New York Times
January 14, 2004
The Supreme Court
made it easier this week for the government to drape a cloak of
secrecy over the imprisonment of people accused of crimes when
it rejected an appeal seeking the identity of hundreds of men
rounded up after the Sept. 11 attacks. The freedom of all Americans
In the days after
the terrorist attacks, nearly 1,000 suspects, most of them Muslim
men, were detained. A vast majority proved to have no connection
to terrorism. Many were deported for immigration violations. The
government released the names of the 129 who were accused of crimes,
but it refused to identify the hundreds who were not charged.
The Center for National
Security Studies and other groups sued under the Freedom of Information
Act to learn their names and the circumstances of their arrests.
government invoked an exemption to the act. But the plaintiffs,
backed by news organizations, including The New York Times, contended
that the exemption did not apply because this sort of information
was given out in ordinary police investigations. They argued that
the public needs to monitor detentions to ensure that the government
is not trampling on constitutional rights.
The trial court agreed,
and ordered most names released. But an appeals court reversed
that decision, 2 to 1. In dissent, Judge David Tatel warned that
the court was ignoring the public's interest in knowing whether
detainees' rights had been denied by "detaining them mainly
because of their religion or ethnicity, holding them in custody
for extended periods without charge, or preventing them from seeking
or communicating with legal counsel."
The Supreme Court's
decision not to hear this appeal comes as the Bush administration
is increasingly asserting the right to conduct law enforcement
in secret. It argues in the case of Jose Padilla, an American
citizen accused of being part of a dirty bomb plot, that merely
by labeling him an "enemy combatant," it can hold him
in secret indefinitely. In a Florida case involving Mohamed Kamel
Bellahouel, a post-Sept. 11 detainee, the federal courts have
sealed the court records and decisions, listing the defendant
only by his initials.
The Supreme Court
will soon confront the larger issue of civil liberties after Sept.
11. It has agreed to hear the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi, an American
citizen being held as an enemy combatant, and accepted the appeal
of 16 foreigners being held in Guantánamo Bay. We hope
that beginning with these cases, it will start reining in the
disturbing excesses of the administration's war on terror.