How my Polaroids of the September 11 attacks led me into America's secret court system for terrorist suspects

This week marks the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

On the day of the attacks, I lived directly across the Hudson River from the Twin Towers, in downtown Jersey City, New Jersey. As the buildings burned and then collapsed, the police shut down the entire Jersey City waterfront except for one small area, Morris Canal Park. The park had an unobstructed view, and I took a set of Polaroid shots of the disaster.

Later, as a senior writer for the New Jersey Law Journal, I investigated the cases of the 762 Muslim men who were randomly rounded up by the FBI after the attack, cleared of being terrorists, but secretly deported anyway to the countries of their birth. Some of them were tortured by local authorities when they arrived.

This is the story of how, after taking these Polaroids, I discovered that the US set up an invisible court system outside the control of the federal judiciary to deal with Muslim immigrants after September 11.

This is a postcard of Downtown Manhattan that I bought on the day of the attacks. People forget that the Twin Towers were more than twice as tall as the other buildings downtown.

Jim Edwards / BI

On the day of the attack I was a freelance business journalist. The collapse of the towers brought work to a halt, so I went outside with my old-fashioned Polaroid camera to take some pictures. They're not great quality, but the Polaroid was the only camera I owned in the era before mobile phones.

Jim Edwards / BI

Thinking there would be thousands of wounded people, I approached this police officer to ask if I could donate blood. He said there was no need: People in the buildings either died or survived. Relatively few were wounded. You can see the smoke in the background at the end of the street.

Jim Edwards / BI

This shot isn't great, but it shows that after the towers collapsed the smoke plume obscured the Manhattan skyline. Normally, you can see the Downtown skyline on this street.

Jim Edwards / BI

Here you can see that the rest of the World Financial Center -- where The Wall Street Journal used to have its offices -- remained relatively unscathed.

Jim Edwards / BI

This shot shows the scale of the disaster: Note that the smoke cloud is greater than the biggest buildings left in the city.

Jim Edwards / BI

People didn't know how to react to the disaster, and no one really knew how serious it was at the time. A crowd gathered in Morris Canal Park to watch the fire.

Jim Edwards / BI

Someone brought a sun umbrella. The guy on the bicycle at the far right used the opportunity to work on his tan.

Jim Edwards / BI

This shot includes the park's horizon landmarks guide, so you can see where the twin towers should have been -- and how tall they were compared with the remaining buildings.

Jim Edwards / BI

At times the smoke grew black, dark enough to blot out the sunny day over Brooklyn. About 3,000 people died that day; 2,606 lost their lives in the towers.

Jim Edwards / BI

After I finished taking Polaroids, my prescheduled assignment that day was to interview the chief marketing officer of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, for Brandweek magazine. I did the interview in the afternoon, even though it felt trivial and surreal. It was time to get a new job.

So I went to work at the New Jersey Law Journal, which is based in this less than glamorous office in Newark, New Jersey. I figured that the attacks would trigger a lot of dramatic litigation and changes in the law -- many of the victims were from New Jersey -- and that I'd get to write about it.

Google Street View

The Law Journal's office was right across the street from the federal court building ...

... and, crucially, the Newark federal building, which houses the US Attorney's Office, the FBI, and the local immigration courts. I was going to get a close-up view of the post-September 11 system in action.

Almost immediately, the FBI began arresting hundreds of Muslim immigrants who were living in the US illegally, handing them off to the immigration authorities in Newark for deportation. But the cases were all being handled in secret -- right across the street from my office.

Jim Edwards / BI

Ultimately, 762 Muslims were arrested. None were charged with terrorism. They were dubbed 'Special Interest' cases, and most were processed through immigration court. Here's the Department of Justice memo ordering the courts sealed from the public.

Jim Edwards / BI

In February 2002, the lawyer for a Syrian ice-cream salesman who had been detained as a Special Interest case asked me to witness his hearing in the Newark federal building immigration court. The Syrian, Malek Seidan, had escaped a country with a secret police force, his lawyer said, and had 'a very understandable fear of such proceedings.'

In the corridor outside the court, the prisoners were dressed in orange or green jailhouse smocks. They were handcuffed, ankle-cuffed, and chained to one another. They were led into the courtroom en masse.

A prisoner in an orange jumpsuit similar to those used in Newark.

But before the proceedings began, Judge Annie Garcy ordered me out of the room. I had to wait in the corridor to find out what happened to Seidan.

I began visiting other Special Interest detainees in Hudson and Passaic county jails. This guy, Anser Mehmood, was a truck driver who had raised two kids in Bayonne when he was arrested. His entire family ended up back in Pakistan -- a country his Americanized children had never seen before. He was living in the US illegally, but he had no terrorist connections whatsoever.

The Law Journal, represented by the ACLU, sued former Attorney General John Ashcroft for access to immigration-court proceedings. Generally, Americans have a constitutional right to witness judicial proceedings in action.

Getty Images.

The Third Circuit appeals court eventually disagreed, however, saying 'we hold that the press and public possess no First Amendment right of access' to immigration courts, in part because 'our nation is faced with threats of such profound and unknown dimension.'

The threat was more 'unknown' than the Third Circuit realised. The Office of the Inspector General later found that the FBI had been arresting Muslims at random and that the arrests actually hampered authorities' investigation of the attacks by bogging them down with paperwork.

New Jersey Law Journal

You can download the entire OIG report here.

Former assistant attorney general (and later Homeland Security chief) Michael Chertoff was told by one of his lieutenants that the mass-arrest policy 'isn't getting the job done.' He was told, 'To be candid, we are all getting screwed.' Chertoff did nothing about it.

New Jersey Law Journal

The Fifth Circuit appeals court, which heard a case similar to mine, ruled the opposite way -- that Americans do have a right to enter and watch immigration court. The Supreme Court declined to decide the issue. The door thus remains open for secret Special Interest hearings for immigrants to be resurrected at any time.

It wasn't just immigrants. A New Jersey state court held a secret bail hearing for a man accused of selling fake IDs to the September 11 hijackers.

Florida DMV

The Law Journal challenged the hearing in state court and eventually gained access to the transcripts. It turned out the ID seller had no clue whom he was selling IDs to, and he had nothing to do with terrorism.

Most bizarrely, the New Jersey state judiciary came up with a plan to appoint six 'domestic security judges' to rule the state in the event of an emergency. This document describes their powers, which include ordering mass burials and government control of private property.

NJ Judiciary

You can download the full document here.

People often say, 'After September 11, everything changed.' It sure did. America's courts and police began seeing many Muslims as potential suspects.

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