More than 1000 people have been taken into custody as part of the government’s investigation of the September 11 attacks, and many of them are still in detention. The details of these cases are a mystery, because, apart from a few that Attorney General John Ashcroft has publicized, the Justice Department has kept secret the detainees’ names, their whereabouts, and the charges against them.
Walid Bejdough, who works for the American Muslim Union, has spent the better part of the last two months searching for those immigrants whisked away by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. “Every day their families call me,” Bejdough said, “and they say, ‘My son, my daughter is missing. Please help me find them.’ ”
The FBI agents, when making an arrest, leave a calling card but say nothing about where they are taking the detainees. A brother or sister or roommate finds Bejdough after frantic weeks on the phone; and then, with only a name and date of birth, Bejdough sets off to hunt for the missing.
So far, his investigations have been largely successful. Bejdough knows of at least 160 people held in New Jersey county jails: 25 in Bergen, 65 in Hudson, 70 in Passaic. “The FBI brings almost everyone to New Jersey,” he said. But he can’t find Dawaid Shahadieh.
The FBI picked Shahadieh up in early October in Paterson, New Jersey. According to friends and relatives, he had overstayed his visa. Yet officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service tell Bejdough they aren’t holding him. Under normal circumstances, the government releases both the names of those it arrests, whether American citizens or foreign nationals, and the charges against them. It’s all part of the public record, even if the person arrested wants it kept secret. But in the war on terrorism, the government’s tactics have changed: Inmates languish for weeks without being charged. Some are refused bail, and others are held even after being cleared of any crime.
“It’s wholly unprecedented for our government to lock up 1000 people and not say why or where they’re being held,” said David Cole, an expert on immigration issues and a professor at Georgetown University’s law school. “It might be justified for particular individuals or for an individual case, but to have it as a blanket policy is a practice we associate with totalitarian governments. It’s the practice of disappearance.”
The bulk of those arrested fall into three categories, according to the Justice Department. Some are being held for criminal charges unrelated to the terrorist attacks. Others are held as material witnesses, which means that the government fears they would flee if released and escape a subpoena. The rest, the department claims, have violated immigration laws.
Ashcroft, in a press conference last week, weighed the department’s sweeping measures against the prospect of another attack. “It is difficult for a person in jail or under detention to murder innocent people or to aid or abet in terrorism,” he said.
Bejdough tells the inmates to cooperate as best they can. “I don’t blame the FBI for questioning all these people,” Bejdough said. “They’re doing their job, and I want them to stop the terrorists.” But, as far as he can tell, the majority are behind bars because they are Arabs, Muslims, and live in New Jersey—characteristics they share with some of the September 11 hijackers. For most, no bail has been set. And when Bejdough asks why they won’t be released, INS officials tell him they are needed for questioning.
The FBI stopped a Palestinian man as he boarded a plane in Oakland five weeks ago, according to Carol Khawly, an attorney with the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. Soon after his arrest she received a call from the man’s sister who said his visa had expired and he was catching a flight home. The local FBI cleared him in late October, but he is still sitting in a Yuba, California, jail.
“I don’t know how long he’s going to be there,” she said. “He has already lost 50 pounds.”
This practice, Khawly said, tests the boundaries of legality. Only last June the Supreme Court ruled that detaining aliens indefinitely is unconstitutional.
On October 29, her organization, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, sent a request, under the Freedom of Information Act, for the release of the names and citizenship of those arrested, the charges on which they’ve been detained, the names of their lawyers, and where they are being held. The ACLU has also written to Ashcroft protesting “the curtain of official silence.”
In the past, the government has swept up suspects on a larger scale. After the bombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in 1919, his agents rounded up 6000 people, many leftists, in what became known as the “Palmer raids.” They were mostly immigrants too, and several hundred were deported.
“The real problem here is this informational vacuum,” he said. “There are two things to hold the government accountable for: rule of law and public scrutiny. If you don’t have public scrutiny, then you don’t know if the rule of law is being adhered to. It’s simply without precedent in our history.”