The federal government defended former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's controversial "hold until cleared" policy for immigrants detained following the Sept. 11 terror attacks in oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday, saying the Bush administration official's cautious approach didn't violate clearly established civil rights.

Ashcroft's decision to incarcerate noncitizens deemed to be "of interest" in the FBI's 9/11 investigation until they were cleared of terrorism suspicions, a period that could take eight months, was "facially constitutional" and therefore he should enjoy immunity from civil damages lawsuits over the program, acting U.S. Solicitor General Ian Gershengorn told the justices.

Ashcroft, ex-FBI Director Robert Mueller, ex-Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar and others have asked the high court to reverse a Second Circuit panel decision reviving claims that they targeted suspects solely based on ethnicity and religion and held them for months under deplorable conditions. Ziglar is represented by William Alden McDaniel Jr. and Michelle M. McGeogh of Ballard Spahr LLP.