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U.S.: Senators Question Justice Chief About Terror Probe

  • Andrew Tully

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is coming under increasing criticism for some of the law-enforcement tactics being used to investigate the 11 September attacks on the United States and to prevent further acts of terror. Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee carefully questioned Bush's attorney general (justice minister), John Ashcroft, about these steps.

Washington, 7 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. attorney general, John Ashcroft, has made a vigorous defense of the government's law-enforcement tactics in the legal fight against international terrorism.

Ashcroft appeared yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at a time when civil libertarians and some members of Congress have accused the administration of President George W. Bush of being too aggressive.

The attorney general said he was offended by some of the criticism, which used terms like "shredding the constitution." Ashcroft said he is proud of the administration's law-enforcement response to the September attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, and the effort to prevent further acts of terror.

Some civil-liberties advocates say there are many elements of the administration's strategy that would trample the legal rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. There are two issues that draw the most complaints.

One is that the U.S. has detained more than 1,000 foreign visitors -- most of Middle Eastern origin -- for questioning. The other is the administration's plan to use military tribunals to try some foreign suspects charged with war crimes.

At the start of the hearing, the committee's chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), sought to reassure Ashcroft that close questioning during the hearing should not be interpreted as a sign of disrespect.

Leahy himself has questioned some of the administrations antiterror tactics. But he reminded the attorney general -- and the audience -- that cooperation between the government's executive and legislative branches is essential to a free and open democracy: "The need for congressional oversight and vigilance is not, as some mistakenly describe it, to protect terrorists. It is to protect ourselves as Americans and to protect our American freedoms that you and I and everybody in this room cherish so much."

In his own opening remarks, Ashcroft argued that a more vigorous law-enforcement strategy is the only meaningful response to the terror attacks. To do less, he said, would be tantamount to leaving the American people without protection: "One option is to call 11 September a fluke, to believe it could never happen again, and to live in a dream world that requires us to do nothing differently. The other option is to fight back, to summon all our strength and all of our resources and devote ourselves to better ways to identify, disrupt, and dismantle terrorist networks."

Ashcroft was later questioned carefully by members of the committee. Some made it clear they supported the administration's antiterror strategy. Others, however, said some law-enforcement tactics made them uncomfortable.

One senator, Herbert Kohl (D-Wisconsin), said the establishment of military tribunals might make America appear hypocritical to people in other countries: "It causes a great deal of consternation in our country when we hear about Americans abroad who are subject to foreign military courts. We are outraged when we hear that the Americans on trial may not get an attorney, an impartial jury, or even a fair chance to defend themselves. So we should never open our country to that kind of criticism from abroad."

Ashcroft responded that any deviation from civilian courts would be based solely on protecting the U.S. war on terrorism. For example, he said some evidence against a suspect might be kept secret in order not to compromise American military plans. In an American civil court, all evidence must be made public.

The attorney general also was asked about the Justice Department's practice of detaining some residents of the U.S. who are citizens of Middle Eastern countries. A few senators said this makes hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of foreign nationals vulnerable.

Ashcroft replied that the tactics are carefully targeted at people who are suspected terrorists or those who may be associated with terrorists. And he said that this approach is no different from any other legal tactic used during peacetime: "Every criminal law that we pass in the United States has a potential coverage of 280 million people -- that's the population of individuals. And we see those laws as protecting the 280 million people, not putting them in jeopardy."

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a strong supporter of the administration's response to the terror attacks, said he was baffled by the number of complaints about the strategy, particularly the decision to establish the military tribunals. He noted that military courts were used by previous presidents in time of war, and that they have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the country.

Besides, Hatch said, the procedures for the tribunals that will be used in the current war have yet to be published: "The vast weight of legal authority confirms the constitutionality of military tribunals. And, if the issue to be analyzed is not the constitutionality of the tribunals, but rather the fairness of the procedures to be used, then any criticism is entirely premature because the administration has not yet promulgated the procedures that will be employed."

Ashcroft said the U.S. Constitution makes it clear that Bush has the authority to act on his own in establishing the tribunals under what he called a "military order," not an "executive order." Therefore, he said, the president need not get the consent of Congress.

Leahy, the chairman of the committee, replied that Ashcroft may be right, but he said Bush was taking a risk in acting without consulting Congress. He said he believes the Supreme Court would be less likely to rule against the tribunals' existence if Congress played a role in setting them up. Besides, he added, the two branches of government look better when they work together.