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Videotapes Prove Abuse of 9/11 Detainees by Federal Guards

by Matthew T. Clarke

On December 18, 2003, Glenn A.
Finer, Inspector General of the U.S. Justice Department, released a report which found that guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York, physically and verbally abused detainees arrested as part of a federal immigration sweep following the 9/11 attacks. The report also stated that MDC employees routinely videotaped meetings between the detainees and their attorneys.

The federal sweep conducted in the weeks following the September 11, 2001, attacks netted over 1,200 foreigners, 762 of whom were the focus of Fine's initial probe. The detainees were mostly from Arab or South Asian countries. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft ordered them held on immigration charges while they were investigated for possible terrorist ties. No detainee has even been charged with terrorism-related crimes. Commonly ignored by the media is also the fact that no suspect has been charged with a crime related to the 9/11 attacks - who was not already in prison when they occurred.

In June, 2003, Fine released a report in which he found "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse" at Brooklyn MDC. However, the guards denied any wrongdoing so that Fine was unable at that time to make firm determinations in many of the cases of alleged abuse. The initial report also criticized "excessively restrictive and unduly harsh" conditions for the detainees, round-the-clock illumination of their cells and weeks of delays in allowing them telephone calls and access to attorneys. When Fine requested copies of videotapes routinely made by MDC personnel, he was told by MDC Warden Michael Zenk and other officials that the videotapes had been destroyed as part of a recycling process.

The situation changed in August, 2003, with the discovery in a prison storage closet of more than 300 videotapes which were not on inventory sheets MDC officials had previously given Fine. Although many of the videotapes from the period under investigation are still missing and many of the tapes in Fine's possession have unexplained gaps, what was there was enough to confirm the reports of prisoner abuse in many incidents involving up to 20 guards.

"Some officers slammed and bounced detainees against the wall, twisted their arms and hands in painful ways, stepped on their leg restraint chains and punished them by keeping them restrained for long periods of time, Fine's report said. "We determined that the way these MDC staff members handled some detainees was, in many respects, unprofessional, inappropriate and in violation of BOP policy."

Fine recommended discipline for 10 employees and counseling for two others who remain employed by the BOP. He also recommended that the current employers of four former guards be notified of their misconduct.

According to Barbara J. 0shansky, deputy legal director of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights which is suing the federal government on the detainees' behalf, the report "is astounding confirmation of what we've alleged all along. This goes into exactly what kind of physical and verbal abuse there was and what the contradictions of the government's position has been..... It's clear that there was no provocation at any point, and clear that there was no justification for excessive force at any point."

Fine also found more than 40 occasions in which MDC employees videotaped attorney-client conferences, including audio portions on which the conversations between the attorney and the detainee are easily audible. Such recordings "violated the law and interfered with the detainees' effective access to legal counsel," according to the report. In some of the tapes, guards secretly linger in hallways near the attorney-client meetings, eavesdropping on the privileged conversations.

Under BOP rules, attorney-client meetings may be visually recorded but not audio recorded. An exception exists in cases of threats to national security and then only with the attorney general's approval. No approval was sought in any of the detainees' cases and no one seems to be claiming that there was a need for the recordings.

Many civil liberties advocates and defense attorneys see the recordings as part of a wider Justice Department scheme to hamstring attorneys defending terrorism suspects.

"The Justice Department has a very conscious policy since 9/11 of denying access to lawyers and, when they allow access, undercutting the detainees' right to counsel," according to Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It has been a clear and distinct policy of trying to limit attorneys at every turn."

The Justice Department issued a statement that "even in the intense emotional atmosphere surrounding the attacks, particularly in New York, City, where smoke was still rising from the rubble of Ground Zero, [there] is no excuse for abhorrent behavior by Bureau of Prisons personnel."

Regardless of whether the 9/11 terrorist attacks succeeded in a military sense, it is clear that they succeeded in a political one, surrendering hard-won civil rights is seen as inevitable, even desirable. Prisoners are brutalized and held without charges or access to courts or lawyers. g

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