SAN DIEGO - I never knew how conservative I was until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Or how liberal I was until John Ashcroft revealed his plans to prevent more attacks.
So I was glad to see the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rule that a former terror detainee could sue the former attorney general. Abdullah al-Kidd claims he was illegally detained and interrogated by the FBI for more than two weeks in 2003 and had his passport pulled for 15 months, even after a federal judge ordered his release. He was never charged with a crime.
A U.S. citizen born in Kansas, al-Kidd was apprehended at Washington Dulles International Airport as he prepared to board a flight to Saudi Arabia. The government used the federal material witness law to hold the married father of two by convincing a magistrate that he was needed to testify at the trial of a Saudi man charged with visa fraud. Al-Kidd was never called to testify in that case, and besides, the defendant was acquitted.
Once in FBI custody, al-Kidd was moved from Virginia to Oklahoma to Idaho. He was kept in chains and held in high-security cells that were lit 24 hours a day. After 16 days of this, a judge ordered his release. Al-Kidd then lost his job with a government contractor when he couldn't get a security clearance, and his wife filed for divorce.
To me, this seems a case of religious profiling. Al-Kidd is an African-American who converted to Islam and changed his name from Lavini T. Kidd. His lawyers claim he was ensnared in the FBI's anti-terror crackdown, in which hundreds of Muslim men were rounded up after Sept. 11.
Al-Kidd's lawyers blame much of his ordeal on Ashcroft, who, they say, developed a policy under which the FBI and Justice Department would use the federal material witness law "to arrest and detain terrorism suspects about whom they did not have sufficient evidence to arrest on criminal charges but wished to hold preventively or to investigate further."
Ashcroft's lawyers argued that as the attorney general, he was acting as a prosecutor and thus deserved immunity from civil lawsuits, as opposed to an investigator who doesn't have immunity. The court ruled Ashcroft was acting in both capacities, and thus could be sued in a civil case.
As conservatives often remind us, the 9th Circuit is often reversed by the Supreme Court. But I hope this decision stands because it's the right one. Ashcroft should be held accountable for his policy and the damage it did to so many lives. If nothing else, allowing this case to proceed will bring public attention to the detainee issue.
And it's about time. For the last eight years, Americans have been distracted by the torture issue and worked up about how CIA interrogators treat terror suspects in foreign countries. How about how FBI interrogators treated terror suspects - including many U.S. citizens - in our own backyard?
After the Sept. 11 attacks, I often condemned the Bush administration's policy of suspending habeas corpus for terrorism suspects. But at the time, most Americans didn't seem to care that their countrymen - including the innocent - were being rounded up and detained. I used to get mail from Arab-Americans who said they appreciated my stand, because there were not many voices in the media defending them.
The uncomfortable truth is many Americans didn't start to complain about how hostile the government was to civil liberties in the war on terror until they became aware of some of the provisions in the Patriot Act, the anti-terror legislation passed by Congress shortly after Sept. 11. Suddenly, all these people came out of the woodwork to complain that the government might be keeping tabs on what books they were checking out of the library. They piped up again a couple of years later when the administration launched its domestic surveillance program. Until these initiatives surfaced, it was always someone else's rights being violated. That made it someone else's problem.
How wrong can you get? Whatever our race or religion, the way terror detainees are treated is our problem. After all, we're talking about abuses that were allegedly committed in our name by our government.
See you in court, Gen. Ashcroft.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an editorial
writer and columnist at The San Diego Union-Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.
©2009 The San Diego Union Tribune