WASHINGTON, June 5 (UPI) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft told a House committee Thursday the Justice Department broke no laws in detaining illegal aliens caught up in the investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
A department inspector general's report, released earlier this week, cited "significant problems" with the detentions.
The problems included physical and verbal abuse, extended detention without cause and unacceptable conditions, particularly at a New York City facility.
In the 11 months after the Sept. 11 attacks, 762 aliens were detained for immigration offenses, including overstaying their visas and entering the country illegally. About 515 have been deported so far.
The incidents of alleged abuse involved officers of the local government housing the detainees, not Justice Department employees.
"The inspector general indicated that there were some cases among the 700-plus individuals where there were accusations of abuse in the prison system," Ashcroft told the House Judiciary Committee. "We do not stand for abuse, and we will investigate those cases."
The attorney general said of the 18 cases of alleged abuse brought to the department's attention, 14 have been investigated.
In those 14, the department's "Civil Rights Division has indicated that it does not find adequate predicate (basis) to bring criminal charges in those cases," Ashcroft said, "but the other four are going to be continued to be investigated. We don't tolerate violence in our prisons generally; we don't tolerate violence in holding individuals. That's not a policy of the department, and ... we'll seek to correct the problems situations."
The inspector general's report also said some detainees appeared to have been held for too long a time without action.
Ashcroft said, "In all of the conduct of the activities of the Justice Department, we have not violated the law, and we will not violate the law. We will uphold the law. If there are ways for us to improve the way in which we uphold the law, we are interested in doing so, and will work together with the inspector general to do that, as we have in time and after time."
But, Ashcroft added, the department has been criticized in the past by the inspector general and others for releasing illegal aliens too soon, including the case of a celebrated Texas serial killer.
Many of those held and deported -- the attorney general would not give a specific figure -- were suspected of terrorism but there was no enough evidence to convict them in court, he said.
Ashcroft said that "given the nature of this activity, terrorism, given the circumstances in the country, given the fact that illegals ordered for deportation are not entitled to be release, we did not release them" before deportation.
Ashcroft also asked the committee to expand the department's terror fighting capability by enacted a second version of the USA Patriot Act.
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement following Ashcroft's testimony saying that is not likely to happen.
"There is no evidence that Congress has any appetite for granting the attorney general any expansion of the already extraordinary powers given him under the USA Patriot Act, particularly since he has not properly explained how the Department of Justice is using the powers it was given after the attacks of 9/11," Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington National Office, said in the statement.
"The inspector general's report on 9/11 detainee abuses, the nation-wide grassroots city council resolution campaign in favor of civil liberties, even the attorney general's own admission this morning of inadequate consultation with Congress when implementing policies that infringe on rights, point to the danger of a Patriot II bill," she said. "We will continue to work with members from both sides of the aisle and with groups across the political spectrum to ensure that Patriot II remains nothing more than a gleam in Mr. Ashcroft's eyes."