November 6, 2001
Confusion Over Number Of Detainees Released
By Dan Eggen and Susan Schmidt
Most of the hundreds of people arrested on criminal charges as part of the investigation into the Sept. 11 terror attacks have been released from jail, a White House spokesman said yesterday.
But the Justice Department said the majority of those detained for all reasons, including immigration violations as well as criminal charges, remain in custody.
The statements from the White House and Justice, which initially seemed to contradict each other, underscored the secrecy and confusion surrounding the U.S. government's roundup of more than 1,000 potential terror suspects, which has come under increasing criticism from Arab American and civil liberties groups.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer initially told reporters that "the lion's share" of those detained since Sept. 11 have been released, a contention that ran counter to previous statements from Justice officials.
"Most of the people, the overwhelming number of the people, were detained, they were questioned, and then they've been released," Fleischer said. President Bush "is fully satisfied that anybody who is continuing to be held is being held for a wise reason," he added.
Contacted later for clarification, Fleischer said he was referring only to people who faced criminal charges, not those detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service or as material witnesses with information about the terror attacks. He said he did not have exact numbers.
Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said a majority of all the detainees remain in jail. "He had information based on the criminal detainees only," Tucker said, referring to Fleischer. "It wasn't the full picture."
Since Sept. 11, hundreds of people -- many of them Middle Eastern men -- have been detained in connection with the probe into the suicide hijackings that killed nearly 4,600 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. None have been charged with abetting the attacks. But Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and other officials have said the detentions are part of an effort to prevent more attacks.
Tucker said 1,182 people have been detained since Sept. 11, including 185 now in INS custody. Federal authorities repeatedly have declined to say how many have been freed. The Washington Post reported Sunday that of 235 detainees identified by the newspaper, at least 75 had been released.
One of those in custody pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges that he lied to a New York grand jury. Osama Awadallah, a Jordanian student at Grossmont College in San Diego, is accused of perjuring himself by denying he knew Khalid Almidhar, one of five men suspected of hijacking American Airlines Flight 77 and crashing it into the Pentagon Sept. 11.
Awadallah appeared in federal court in Manhattan to enter his plea. He is being held on two charges of perjury pending a Nov. 21 bail hearing.
Authorities say Awadallah knew three of the hijackers who spent much of last year living in the San Diego area: Nawaf Alhazmi, Hani Hanjour and Almidhar.
In testimony before a grand jury on Oct. 10 and 15, he denied knowing Almidhar even after prosecutors confronted him with a copy of his journal in which he mentioned the hijacker. Awadallah subsequently amended his testimony and acknowledged writing the passages about Almidhar, according to his lawyer, Jesse Berman. He also admitted knowing Alhazmi, but said he was just an acquaintance.
Berman said yesterday that prosecutors had been looking for a way to hold his client, a permanent U.S. resident. "They snagged him on an unimportant inconsistency," Berman said.
Awadallah was detained as a material witness Sept. 23 after authorities found a note in the glove compartment of a hijacker's car left at Dulles International Airport, where Flight 77 originated. The note said "Osama" and had Awadallah's phone number on it. The indictment said Awadallah's apartment contained pictures of suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Staff writer Mike Allen contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2001, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.
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