CNN's Blitzer let slide Gonzales' dodge of question about wrongful detentions

››› ››› BRIAN LEVY

In response to a question from Wolf Blitzer about why people have been wrongfully detained by the U.S. government, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claimed he didn't "know the specific cases" Blitzer was "referring to." Blitzer did not challenge Gonzales or point out any of several such detainments documented by human-rights groups and foreign governments.

On the November 30 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about "others who have been picked up, arrested, held, detained for long periods of time and then released with an apology" in addition to Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer to whom the Justice Department reportedly paid $2 million and issued an apology to settle a civil lawsuit brought by Mayfield. Gonzales replied: "Well, I don't know the specific cases you're referring to, Wolf." Blitzer did not press Gonzales to answer his question about the detentions, which he could have done by asking Gonzales about specific cases in which others in addition to Mayfield have been detained without charges, including cases in which the government did, in fact, apologize.

As Media Matters for America noted, a June 2005 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented how, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Justice had used the material witness law to justify the detainment of purported terrorism suspects without charges. The ACLU-HRW report stated that "[t]he U.S. government apologized to at least thirteen material witnesses for wrongfully detaining them."

The report specifically noted apologies to Mayfield and the so-called "Evansville Eight," a group of Egyptian immigrants, including an American citizen, restaurant owner Tarek Albasti, and Olive Garden waiter Fathy Abdelkhalek, who were arrested in October 2001 after Abdelkhalek's wife reported that he had said he was "going to crash [into the Sears tower]." The report added that the FBI apparently found the men "suspicious because of their common Egyptian background, their friendship, and their social and athletic activities," but that Abdelkhalek's wife's charge about her husband was "baseless." The FBI apologized to the men, who had spent "about a week in a Chicago detention center," according to the Associated Press.

Blitzer could also have asked Gonzales about individuals who had been detained without charges and subsequently released, but without an apology from the United States. For instance, the ACLU-HRW report noted the case of Tajammul Bhatti, "a sixty-eight-year-old physician and a U.S. citizen since 1970" who served for four years in the U.S. Air Force National Guard. Bhatti was arrested on June 20, 2002, and released after six days. The report stated that "[a]lthough the Justice Department never found that he had any connection to a terrorism investigation, Bhatti never received official clearance or an apology letter from the government."

Blitzer also missed the opportunity to ask Gonzales about Maher Arar, a Canadian-Syrian dual citizen. As Media Matters noted, according to the to the Canadian "Arar Commission" inquiry, U.S. authorities detained Arar at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City on September 26, 2002, and subsequently sent him to Syria on October 9, 2002, in a practice known as "rendition." In Syria, Arar was reportedly tortured by Syrian intelligence. Neither Canadian nor Syrian officials ever charged Arar with a crime, and the Arar Commission found "that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offence or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada."

CBC News reported that the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police apologized to Arar, and The Washington Post reported that Canada's House of Commons unanimously agreed that "apologies should be presented" to Arar on behalf of Canada. However, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said that the Canadian and American governments could not offer an apology to Arar until his legal action against the governments is concluded, according to CBC News. The CBC also reported that MacKay received a letter from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that did not contain an apology either to Arar or the Canadian government, even though it was in response to "a formal complaint" by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in which Harper said the U.S. government needs to "come clean with its version of events, to acknowledge the inappropriate behaviour that happened in this case."

In addition, as the weblog Think Progress noted, Gonzales also could not name a mistake he has made during his time as a member of the Bush administration, although he noted that "[s]ome of his recommendations to [President Bush] have not been supported in the courts." Blitzer failed to challenge Gonzales.

From the November 30 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: He converted to Islam. This is very embarrassing for the Justice Department, the fact that you've had to shell out $2 million to this guy for these false charges that were leveled against him.

GONZALES: Listen, there was a mistake made. There was a mistake made in -- in reading of fingerprints and -- and we're accountable for the -- for the successes. We're also accountable for the mistakes. And the mistake here was made by the Department of Justice. We acknowledge that, and that's why the settlement was reached.

BLITZER: But there have been other mistakes that have been made, others who have been picked up, arrested, held, detained for long periods of time and then released with an apology. Is -- is it because of the environment after 9-11? What's going on?

GONZALES: Well, I don't know the specific cases you're referring to, Wolf. Listen, as we do with every circumstance, we make an evaluation about what happened. What mistakes were made, if any. If, in fact, like such as in this case, a mistake was made, the determination was made within the department that this was the appropriate outcome. That this -- this person was entitled to this money. This person was entitled to an apology. And so that's the -- the decision that was made by the department.

And going forward, obviously, we will do everything we can to ensure that these kind of mistakes do not happen. But if they do, if there are allegations made again, you know, we'll do an investigation. And if mistakes occur despite our best efforts, then obviously, we'll -- we'll

we will work to address them and to ensure that people do not have to incur this kind of conduct in the future.

BLITZER: Looking back on the decisions that you've made, at the White House, now at the Justice Department, anything jump to mind, anything that you deeply regret, a decision that you made?

GONZALES: Oh, I -- I think that you and I -- I'd have to spend some time thinking about that. Obviously, I'm not going to say that -- that -- that I am perfect and that I've been perfect in doing my job. Obviously, I've made some recommendations to my client. Some of those recommendations have not been supported in the courts. In hindsight, you sometimes wonder, well, perhaps the recommendation should have been something different.

But I do the very best I can as a lawyer. Evaluating the law, looking at the precedent, looking at the words of the statute, the words of the Constitution, in making my best recommendation in good faith to the president of the United States. That's all that I can do. And that's what I will continue to do as attorney general of the United States.

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Detention
Wolf Blitzer
The Situation Room
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