Give the government additional power and government officials will use and abuse it. That’s the nature of government, and a key reason the nation’s founders believed in strictly limiting the size and scope of government and separating powers so that different branches of government would check and balance other branches.
Unfortunately, that lesson often is lost on American policy-makers, who look for ways to make government more powerful and centralized. A new report by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General reveals a disturbing pattern of abuses that have resulted from the expanded powers the federal government gained as part of the USA Patriot Act, the 2001 law designed to combat terrorism.
The inspector general’s report, released to Congress earlier his month, “is likely to raise new concern among lawmakers about whether the Justice Department can police itself when its employees are accused of violating the rights of Muslim and Arab immigrants and others swept up in terrorism investigations under the 2001 law,” reported The New York Times.
That’s a good point, although American liberties will never be protected by self-policing actions of government employees — only by strict, legally enforceable restrictions on the power those employees can have over American citizens and residents.
The report is available online at
It alleges abuses. Some seem of only moderate concern — various complaints by detainees about insensitive remarks by prison guards, etc. According to the report, the vast majority of the more than 1,000 complaints by inmates were not deemed credible. Still, the report documented many accusations the government deemed credible, including alleged beatings, harassment and cruel treatment.
At one facility, the IG found “a pattern of physical and verbal abuse by some correctional officers against some Sept. 11 detainees, particularly during the first months after the attacks and during intake and movement of prisoners.” These specifics, of course, deserve continued investigation and proper punishment.
But the bigger question is whether many of those individuals imprisoned under the Patriot Act have been deprived of due process. The IG report doesn’t deal too much with that issue, but it does provide some troubling information.
For instance, it reports that FBI officials in New York City did not do enough to “distinguish between aliens who it actually suspected of having a connection to terrorism from those aliens who, while possibly guilty of violating federal immigration law, had no connection to terrorism.”
Furthermore, “The INS did not consistently serve the Sept. 11 detainees with notice of the charges under which they were being held within the INS’ stated goal of 72 hours. The review found that some detainees did not receive these charging documents for weeks or more than a month after being arrested. This delay affected the detainees’ ability to understand why they were being held, obtain legal counsel, and request a bond hearing.”
Even the horror of the Sept. 11 attacks does not justify policies that make too few distinctions between the innocent and the guilty, or open the door to civil-rights abuses. The IG report is another reminder that the USA Patriot Act may have given the federal government too much power and provided too few protections in return.