New York Times Editorial
October 19 , 2001


Detention and Accountability


The continuing terrorism threat justifies aggressive efforts by the Justice Department to get to the root of the Sept. 11 attacks and to prevent future disasters. It does not justify the department's refusal to provide basic information about the hundreds of people who have been arrested and detained.

State, local and federal authorities have detained some 800 people as part of the investigation. Though the Justice Department promised yesterday to disclose how many of these have been released, other disturbing mysteries remain. Many of those in custody have been cleared of any connection to terrorism. The basis for their incarceration thus remains unclear. Nor is it clear how many detainees are being held as material witnesses, how long the government intends to hold them and how many have obtained legal representation.

Though some aspects of the investigation require confidentiality, secrecy could provide cover for law enforcement excesses that trespass on civil liberties. Judges in the present climate will be reluctant to resist a government request for a broad gag order. Yet it is hard to see how revealing basic facts about detention practices would pose any danger to the investigation or to national security.

Troubling news articles in The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post sharpen these concerns. The articles included allegations of abusive treatment from several detainees, who said they were improperly kept from their lawyers, denied proper food, or otherwise subjected to unduly harsh treatment while in custody. One official was quoted as saying that the government was "pushing the envelope" of constitutional restraints.

Attorney General John Ashcroft insists that the administration's actions are "consistent with the framework of the law." But his department's stinginess in sharing information is not reassuring. If in fact the government is treating its detainees fairly, why not be more forthcoming? Timely release of the facts would help dispel concerns about unfair treatment. It would also encourage individuals with relevant information to come forward, and thus advance the department's investigative aims.

Copyright 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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