The September 11 Detainees

June 18, 2003

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Justice used federal immigration laws to detain aliens in the United States who were suspected of having ties to the attacks or connections to terrorism. In the 11 months after the attacks, 762 aliens were detained in connection with the FBI terrorism investigation for various immigration offenses, including overstaying their visas and entering the country illegally. It is important to note that many of these detainees were arrested indiscriminately and haphazardly.

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On June 2, 2003, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice issued a 198-page report which examined the treatment of these detainees, including their processing, bond decisions related to them, the timing of their removal from the United States, their access to counsel and their conditions of confinement.

Following are some case studies presented in the report that show, as the Inspector General said, "significant problems in the way the detainees were handled."

  • A Middle Eastern man was arrested on August 30, 2001 and his release has been delayed for 6 months due to bureaucratic ineptitude.                             
  • A detainee arrested in New York City was released more than seven months after his arrest and almost one month after the FBI had cleared him.                          
  • A male detainee was not allowed to make a call to his sister for the first three months he was detained.                       
  • A woman from New Jersey had only succeeded in visiting her husband three times during his more than five months of confinement.                      
  • A detainee participated in a hunger strike to protest his confinement as "excessive punishment."

Other examples of improper detention include:

The September 11 detainees held at the Metropolitan Detention Center were locked down 23 hours a day, were placed in four-man holds during movement, had restricted phone call and visitation privileges, and had less ability to obtain and communicate with legal counsel [in comparison with other holding locations]. (page 17)

The report stated that the INS did not consistently serve September 11 detainees with Notices to Appear (NTAs) within its stated goal of 72 hours - only 60 percent were served within 72 hours. NTAs provided the detainees with their first clear description of the charges they faced. Until the INS removed its requirement for INS Headquarters review, the average length of time to serve the NTA was over seven days. Many detainees did not receive notice of the charges for weeks, and some for more than a month after being arrested. (page 35) 

The report also found that the FBI took a long period of time to clear September 11 detainees. The FBI cleared less than 3 percent of the 762 September 11 detainees within three weeks of their arrest. The average length of time from arrest of a September 11 detainee to clearance by FBI Headquarters was 80 days, and the median was 69 days. Further, we found that more than a quarter of the 762 detainees' clearance investigations took longer than 3 months. (page 51)

Moreover, many of the persons arrested as part of the September 11, 2001, Pentagon/Twin Towers Bombings (PENTTBOM) investigation ...appear to have been arrested more by virtue of chance encounters or tenuous connections to a PENTTBOM lead rather than by any genuine indications of a possible connection with or possession of information about terrorist activity. (page 41)

For more information on detentions and other issues, please visit the ACLU's Keep America Safe and Free Campaign.  Please become a member of the ACLU and visit the Action Center to get active.  Freedom cannot defend itself.

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