Bush administration condemns order to release detainee names
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON The Bush administration contends that it cannot protect national security and also meet a judge's deadline to reveal names of those held in the investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled Aug. 2 that the Justice Department has not proven the need for a blanket policy of secrecy about more than 1,000 people picked up since the jetliner attacks. She gave the government 15 days to provide the names.
The ruling "impedes one of the most important federal law enforcement investigations in history, harms our efforts to bring to justice those responsible for the heinous attacks of Sept. 11, and increases the risk of future terrorist threats to our nation," said Robert McCallum, assistant attorney general for civil rights.
He did not say whether the department would appeal the ruling.
Kessler said the government has orchestrated a broad and secretive investigation.
"Unquestionably, the public's interest in learning the identities of those arrested and detained is essential to verifying whether the government is operating within the bounds of the law," she wrote in her ruling.
The judge said there may be exceptions to the release of names: if an individual detainee objects or if the government can show that separate court orders prohibit release of information about someone held as a material witness in a terrorism investigation.
Kessler gave the Justice Department 15 days to back up its claim that it can withhold information about material witnesses. A material witness allegedly has substantial information about a crime but is not charged with it. Such witnesses may be arrested, but they may not be held indefinitely.
Those arrested apparently are all foreign citizens, and many have been charged with immigration violations. Some have already been deported.
"The ruling affirms that the tragic events of Sept. 11 are not an excuse to suspend basic rights," said Kate Martin, whose Center for National Security Studies is among civil rights and human rights organizations that sued the government for information about the secret arrests.
Critics of the decision said the information could get in the wrong hands.
"Why should the government do al-Qaida's homework for it?" asked Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-law enforcement Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
Kessler largely limited her ruling to the government's obligations under the federal Freedom of Information Act. She said there are valid security reasons for not revealing the dates and location of arrests and detentions.
The judge rejected the government's national security arguments on another front. There is no reason to keep secret the names of any lawyers representing detainees, she said. Those names also must be made public in 15 days.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Congress has sought the same information. "This decision tells the Justice Department that it has to follow the law," he said.
The department has said nearly 1,200 people were swept up by federal, state and local authorities following the Sept. 11 attacks.
The government disclosed that 752 people were arrested or detained on immigration charges between Sept. 11 and June 24. Others were held on different charges.
In late June, the Justice Department reported that at least 147 people still were being held, including 74 on charges involving immigration infractions. Prosecutors have not said how many people are being held as material witnesses.
In June, the Supreme Court blocked a judge from opening immigration hearings for foreign terrorism suspects, granting the administration's emergency request for a stay.
Several other groups weighed in on the ruling:
- "The detentions from the beginning have been veiled in secrecy. This decision will help to lift that veil so ... at least we can put names to prisoners' faces, and the families will know if their loved ones have been arrested." Curt Goering, deputy executive director of Amnesty International's American office.
- "The government's claim of power in these cases is quite extraordinary. The Supreme Court is going to have to take one or more of these cases and decide whether or not the government can exercise the power it claims." John Payton, civil rights lawyer.
- "That has nothing to do with the Freedom of Information Act and everything to do with thwarting our government's efforts to deter terrorism." Paul D. Kamenar, senior executive counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation.
- "Government should be as transparent as possible, that's what makes America a great country. ... There may be strong reasons in this kind of situation where we're dealing with terrorism for not disclosing information." Malvina Halberstam, a law professor specializing in terrorism at the Cardozo School of Law in New York.
- "We do not have nor should we allow a system of secret arrests and jailings in the United States. The court recognized that." Lucas Guttentag, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's immigration rights project.
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