After terrorists hijacked four airplanes on 9/11 and killed thousands of people, it was easy to believe anything was possible. To protect the public and thwart any operations Al Qaeda might still have under way, the Justice Department quickly cast a wide net. Some 762 foreigners - mostly Arabs and South Asians - were detained on immigration charges. Most were deported.
Now a review by Justice's inspector general finds "significant problems" in the detainees' treatment: The Immigration and Naturalization Service took too long to charge them. The FBI took too long to clear them of involvement with terrorism. Dozens were held in "unduly harsh" confinement in a federal prison in Brooklyn, where they endured "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse by guards."
The Justice Department makes no apologies for acting to protect Americans following the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, US law allows detention for up to 90 days in immigration cases - longer if a criminal or terrorist investigation is involved.
The inspector general found no civil rights violations. Even so, Justice officials say they already have adopted some of the report's recommendations, including developing better criteria for determining links to terrorism and for processing detainees, and improving oversight of prison conditions. That's encouraging. The federal Bureau of Prisons says a guard resigned following the investigation.
Justice responded well in a trying situation. But it can and must do better. All detainees deserve treatment in accord with American law and values.