WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft announced yesterday his
department continues to detain more than 550 people on immigration violations or other federal charges in the terrorism investigation, and some are believed to be members of Osama bin Laden's network.
Ashcroft said those detained were rounded up in a "deliberate campaign of arrests" designed to disrupt terrorist activities and protect Americans.
"With arrests and detentions, we have avoided further terrorist attacks... America's defenses have grown stronger," he said.
Ashcroft said that a number of individuals being detained are suspected terrorists, adding, "I don't want to be more specific."
The attorney general's announcement was the first accounting of people in federal custody in several weeks. Previously, the government had said only that it detained or arrested more than 1,100 people without identifying them or saying which remained in custody.
Ashcroft said the terrorism investigation had charged 104 people with federal crimes, and that 55 of those remained in custody. In addition, he said, 548 people remain in custody on immigration charges, some of whom are also charged with federal crimes.
The announcement comes amid concerns in Congress and among civil rights groups about the secrecy surrounding those who have been detained, most of whom are believed to be of Middle Eastern descent.
Ashcroft defended the secrecy, including the fact that most of the names of the detainees have not been public, saying he wanted to protect the privacy of people who may be innocent and prevent bin Laden from gaining valuable information.
"I am not interested in providing, when we are at war, a list to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network of the people we have detained that would make any easier their effort to kill Americans," Ashcroft said.
On Monday, Ashcroft said he also was protecting the privacy of detainees. "I'm not going to develop some sort of blacklist," he said.
His remarks Monday prompted complaints from civil rights groups which have urged the Justice Department to disclose more information about those detained or arrested in the terrorism investigation.
"It is ironic that the government is now concerned about rights when it has arrested and jailed hundreds of people without giving the American public any proof that the detainees are being treated fairly and consistent with the protections of the Constitution and Bill of Rights," said Lucas Guttentag, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's immigration rights project.
Ashcroft's refusal came as the terrorism investigation advanced overseas and a federal agent in Virginia described a possible motive for one of the 19 Sept. 11. hijackers. FBI Special Agent Jesus Gomez said suspected terrorist ringleader Mohammed Atta blamed the United States for most of the world's wars.
"Atta felt that the U.S. was responsible for most of the wars being fought in the world," Gomez said during an abbreviated preliminary hearing in an Alexandria, Va., federal court for Agus Budiman, an Indonesian man whom prosecutors believe was a close associate of Atta.
Budiman, 31, had contacts with Atta and another hijacker, Marwan al-Shehhi, Gomez told a judge at Budiman's detention hearing. The agent did not specify how he learned of Atta's beliefs about America.
Budiman also was associated with Ramsi Binalshibh, who the FBI says was meant to be the 20th hijacker. Binalshibh twice tried unsuccessfully to use his association with Budiman as a means to enter the United States, Gomez said.
Binalshibh, a Yemeni citizen who had been living in Hamburg, is the subject of an international manhunt.
Budiman is facing document fraud charges unrelated to Sept. 11, but prosecutors suspect that the man Budiman allegedly helped to obtain a fake Virginia ID card, Mohammad Bin Nasser Belfas, is a contact for bin Laden, suspected of directing the terror attacks.
Budiman's court-appointed attorney disqualified himself after Gomez testified about the man's links to the terrorists. The lawyer, a retired Army officer, said he had friends who died Sept. 11 when hijackers crashed an American Airlines jet into the Pentagon.
Ivan Yacub, Budiman's immigration lawyer, said his client only knew Atta casually and had not seen Atta since he came to the United States in October 2000.
Most of the more than 1,100 people arrested or detained by federal or state authorities are being held on immigration violations; others are charged with unrelated criminal offenses or are being held as material witnesses.
Civil liberties groups and members of Congress have asked the Justice Department to disclose information about the detainees, where they are being held and whether they have been released. The department has demurred, citing grand jury rules, judges' orders and privacy concerns.