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A federal judge ruled Thursday that the Bush administration does not have to immediately reveal the names of those detained in the investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Federal Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a stay of her earlier order to give government lawyers more time to appeal. The appeal could take weeks or, possibly, months. On Aug. 2, Kessler gave the Justice Department 15 days to release the names, ruling that federal attorneys had not proven the need for a blanket policy of secrecy for more than 1,200 people picked up since the attacks. The government informed the court of its intention to appeal last week, arguing in documents that Kessler had missed the point about keeping the names secret. Kessler rejected the government’s contention that the terrorist group al-Qaida would be tipped to how much progress investigators had made if the detainees’ names were released. She said al-Qaida already would be aware its operatives in the United States were missing. In granting the stay Thursday, she offered no estimation of the government’s chance of success in appealing her ruling. Most of the people swept up by federal, state and local authorities following the September attacks already have been deported. Apart from periodic updates on the number still held, the Justice Department has tried to keep information about the arrests under wraps. The American Civil Liberties Union, Center for National Security Studies and others sued the government seeking that the names be disclosed. Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said the stay “simply recognizes the government’s right to appeal the decision and in no way diminishes the legal ruling” that the names must be released. “We are confident that Judge Kessler’s carefully reasoned decision will be upheld,” he said. The Justice Department did not immediately comment on the stay. Kessler largely limited her original ruling to the government’s obligations under the federal Freedom of Information Act. In a partial victory for the Justice Department, she rejected the notion that the civil liberties groups have a constitutional free-speech right to some information about the detainees. Kessler also agreed with the government that it may keep other details secret, ruling there are valid security reasons for not revealing the dates and location of arrests and detentions. Still, the Justice Department said that if Kessler’s initial ruling stands, the investigation of the terrorist attacks would be harmed. The ruling “impedes one of the most important federal law enforcement investigations in history, harms our efforts to bring to justice those responsible for the heinous attacks of Sept. 11, and increases the risk of future terrorist threats to our nation,” Robert McCallum, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said after Kessler ordered the release of the names. Kessler’s order gave two exceptions for disclosing names: if the detainee is determined to be a material witness to a terror investigation and if the person being held does not want to be identified. In law, material witness means a person was close enough to a crime to have information or details that could be used by prosecutors to convict a suspect. The government has said that between Sept. 11 and June 24, 752 people were arrested or detained in immigration charges. The others were arrested on various other charges. In late June, the Justice Department reported at least 147 people still were being held, including 74 on charges involving immigration infractions. Prosecutors have not said how many people are being held as material witnesses. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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