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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Report Criticizes U.S. Detentions

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Justice Department's roundup of hundreds of illegal immigrants in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was plagued with "significant problems" that forced many people with no connection to terrorism to languish in jails in unduly harsh conditions, an internal report released Monday found.

The highly critical report from the Justice Department's inspector general concluded that FBI officials, particularly in New York City, "made little attempt to distinguish" between immigrants who had possible ties to terrorism and those swept up by chance in the investigation.

Justice Department officials said they believed they had acted within the law in pursuing terrorist suspects. "We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks," spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said.

But the inspector general's report found that some lawyers in the department raised concerns about the legality of the tactics, only to be overridden by senior officials.

The report validated the concerns raised by some members of Congress and civil rights groups who charge that the Justice Department has cast too wide a net in the campaign against terrorism. The findings will probably provide legal and political ammunition to those seeking to curb the department's counterterrorism tactics, officials said.

"It feels good to have someone saying that we shouldn't have had to go through all that we did," said Shanaz Mohammed, 39, who was held for eight months on an immigration violation before being deported to Trinidad last year.

"I think America overreacted a great deal by singling out Arab-named men like myself," he said. "We were all looked at as terrorists. We were abused."

Glenn Fine, the department's inspector general, said that "we found significant problems in the way the detainees were handled."

A total of 762 illegal immigrants were jailed in the weeks and months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as the authorities traced tens of thousands of leads and sought to prevent another attack. Most of the 762 immigrants have been deported, and none have been charged as terrorists.

Public information about the arrests has been fragmented; the report offers the most detailed portrait to date of who was held, the delays many faced in being charged or gaining access to a lawyer, and the abuse that some faced in jail.

The report found that immigrants arrested in New York and housed at the Metropolitan Detention Center faced "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse" from some guards as well as "unduly harsh" detention policies.

Prior to the attacks, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had 24 hours to decide about charging an illegal immigrant, but six days after the attacks, the Justice Department gave itself an indefinite time period because of the "extraordinary circumstances."

Early arrests after Sept. 11, 2001, included some "glaring errors" in how illegal immigrants were charged, leading immigration officials to route all charges through Washington for months in the fall of 2001, which caused delays, investigators found.

Investigators also found that the FBI moved very slowly to determine whether a suspect was linked to terrorism. It took the bureau an average of 80 days to clear prisoners for removal or release because of understaffing and because the process was "not given sufficient priority," the report said.

Fine traced the problem to an unannounced policy shift soon after the attacks, giving the FBI the final say over when and whether illegal immigrants detained in connection with the attacks could be released.

The policy shift was "uncharted territory," a department lawyer told investigators, because it assumed that a person in detention could have a link to terrorism unless and until the FBI said otherwise.

In New York City, anyone who was picked up as a result of a lead in the investigation was held under this policy, "regardless of the strength of the evidence or the origin of the lead," the report said.

Had it not been for the attacks, "most if not all" of the arrests would probably have never been pursued, the report said.

A Muslim man, for instance, was arrested when an acquaintance wrote to officials that the man had made "anti-American statements."

The statements "were very general and did not involve threats of violence or suggest any direct connection to terrorism," the report found, but the man had overstayed his visa and was held.

Though the bureau's New York office and the CIA cleared the man of any terrorist connections by mid-November 2001, the FBI did not clear him for release from incarceration until more than three months later because of an "administrative oversight," the report said.