Behind closed doors

August 30, 2002

SOME FEDERAL JUDGES are standing up to the Bush administration's drive to detain and try citizens and noncitizens in secrecy -- and it's none too soon.

The latest rebuke was a scathing ruling this week by three judges from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, rejecting the administration's efforts to close deportation hearings without seeking case-by-case permission.

Post-Sept. 11, the administration secretly detained 752 people on immigration violations, later deporting or releasing them after secret hearings. More than 70 are believed still held.

The 6th Circuit is the highest court so far to decry this as unconstitutional. "Democracies die behind closed doors," the judges wrote. "The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people's right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully and accurately in deportation hearings. When the government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightly belonging to the people. ...

"A true democracy is one that operates on faith -- faith that government officials are forthcoming and honest and faith that informed citizens will arrive at logical conclusions. This is a vital reciprocity that America should not discard in these troubling times."

This follows another federal judge ordering the administration to release the names of all detained immigrants and challenges by other federal judges to the government's indefinitely holding in military jails without charges, counsel or trial two citizens deemed "enemy combatants."

Secrecy is one of this administration's fundamental instincts, whether it involves terrorism, Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force or former President Bill Clinton's pardons. But there's little cause for wholesale trust, as a little-known federal court just ruled -- saying the Justice Department had supplied wrong information in seeking wiretaps and search warrants dozens of times.

Of course, there are cases in which government information must be kept secret. But judges already possess the means to hear such arguments and protect that information as needed -- case by case. We've spoken repeatedly of the need to protect civil liberties as America fights terrorism at home and abroad. It's worth repeating: This is a large part of why we're fighting in the first place.

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