Ashcroft: al Qaida members among detained

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent  |  Nov. 27, 2001 at 9:53 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- Members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terror network are among 104 people charged with violating federal law and 548 detained on immigration violations in the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Tuesday.

The Justice Department Tuesday released a chart listing the names of 93 individuals charged with federal violations -- minus 11 charged under seal in a grand jury investigation in New York. Thirty-two of those individuals are currently not in custody including one, Souhail Sarwer, who is described as a fugitive facing unspecified charges in New York involving credit cards, according to the Justice Department documents.

About half of the 104 names of those charged with federal violations had been made public previously.

The department also released a list containing the countries of origin, violations and date of detention for those 548 being held by immigration authorities. The list did not contain their names.

None of those arrested or detained have been charged directly in the terror attacks believed to have killed more than 4,000 people.

Instead, as suspects were caught up in the investigation they were arrested on charges unrelated to the Sept. 11 attacks if they were suspected of violating other federal laws.

The release from the Justice Department did little to comfort lawmakers who are increasingly worried that the administration might be trampling civil liberties in the war against terrorism.

"There has been a shocking amount of power-grabbing by this administration, and their position on detainees is part of this larger pattern," Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said. Feingold is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

While he would not give a figure of those believed to be al Qaida members in custody, Ashcroft insisted at a news conference at the Justice Department that the arrests and detentions have prevented further attacks.

"With the arrests and detentions, we have avoided further terrorist attacks," the attorney general said. He said the Justice Department and the FBI "are waging a deliberate campaign" to get suspected terrorists off the streets by charging them with non-terror violations.

"We believe we have al Qaida membership in custody," Ashcroft said.

Of the 104 charged with violating federal law, 55 are in custody. Ten of the 104 are among the 548 being held for immigration violations and eventually will be transferred out of immigration detention to criminal holding facilities.

While the Justice Department prepared to release a list of the 104 people charged -- minus the 11 whose charges are under court seal -- Ashcroft said he would not release the names of the 548 being held for immigration violations.

Immigration and Naturalization Service regulations discourage providing such a list, he said, and in any case he would not provide such a list "in wartime."

"Al Qaida will have to get it from someone other than me," Ashcroft said.

The attorney general also lashed out at critics who have charged that the Justice Department is violating civil liberties through the arrests and detentions. All those charged with federal violations have a right to a court-appointed attorney, and those in INS custody have been given the phone numbers of pro bono attorneys, Ashcroft said.

As for their identities, the 548 "can make their identities public (through their attorneys) if they wish to," the attorney general said.

Arab-American organizations have criticized the department's latest investigative tactic -- questioning 5,000 men between 18 and 33 who entered the United States since January 2000 from countries that have been used as staging areas for terrorism.

Ashcroft said the 5,000 were merely being asked to volunteer information, much like witnesses around the World Trade Center were interviewed after two hijacked airliners deliberately hit them on Sept. 11.

For all of the criticism he has received, Ashcroft said, "I am yet to be informed of a single lawsuit filed against the Department of Justice" for the violation of anyone's rights.

"I would hope that those who make allegations about something as serious as a violation of an individual's civil rights would not do so lightly or without specificity or without facts," Ashcroft said. "This does a disservice to our entire justice system, in the event that such charges are made in the absence of specificity or facts."

Paraphrasing President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and pledging not to sacrifice civil liberties, Ashcroft said, "This Justice Department will not sacrifice the ultimate good to fight the immediate evil."

The numbers of those arrested and detained provided by Ashcroft and the department Tuesday was far lower than previous figures.

Last month, the department said nearly 1,200 persons had been arrested or detained, but that figure included those charged by state and local law enforcement officers along with federal arrests and detentions. The latest figures include only those charged by federal authorities in the most massive investigation in U.S. history.

The 1,200 figures also included about 160 people who had been detained because of immigration status. The new figure of 548 held on immigration violations more than triples the old number, with hundreds of new detentions in October and November.

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