WASHINGTON – The Justice Department's (search) mistreatment of illegal immigrants arrested after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — some prisoners were dragged by their arms, slammed into walls and told "you're going to die here" — was wrong and should never happen again, senators said Wednesday.
"Neither the fact that the department was operating under unprecedented trying conditions nor the fact that the 9/11 detainees were in our country illegally, justifies entirely the way in which some of the detainees were treated," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (search), R-Utah.
However, the department is working to make changes and should not be condemned as long as those changes are made, said Sen. Charles Schumer (search), D-N.Y.
"I think the Justice Department didn't do a fine job, but under the circumstances, as long as they move to make changes, they don't deserve the opprobrium that I have heard from some quarters about this," Schumer said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is investigating a report by the department's inspector general on the Bush administration's actions toward the 762 foreigners held on immigration violations after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The report said the Justice Department classified illegal immigrants swept up in the investigation as Sept. 11 detainees without quickly investigating whether they had anything to do with the attacks. It took an average of 80 days for some to be cleared, while more than a fourth took more than three months.
At the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., where 84 of the Sept. 11 detainees were held, the inmates were placed in special security and only limited information was given publicly about their whereabouts, the report said.
"As a result of this designation, we found that MDC staff frequently and mistakenly told people who inquired about a specific Sept. 11 detainee was not held at the facility when in fact they were there," said Glenn Fine, the Justice Department inspector general.
Most of the abuse accusations came at the MDC as well, Fine said.
"This generally consisted of slamming some detainees into walls; dragging them by their arms; stepping on the chain between their ankle cuffs; twisting their arms, hands, wrists and fingers; and making slurs and threats such as 'you will feel pain' and 'you're going to die here,"' Fine said.
But no one at the Justice Department condoned or encouraged those activities by prison guards, Fine said. "We did not find there was intentional misconduct and intentional violations of civil rights" by Justice officials, he said.
Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, also said none of the allegations of abuse at the Brooklyn prison have yet to be referred for criminal or administrative charges, although he promised to seek charges if any are substantiated.
"Thus, while troubling, the OIG's conclusion that abuse took place has not led to any formal action," Lapping said.
Fine said the Justice Department is expected to submit written responses to his suggestions for improvement on July 11.
Hatch said he plans on holding more hearings on the Sept. 11 detainees, and FBI Director Robert Mueller is expected to testify in front of the committee July 23.