The Justice Department is sweeping up suspects and possible witnesses in its anti-terror campaign. But when asked for details about those detained, officials invoke national security.
The government refuses to say who is being detained, when they will be released, or what the charges are. While this may not be illegal, lawyers for the detainees charge the secrecy is hiding serious violations of citizens' rights — and even some physical coercion.
"It's nothing more than a witch hunt and a fishing expedition. People are being denied their freedom without due process of law," said attorney Randall Hamud, who represents three detainees.
The government is making no apologies for using every legal means it has to thwart terrorists. "Let terrorists among us be warned," Attorney General John Ashcroft said in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Thursday. "If you overstay your visas even by one day, we will arrest you. If you violate a local law, we will work to make sure that you are put in jail and kept in custody as long as possible."
But citizens' rights advocates are distressed that some of those detained don't even have lawyers.
Death at a Detention Center
At a detention center in Kearny, N.J., a 55-year-old Pakistani man died in his cell last week more than a month after being detained. Officials said the man, Muhammed Rafiq Butt, died of apparent heart failure.
The FBI decided soon after it detained Butt that he knew nothing of any attack and a spokesman said he was held for having overstayed his visa. The Pakistani embassy said it was never notified that a man by that name was in prison.
The government said Butt waived his right to representation. But since neither his embassy nor prisoners' rights advocates knew he was being held, they could not, as they normally would, advise him of his need for a lawyer.
"Did he fall through the cracks? We simply don't know," said Jeanne Butterfield, head of the Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington. "That he was unrepresented by counsel and did not seek bond in front of an immigration judge just makes the case all the more sad."
Hundreds of anonymous detainees also have been taken to a detention center in lower Manhattan.
Charges of Mistreatment
Hamud represents three men from San Diego, where a few of the suspected hijackers spent time last year. One of his clients, Yazeed Al-Salmi, had been a housemate of one of the suspects for six months. He was arrested and flown to an isolation cell in the Manhattan center, where he was held for nine days before being released.
Al-Salmi, a 23-year-old student from Saudi Arabia, said he was not allowed to take a shower or make a telephone call to his attorney. "No phone call. I can't contact my attorney. I only see him like 10 minutes before I have court, which is not enough. I had a lot of things to ask him about my family, about my case," he said.
Hamud said that another client who is still in prison, Osama Awadallah, was beaten by guards. "I saw bruises on his body, bruises on his upper arm, bruises across the back of his neck," Hamud said. The U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan said it had no comment on the beating allegation.
Other lawyers around the country said their clients are being deprived of sleep or interrogated while blindfolded. The government insisted it is respecting rights and not using illegal pressure in interrogation:
"We don't want to extort any kind of confession," Ashcroft told ABCNEWS' Nightline Oct. 10. "We don't engage in those practices."
As for the long detentions, officials argue there is an unusual complication: they are not only investigating who was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, but also trying to prevent new attacks. In essence, investigation is getting mixed up with prevention.
The government is holding people longer than usual in case something a detainee happens to know suddenly illuminates a future attack.
"Some of the people who are being detained and who are cooperating may not even understand the value of what they have," said Harry Brandon, a former FBI counterterrorism agent. "They may be saying, 'I don't really know anything,' when in fact they've given a little piece that is very, very important."
But holding people indefinitely or being rough with them can scare off others who might also provide helpful information. Officials say they're trying to prevent that by meeting with Arab-American communities. But attorney Hamud said it's happening anyway.
"There has been a chilling effect on the propensity of the Arab-American community and the Muslim communities in this country to cooperate, because they are fearful. People are calling me saying they are afraid to talk to the FBI," Hamud said.
National Security or Citizen's Rights?
The authorities face a complicated balancing act: to protect the national interest while still protecting citizen's rights, which are essential to American life.
"This almost sounds hokey, but deep down you know if you throw all that stuff away, the other side has won," Brandon said.
The government insisted it will not violate anyone's rights. "We will preserve the rule of law because that's what makes us civilized," Ashcroft said in his speech to the mayors.
Civil rights advocates insist that if the government won't even say whom it is holding, they have no way to tell.