Washington A divided federal appellate court ruled Tuesday that the Bush administration was justified in refusing to identify hundreds of foreigners charged with immigration violations after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The 2-1 decision by a panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed an August 2002 ruling by a lower court that the government had failed to offer evidence that disclosure of the names alone would harm its anti-terror campaign.
Plaintiffs in the case, brought by a group of human rights and civil liberties organizations, said they would appeal. They said a June 2 report by the Justice Department's inspector general that found significant abuses in the treatment of the post-Sept. 11 detainees illustrated the problems that could occur when people were charged and held in secret. The court's ruling did not address the report.
For now, the ruling stands as another legal victory for Justice Department officials and the tactics they have employed to root out and prevent further terror attacks.
"Today's ruling is a victory for the Justice Department's careful measures to safeguard sensitive information about our terrorism investigations as well as the privacy of individuals who chose not to make public their connection to the government's probe," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said in a prepared statement.
"The Justice Department is working diligently to prevent another catastrophic attack on America. We are pleased the court agreed we should not give terrorists a virtual road map to our investigation that could allow terrorists to chart a potentially deadly detour around our efforts."
The ruling stems from a December 2001 lawsuit filed against the Justice Department by a group of 20 advocacy groups, including the Center for National Security Studies, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.
At the time, department officials said more than 1,200 people had been interviewed as part of an intensive post-Sept. 11 manhunt. Eventually, 762 people were detained across the country. Most of them were subsequently deported after being charged with immigration law violations, such as carrying a false or expired passport.
The groups had asked the Justice Department, under the Freedom of Information Act, to disclose the names of the detainees, their lawyers and other information. The Justice Department had agreed to disclose the names of 108 people who had been criminally charged as part of the roundup. But it declined to disclose the rest. The department claimed it was exempt from having to divulge the names, citing a provision in the law allowing withholding of documents whose publication would harm ongoing law-enforcement proceedings.
In August 2002, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler rebuffed the department. In her ruling, she said the secret arrests were "odious to a democratic society," and ordered the government to release the names, pending appeal.
But the appeals court held that Kessler gave short shrift to the government's position, and said courts since the 1970s have sided with the executive branch in cases where they assert that disclosure of information would threaten national security.
"America faces an enemy just as real as its former Cold War foes, with capabilities beyond the capacity of the judiciary to explore," the court said.
It added: "We hold that the government's expectation that disclosure of the detainees' names would enable al-Qaida or other terrorist groups to map the course of the investigation and thus develop the means to impede it is reasonable."