December 1, 2003, Esquire
In a time of crisis, when everybody wants to bend the law in the name of protecting us, this is the guy who bends it back.
By Robert Kurson
IN THE AFTERMATH of September 11, one man chose to do something that required a bravery America did not ask even of its president. Glenn Fine, who is the Justice Department's inspector general, chose to investigate whether suspected terrorists detained in the United States were being treated fairly.
Even before this undertaking, the forty-seven-year-old Fine was not the most popular guy in the hallways of Justice. It is his office that is charged with detecting and deterring misconduct, fraud, waste, and abuse across the dozens of agencies that make up the DOJ, including the office of Attorney General John Ashcroft.
When the FBI failed to hand over thousands of pages of documents to defense lawyers for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, it was Fine and his crew of auditors, inspectors, and attorneys who investigated and reported on the embarrassing breakdown. When questions were raised about whether the DEA had devoted sufficient resources to curtailing the illegal diversion of prescription drugs, Fine's report documented that the agency had not.
Such investigations made Fine, in the eyes of some DOJ staffers, the worst kind of rat. Not everyone made things easy on him. "I wouldn't say the agencies have been obstructionist," Fine says, "but they don't, you know, open the doors completely and say, 'Take a look at everything, and thank you for being here.' I get some nasty letters. But it's my job, and it's an important job."
Nothing, however, would compare to the anger many would feel toward Fine's decision to investigate the treatment of the detainees. In a traumatized America struggling to process the idea that terrorists wanted to kill us in our streets, a concern for the civil rights and decent treatment of almost eight hundred immigrants--illegal immigrants--ranked just about last on the list of the country's worries. When activists and family members accused the government of holding suspects without bringing charges and depriving them of attorneys, most Americans whispered to themselves, "Too goddamn bad."
Not Fine. Because a national crisis is the perfect time for basic rights to endure, he began an investigation. "It was a sensitive area, no question about that," he says. "But we were given duties, for example, under the Patriot Act to report on civil-rights and civil-liberties abuses, and we take our responsibilities seriously here. And I believe that is the role of the inspector general, to proceed even in very sensitive areas."
Fine discovered a smorgasbord of mistreatment. Many detainees had been arrested based on nothing more than an anonymous tip by a person suspicious of an Arab or Muslim neighbor's odd schedule. Others had been jailed for weeks without being charged. On average, the FBI had taken eighty days between the arrest of a detainee and his clearance. Some suspects had been subject to abusive prison conditions.
In June of this year, Fine released his report. The reverberations were felt throughout the world. Some people saw Fine as the devil. A talking-points memo prepared by House Republican staffers called Fine's report "contemptible" and asserted that it did "a grave disservice" to Ashcroft.
Many others, however, viewed Fine differently. At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the report, Republican Orrin Hatch told Fine, "I think your report is a work of great honor. . . . The folks who supervise you ought to be proud of what you're doing, and I personally am."
Just twenty-five years ago, Fine had a less weighty decision to make. Selected in the tenth round of the NBA draft, the Harvard University guard debated between hoops and a waiting Rhodes scholarship. His choice then was practical; tenth-rounders almost never made it in the NBA. His decisions today run deeper. "I believe in our system," he says. "That we were able to do this, that no one interfered with us, is a remarkable strength of our country."