- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

A few weeks back, the Voice of America invited me on one of their programs, “Talk to America,” to discuss U.S. foreign policy. It was basically a talk show for the world, with callers hailing from as far away as St. Petersburg, Bangladesh and Liberia, to name a few places. The other guest on the program was John Feffer, an author of a distinctly liberal persuasion who had published a book titled “Power Trip,” a collection of essays that took the Bush foreign policy apart on just about every issue. As might be imagined, the prevailing tenor of the program and the mood of most of the callers was pretty harsh.

My first reaction was, “Oh, here we go again,” wasting American taxpayer dollars on tearing down President Bush. On second thought, though, it seemed to me that the program said volumes about the kind of country we live in. Not only can we speak our minds freely, but criticism of the government is actually beamed over the airwaves by a broadcasting agency funded by the government itself. It would be difficult to find a better illustration of the sturdiness of American democracy.

I was reminded of this experience when the news came out about the Justice Department’s inspector-general’s (IG)report on the detention of illegal aliens by U.S. authorities in the months after September 11, 2001. It is a tough report, which exposes abuses that took place during the fraught days and weeks after the terrorist attacks. It points to serious abuses in 84 of the 762 documented cases. It is important to note, though, that the report does not suggest a systemic breakdown or chronic problem. Most detainees were treated well. But those housed at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn were not so fortunate, however. Some were roughed up, and not informed of their rights to a lawyer. Lights were glaring for days and nights. The fact that New York law-enforcement agencies and the FBI were incredibly overloaded after September 11 may help explain this, but does not serve as an excuse.

The IG’s report is so tough, in fact, that those already inclined to suspect Attorney General John Ashcroft of attempting a power grab on American civil liberties have taken it as proof-positive. The headline in an editorial in a British newspaper on the state of American democracy read “America the Scary.” Or, in the words of an official of the American Civil Liberties Union, “The war on terrorism quickly turned into a war on immigrants.” This is simply not the case. While visitors and travelers from the Middle East have indeed come in for greater scrutiny for the unfortunate reason that this is where the al Qaeda terrorists originated, protections for citizens and legal residents of this country have not diminished.

It has to be recalled first of all that the people targeted for deportation were in the United States illegally. Under the Immigration and Naturalization Act, section 241 (a), illegal aliens can be deported within 90 days of a court order. The law also allows the Department of Justice to detain such individuals if they are considered a security threat or are liable to disappear without a trace before their deportation can be effected. That’s what happens in the vast majority of cases if there is no detention — and where there is a suspected terrorist connection, that would a catastrophic, needless to say.

Many of the detainees were held for 80 days, “until cleared” by the FBI of terrorist involvement. This is no doubt painful and unpleasant, but it is fully in accordance with U.S. law. A few were held as long as 6 months, which is also legal if they are under suspicion.

Even Michael Kinsley, writing in the Sunday Outlook section of The Washington Post, not someone I am often in agreement with, concluded that as far as homeland security is concerned, the threat to American civil liberties is as yet putative: “The American Civil Liberties Union is alarmed, but it is the ACLU’s function … to be alarmed before I am, like a canary sent down a mineshaft. My own conclusion after a bit of homework is that the threat to the liberties of most Americans is still mainly a matter of incipience.”

Our job as citizens and the job of our elected representatives are to ensure that any compromises between civil liberties and national security are held to a minimum, and that we react to red flags when they are raised. While abuses should indeed be denounced and investigated whenever possible, the meticulous labor that went into the 198-page document from the Justice Department’s IG ought itself to be viewed as a sign of the overall health of the justice system.

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