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Civil rights groups sue for data about detainees

By The Associated Press

12.06.01

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is violating the Constitution and federal law by withholding basic information about some 1,000 people picked up by police since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, according to the first lawsuit challenging government actions in the detentions.

Attorney General John Ashcroft and other officials have released fragments of information but will not reveal names or locations of detainees, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights and human rights groups said in the suit filed yesterday in federal court.

"This secrecy is unprecedented and deprives the public of information it is lawfully entitled to receive," the suit claims. The lawsuit demands immediate release of government documents that civil rights groups requested in October.

"We will obviously review the suit," said Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker. "The attorney general has been very clear about why certain information will not be released."

Last week, Ashcroft said he knew of no lawsuits filed to challenge the government's arrest and detention of people, mainly from Muslim countries, who might have some connection with terrorism. There is broad public support for the government response, but civil liberties groups have said for weeks that they would challenge it in court.

One problem with mounting a court challenge is that so little is known about those detained. Lawyers would have to know basics about a case to claim that someone's civil rights were violated.

Yesterday's suit seeks the kind of information that lawyers would need to take individual cases to court. It does not challenge the government's right to arrest or detain anyone.

"The Justice Department consistently refuses to provide the information necessary to guarantee the American public that those jailed since Sept. 11 are being accorded the constitutional protections guaranteed to all Americans," said Steven Shapiro, the ACLU's legal director.

The ACLU and 17 other organizations claim the Justice Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service have missed deadlines to respond to requests for documents filed under the Freedom of Information Act and withheld information that should have been available under that law.

The suit also charges that the government is violating the First Amendment's "right of access to records concerning judicial proceedings." There is no such specific right, but the First Amendment does guarantee free speech and the right "to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Also yesterday, the 5,000-member American College of Trial Lawyers asked the Bush administration to stop monitoring conversations between prisoners and their lawyers, as investigators have been allowed to do as an anti-terrorism precaution.

The lawyers' group acknowledged the Justice Department needs to act to combat terrorism.

"But those actions must not violate constitutional and other important legal rights related to the attorney-client privilege," a statement from the group said. "They must not violate the constitutional right of those imprisoned to the effective assistance of counsel."

Update

Federal judge hears arguments over releasing detainees' names
First Amendment advocates say government has expanded its own power without any congressional support and in conflict with FOI laws.  05.30.02

Related

Bush keeps Justice Department papers under wraps
President invokes executive privilege, blocking congressional bid to access certain prosecutorial documents.  12.14.01

ACLU sues N.J. counties for release of detainees' names
Lawsuit accuses officials of violating state's open-records laws by refusing to make public information on people jailed since Sept. 11 attacks.  01.23.02

Government: Releasing detainees' names could be 'dangerous'
Justice Department tells N.J. appeals panel that disclosing identities could deter some detainees from cooperating, could let terrorists know what information has been gathered.  05.22.02

Open-government advocates see 'epidemic of official secrecy'
Analysis No White House can arbitrarily withhold information and expect to maintain public confidence, says Federation of American Scientists' Steven Aftergood.  11.15.01

The more we know, the more secure we are
Ombudsman It defies reason that we'd rush to limit information that has no real bearing on national security or military operations.  12.07.01

Detainees' lawyers trying to chip away at government secrecy
Attorney for Malek Zeiden is suing U.S. attorney general and Annie Garcy, a New Jersey immigration judge who barred public from attending Feb. 21 hearing.  03.04.02

Immigration courts open doors to some detainees' proceedings
Public hearings resume for people who authorities determined have no connection to Sept. 11 attacks.  11.01.01

Judicial secrecy in terror probe 'unprecedented'
Federal authorities have detained more than 500 people without releasing paperwork that usually accompanies nearly any type of court proceeding.  10.05.01

ACLU to challenge secret detention hearings
Newark, N.J., chapter says it will bring lawsuit on behalf of newspapers seeking access to detainees' deportation proceedings.  03.06.02

N.J. judge orders counties to release detainees' names
ACLU representative says ruling is first of its kind to chip away at veil of secrecy surrounding terror probe.  03.28.02

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