In some cases, foreigners held at a nine-story prison in Brooklyn, N.Y., were asked by guards, "Are you OK?" If they answered yes, guards assumed they had waived their opportunity to contact a lawyer by phone, which they were allowed to do once each week. If phone calls were answered by voice mail or a busy signal, guards considered it the detainee's weekly call.
The inspector general's report found "significant problems" in the Bush administration's actions toward 762 foreigners held on immigration violations after Sept. 11. Only one, Zacarias Moussaoui, has been charged with any terrorism-related crime; 505 have been deported.
"We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks," Justice spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said. U.S. laws were "scrupulously followed and respected," she said.
Under U.S. law, the government has up to 90 days to deport or release detainees. But it can hold them much longer if they're connected to a terrorism or criminal investigation. Some of the Sept. 11 detainees were kept in custody up to eight months, although most of them were deported before the 90-day deadline.
A senior FBI official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said one of the detainees was a roommate of one of the hijackers and knew a second hijacker; another acknowledged training in a terrorist camp in Afghanistan; another traveled to New York days before Sept. 11 with a pilot's license and flight materials; and another worked in a store where investigators found 25 photographs of the World Trade Center.
An unspecified number of the other detainees are awaiting deportation or have been charged with non-terrorism crimes, but Justice officials said they expect all will be deported eventually.
Kathy Hawk Sawyer, director of the Bureau of Prisons, said two officials in the office of the deputy U.S. attorney general — David Laufman and Christopher Wray — told her to "not be in a hurry" to allow detainees immediately after Sept. 11 to call their lawyers or families, as long as her actions did not violate any laws.
Laufman is the deputy attorney general's chief of staff; Wray is the principal associate deputy attorney general. Both confirmed Hawk Sawyer's remarks, with Wray saying he urged prison officials to push as far toward security as they could within the law, the report said.
The inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, said conditions for some detainees were "unduly harsh."
Private lawyers bristled over living conditions imposed for what is commonly considered a civil crime: residing in the United States in violation of immigration laws.
"They shouldn't have been in maximum security, shouldn't have been in leg shackles," said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director for the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association. "In normal circumstances, they wouldn't even be imprisoned."
Dozens of the detainees were forced to walk in leg irons when they were rarely permitted outside their cells and allowed to call their embassies or family members only once each month. Some defense lawyers visiting facilities were turned away, told untruthfully that their clients weren't inside.
The inspector general also identified a "pattern of physical and verbal abuse" by guards, who were accused of slamming prisoners against walls and walking on their leg chains. Three detainees reported that guards told them, "You will feel pain," and "Someone thinks you have something to do with the World Trade Center, so don't expect to be treated well."
Lawyers in the Justice Department's civil rights division investigated but declined to prosecute allegations by three detainees who were deported, the report said. A fourth has not been interviewed by the FBI nearly one year after complaining of abuse, the report said.
Separately, the Bureau of Prisons ended an abuse investigation when a guard agreed to resign, and it found another abuse allegation to be unsubstantiated based on medical tests and witness statements.
Fine, who is pursuing administrative investigations of the alleged abuse, said the Bureau of Prisons cited an "al Qaeda training manual" recovered during a police raid in Manchester, Britain, that urged terrorists to distract government officials by claiming mistreatment in prison.
The inspector general proposed 21 reforms, including better criteria for determining links to terrorism during any future mass arrests of illegal immigrants.
The report fell short of alleging that Justice Department policies toward the detainees violated their civil rights or any federal laws. It also noted that "nearly all" the detainees had violated immigration laws, such as overstaying visas or entering the country illegally.