WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has misused a federal law to detain at least 70 terrorism suspects since the Sept. 11 attacks, two advocacy groups contend.
Administration officials defend the detentions by pointing out that judges approved material witness warrants.
The material witness law, enacted in 1984, allows the arrest and detention of witnesses who might flee before testifying in criminal cases.
Seven were charged with providing material support to terrorist organizations.
At least 30 detainees were never called to testify before a court or grand jury, the advocacy groups said in a report released Sunday. All but one of those detained are Muslim, they said.
A Justice Department spokesman, Kevin Madden, told The Associated Press that "material witness statutes are designed with judicial oversight safeguards and are critical to aiding criminal investigations ranging from organized-crime rackets to human trafficking."
The report is the first comprehensive look at how the administration has used the material witness law to detain terrorism suspects when the government lacked sufficient criminal evidence to hold them. The groups said the law "has been twisted beyond recognition."
The government has apologized to 13 people for their detention under the law. One in that group is Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield. The FBI arrested Mayfield in connection with the train bombings in Madrid, Spain, in 2004 after wrongly matching his fingerprint to one found on a shopping bag in Spain.
Twenty-three people were held two months or more without being charged, the report said.
"They threw witnesses in a black hole where they didn't have access to the basis for their arrest, weren't provided with lawyers, weren't allowed to talk to family members and were held in complete secrecy with no concrete end to their detention," said Anjana Malhotra, the report's author.
The Justice Department has refused to say how often it has used the law in terrorism investigations.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he is considering legislation to limit use of the law.
"I am troubled by reports that this narrow law has been twisted from one of a specific statute to secure testimony, into a broad detention authority that has resulted in some notorious abuses," Leahy said.
Judges were willing to give the administration a lot of leeway right after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the report said. This was particularly so when government lawyers argued that the witnesses were needed for grand jury investigations, for which less stringent legal standards apply.
In some cases, authorities obtained the arrest warrants even when the witnesses were cooperating and had strong ties to the community.
Abdullah Tuwalah (search), a Saudi who was studying at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., was held for six weeks because FBI agents believed he had information about another student, the report said. Tuwalah volunteered to take a lie-detector test and was interrogated seven times before being released. He never testified before a grand jury, the report said.