their arrests. Nor has the department said how many people have been released.
To try to understand the detention campaign, The Washington Post independently identified 235 of the detainees and found that virtually all of those people were men from Middle Eastern countries. More than half of the people found were held on immigration charges, and only perhaps 10 had any known links to the 19 terrorists who carried out the hijackings or to other terrorist activities. About one-third of the 235 identified detainees had been released.
Yesterday, the Justice official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the policy was changing because the old method had placed too much burden on state and local police departments to notify federal officials of arrests, thus making the tally prone to errors.
The announcement prompted louder complaints from legal and civil liberties groups. "If it turns out what they've been giving out is confusing information, they ought to straighten that out, rather than withholding it," said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies. Said Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office: "We should not as a society tolerate a law enforcement apparatus that operates in virtual secrecy."
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