Tom Ridge’s October Surprise

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) is trying once again to discover who was rounded up by the Department of Homeland Security in the weeks preceding the November 2004 presidential election "to assure the Arab-American and Muslim communities that they are not being impacted on a disproportionate basis."

But it is not very hopeful.

The group first filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in late 2001, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, another advocacy group, seeking the names of the thousands arrested and detained in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Laila Al-Qatami, ADC communications director, told IPS.

In August 2002, a U.S. District Court Judge ruled that the names must be released, she said, but the government appealed the decision, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

"The final outcome was that the Department of Justice said that for national security reasons the names would not be released," she said. "I would suspect that (Homeland Security) would use the same reasoning" regarding the pre-election detainees, even though ADC is now seeking only the nationalities, and not the names, of 230 people arrested in what some media dubbed the "October Plan."

In a letter to Homeland Security (DHS), ADC President Mary Rose Oakar said, "National origin is of great relevance in determining whether the government is discharging its law enforcement duties uniformly and neutrally, indifferent to national origin, color, race, or religious affiliation."

"Congress did not intend to create an exemption that swallows the FOIA (freedom of information act) law," she said. "But that is precisely what DHS has done in this case."

The ADC contends that disclosing nationality information could not compromise any ongoing investigations of detainees. It has filed an administrative appeal with the DHS Privacy Office.

Oakar, who served as Democratic congresswoman from Ohio from 1977 to 1993, wrote to DHS, then headed by Tom Ridge, in reference to the wholesale roundups of Arabs and other Muslims, both citizens and non-citizens, following the 9/11 attacks.

Oakar made clear in her letter that ADC was not seeking the names or any other identifying data concerning these detainees.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported last November that it had used three immigration databases to "reprioritize leads" resulting in the October 2004 arrests of more than 230 people.

ADC says its request was intended to assure the Arab-American, South Asian, and Muslim communities, along with the rest of our nation, that ICE was not conducting a "round-up" or "sweep" in any community, and that it was acting consistently with the pledge made on Sept. 30, 2004 not to partake in racial, national origin or religious profiling.

Following 9/11, DHS started requiring individuals from a list of targeted countries to register with the government, submit to an interview, and notify authorities within 10 days of any changes regarding place of residence, employment or educational institution.

In her letter to DHS, Oakar charged ICE with "withholding the data pursuant to an FOIA exemption stating that the FOIA does not apply to records of information compiled for law enforcement purposes." ADC does not believe that this exemption applies because "nationality data on a specific population of detainees is of such a generalized and innocuous nature that its release cannot be reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings."

"We do not believe that the data we are requesting was compiled for law enforcement. Instead the data was compiled upon our request, and as such does not fall into the exemption," she said.

"DHS simply declared an ongoing investigation and invoked a blanket exemption. No distinct category was identified to which the requested data belongs. Moreover, no articulable harm was provided exempting the unidentified putative category. All that DHS has provided is a blanket reason as the basis for the exemption."

ADC is a civil rights organization committed to defending the rights of people of Arab descent and promoting their cultural heritage. It is the largest Arab-American grassroots organization in the U.S.

Many other civil liberties groups and legal authorities have been sharply critical of the government’s approach to immigrants and visitors following 9/11 and including the pre-election detentions.

The DHS Inspector-General has confirmed that detainees were often held under harsh prison conditions, treated as criminals, denied access to lawyers, and abused and mistreated. Many were deported.

David Cole, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and author of "Enemy Aliens," told IPS that the "centerpiece of the domestic war on terrorism has been preventive detention."

"In the first seven weeks after Sept. 11, the DOJ (Justice Department) admitted to detaining nearly 1,200 men as suspected terrorists, nearly all foreign nationals," he said.

"It subsequently adopted two anti-terrorism immigration initiatives that were aimed at men from Arab and Muslim countries on the theory that they were more likely to be terrorists. Those programs led to the detention of nearly 4,000 more people. Yet of these, not one stands convicted of any terrorist offense. The administration’s record is zero for 5,000."

He adds, "The DOJ boasts that its terrorism investigations have led to more than 300 criminal indictments, more than 100 convictions and more than 500 deportation orders.

"But the convictions are almost all for minor charges, not terrorism. As for the 500 deportations, the DOJ fails to note that most were carried out under a policy that specifically barred deportation unless an individual was first cleared of any connection to terrorism. These are misses, not hits."

And Mark Dow, author of American Gulag: Inside America’s Immigration Prisons, told IPS, "A 2003 report from the DOJ inspector general identified a host of problems with the treatment of the detainees and confirmed reports that some prisoners were subjected to physical and verbal abuse from guards.. The vast majority of those arrested were never charged with terrorism-related offenses."

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.