WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court turned away a final challenge yesterday to the Bush administration's policy of keeping secret the names of hundreds of Middle Eastern men who were picked up for questioning after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Without comment, the justices refused to hear a dispute largely overtaken by events.
At least 750 men were arrested in a government roundup after the attacks, but nearly all of them had been deported or released by June 2002. Only one, Zacarias Moussaoui, was charged in connection with the al-Qaida attacks, although his case has stalled over a dispute about potential witnesses.
Bush administration officials hailed the court's decision not to hear the case as a validation of their efforts to fight terrorism.
"We are pleased the court let stand a decision that clearly outlined the dangers of giving terrorists a virtual roadmap to our investigation that could have allowed them to chart a potentially deadly detour around our efforts," said Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The case that ended yesterday highlighted two trends that civil libertarians said they found disturbing. First, immigrants who violate the law have few rights. They may be deported for a minor, technical violation of their immigration status, and they do not have a right to a lawyer to fight the charge.
Since most of the Middle Eastern men detained for questioning were immigrants who had violated the terms of their stays in the United States, the Justice Department gave them the choice of being deported or staying in custody for questioning. Ashcroft also ordered their immigration hearings be closed to the public.
Second, the media and the public do not have a right to know who has been arrested for questioning during a government investigation, at least until the individuals are officially charged with a crime.
In November 2001, Ashcroft refused to release the names of those who were picked up for questioning in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
He contended that releasing a list would tip off terrorists who were operating in the United States and give them a "road map" to where the investigation was headed.
Ashcroft noted that while his office refused to release "sensitive information about our terrorism investigation," the detained men or their families were free to make public the circumstances of their detention. Many of them did so later.
Nonetheless, civil libertarians said they were disappointed by the court's refusal to take up the case and to require the release of the names of all the detainees. They said allowing the government to operate behind a veil of secrecy set a dangerous precedent for the future. It also undercuts the principle of accountability, they said.
"I think they are covering up their misconduct in arresting hundreds of innocent men," said Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies, a public interest group that had filed the suit seeking the names of those who had been detained.
"They were in a panic after Sept. 11, and they began arresting Arabs and Muslims. They may have overstayed their visas, but these men were not linked to terrorism. And the Justice Department went to extraordinary lengths to keep it all secret."
In recent months, the Supreme Court has taken up two challenges to administration policies in the war on terrorism. In the first, the court will decide whether the nearly 600 foreign fighters who were captured abroad and imprisoned at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are entitled to a hearing.
Last week, the court also agreed to decide whether U.S. citizens can be imprisoned by the military and held without charges if the president says they are "unlawful enemy combatants."
One of these men, Yaser Esam Hamdi, was picked up on a battlefield in Afghanistan; a second, Jose Padilla, was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare Airport after disembarking from a flight that had originated in Pakistan.
The court will hear both cases - on the Guantanamo detainees case and the "enemy combatants" - in the spring and issue rulings by July.
By contrast, the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking the names of the Middle Eastern men who were picked after Sept. 11 did not provoke a continuing controversy in the lower courts. None of the justices dissented from the court's refusal to take up the issue.
While the Freedom of Information Act sets a general policy of public disclosure, it also contains exceptions. One allows the government to withhold information "compiled for law enforcement purposes" if its release "could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.