U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft confronted congressional critics Thursday in defending the Bush administration's domestic crackdown on terrorism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Mr. Ashcroft appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
For weeks now, the attorney general has been the focal point of criticism from civil liberties advocates who believe he has gone too far in his domestic campaign against suspected terrorists.
But Mr. Ashcroft sought to directly counter that view Thursday in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Holding up a copy of an al-Qaida terrorist training manual, the attorney general told lawmakers that his top priority remains protecting Americans from additional terrorist attacks:"Terrorist operatives infiltrate our communities, plotting, planning, waiting to kill again. They enjoy the benefits of our free society even as they commit themselves to our destruction," he said.
Democratic critics expressed a variety of concerns about the domestic crackdown on terrorism, from the round-up of hundreds of non citizens to the president's decision to authorize military tribunals to try non citizens accused of terrorism.
Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee:"The Constitution does not need protection when its guarantees are popular. But it very much needs our protection when events tempt us to, just this once, go beyond the Constitution," he said.
But even Senator Leahy said that military tribunals to try non citizens may be appropriate in some cases. He and other Democrats are calling for more consultation with the administration on the issue to ensure that the rights of those who may face tribunals are protected.
"History has shown that the military courts have been effective. But it has also shown that they have been abused and this time we want to try and get it right," said Senator Edward Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
In response, Attorney General Ashcroft sought to assure lawmakers that any trials by military tribunals conducted by the Defense Department will be carried out in what he called a full and fair manner. He also said that only those accused of committing war crimes would be subject to the military tribunals.
"The al-Qaida are unlawful belligerents under the law of war. They are not armed forces of any state. They do not bear arms openly as normal combatants do, but they are unlawful combatants because they secret themselves and because they conduct acts which are violations of the law of war," he said.
The attorney general also defended his decision not to release most of the names of the more than 600 people detained since the September 11 attacks. He also said he would confirm that all of those remaining in custody have been given access to a lawyer.
On Wednesday, a coalition of civil liberties and Arab-American groups filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to force the Justice Department to release more information about those being held.