WASHINGTON – Federal immigration officials, and not the FBI (search), would have greater authority over the custody of illegal aliens suspected of terror links in one of many changes expected to follow a report criticizing the handling of hundreds detained after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The Justice Department and immigration officials also are developing better ways of identifying those suspects deemed of special concern, setting deadlines for their cases to be resolved and developing plans to better deal with similar situations if they occur again.
Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff (search), head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said in a recent letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the FBI and Homeland Security Department -- which now handles most immigration matters -- are working to implement these changes.
"These enhancements would further reduce the potential for impinging on civil liberties (search)," Chertoff said in the June 4 letter, which he said stated his personal views and not official government policy.
Chertoff was recently confirmed by the Senate to become a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and leaves his job on Monday.
The report last week from the Justice Department inspector general (search), Glenn A. Fine, found that the FBI was given sole power over how long the 762 illegal aliens suspected of terrorism links could be kept in custody. Some were kept as long as eight months, although most were deported or released within the 90-day time frame observed by immigration officials.
The report also found that conditions of custody were often unduly harsh, such as use of leg shackles, limited access to phone calls and detainees sleeping under harsh lights.
Chertoff said that better resources, training and reorganization within the FBI should minimize such delays in the future, which he attributed partly to the shock and confusion that swept the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He also said conditions of custody would likely improve.
"The purpose of detention is not punitive, but is designed to serve the interests of security and discipline within facilities," Chertoff said.
"Clearly, the government should continue to enforce the message to corrections personnel that any detainees are not being held for punishment and should be treated with appropriate respect and restraint," he added.
Of the 762 people detained as part of the Sept. 11 investigation, 505 have been deported and only one, Zacarias Moussaoui (search), has been charged with a terror-related crime. The report stressed that nearly all of those detained had overstayed visas or committed other immigration violations.