Privacy SOS

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the FBI launched its PENTTBOM (Pentagon/Twin Towers Bombings) investigation. 

How many people were picked up by this dragnet?  We don’t know for sure.  A senior official in the Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs told the Office of the Inspector General that her office “stopped reporting the cumulative totals after the number reached approximately 1,200, because the statistics became confusing.”

The Bush administration refused to release the names of “special interest” detainees, most of whom faced (often very minor) immigration charges and secret hearings in immigration courts before being deported.           

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the ACLU and various support groups pieced together information depicting a Kafkaesque world of the “disappeared,” where people were held under harsh conditions including solitary confinement, and were guilty until proven innocent.  The presumption of innocence in individual cases had been trumped by the government’s “mosaic” theory, requiring individuals to be detained as possible pieces of a broad pattern of terrorist activity.

On June 2, 2003, the veil of secrecy was lifted by the publication of a report on the September 11 detainees by the Justice Department’s Inspector General Glenn Fine.  It gave a picture of the FBI’s response to 9/11 as it reacted to nearly 100,000 tips from the public, and how the detainees were treated.

One example given in the report is that of “a Muslim man in his 40s” who was arrested “after an acquaintance wrote a letter to law enforcement officers stating that the man had made anti-American statements.  The statements, as reported in the letter, were very general and did not involve threats of violence or suggest any direct connection to terrorism.  Nonetheless, the lead was assigned…and resulted in the man’s arrest for overstaying his visa.  Because he had been arrested on a PENTTBOM lead, he automatically was placed in the FBI New York’s ‘special interest’ category.”  Cleared of involvement of terrorism by the FBI field office by mid November, he “was not cleared by FBI headquarters until late February 2002 due to an administrative oversight.” After that, he could be deported.

Not a single person picked up under PENTTBOM was tied to the 9/11attacks.  David Cole has estimated that of the more than 5,000 persons who were detained under various operations aimed at the preventive detention of terrorist suspects who were not under criminal investigation, only five had been charged with any terrorist related crime by May 2003.  Of that number, “one has been convicted of conspiracy to support terrorism; two were acquitted on all terrorism charges; the government dropped all terrorism charges against a fourth when he pleaded guilty to a minor infraction; and the fifth is awaiting trial” (Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terrorism, New Press, 2003).

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.