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Criticism Mounts Over Erosion of Civil Liberties in Anti-Terrorism War - 2001-11-17

While the Bush Administration continues to receive kudos for its military campaign in Afghanistan, criticism is mounting in the United States over its domestic war on terrorism. Some conservatives are now joining liberals in warning the administration not to erode civil liberties in the search for justice.

The Bush Administration's point man in the crackdown on suspected terrorists at home is Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"If suspects are found not to have links to terrorism or not to have violated the law, they will be released," says Mr. Ashcroft. "But terrorists who are in violation of the law will be convicted, in some cases be deported and in all cases be prevented from doing further harm to Americans."

So far, authorities have arrested or detained more than 1,000 people for questioning in connection with the September 11 attacks. The Justice Department has revealed virtually nothing about those detained and further alarmed civil liberties groups recently by announcing that it would monitor some of the conversations between detainees and their lawyers.

In addition, President Bush's decision to sign an executive order opening the way to possible military tribunals for accused terrorists has sparked concern among some Democrats in Congress.

Dennis Kucinich is a Democratic Congressman from Ohio.

"The principle of justice is core to who we are as a nation. And under no circumstances should we be willing to cede that," he says. "Otherwise we let the terrorists win. Otherwise, the very principles, which are under assault by people who do not in any way tolerate democratic principles, otherwise those principles gradually are eroded."

Now some conservatives in Congress are adding their voices in opposition to some of the administration's legal moves. Georgia Republican Bob Barr bases his opposition on the idea that the federal government has taken on too much power in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks:

"The administration is now on its own, without consulting with Congress, reaching for and taking unto itself additional, vast, new powers, both substantive and procedural," says Congressman Barr.

Some legal analysts also warn that trial of suspected terrorists by military tribunals that are often held in secret could undermine the U.S. reputation for adhering to the rule of law.

George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley also worries that using military courts to deal with Osama bin Laden and his cohorts would, in effect, grant them a status that they do not deserve.

"Bin Laden is not a soldier, he's a criminal. He is a person who kills innocent people," says Professor Turley. " To try someone like bin Laden in a military tribunal gives him all the trappings of a soldier that only he has argued for. This is precisely what bin Laden has long strived for; to be treated like he is a soldier in a legitimate war effort. But in reality, he is just an extremely dangerous and disturbed criminal."

But supporters of the administration's domestic crackdown on terrorists say the harsh measures are necessary because the 19 hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks used the openness of American society to their advantage.

Many legal scholars also say the administration is well within its rights to hold military tribunals to deal with suspected terrorists. Douglas Kmiec is Dean of the Catholic University Law School here in Washington.

"We are in the midst of a military campaign. This is an extension of that military campaign that builds upon well settled precedent in American law and that is fully observant of international standard and that is, I think, quite compatible with the desire to get at the heart of the terrorist enterprise and those who support it," he says.

Public opinion polls continue to show strong support for President Bush and for the war on terrorists, both at home and abroad. Nevertheless, administration critics say they will press ahead with efforts to draw attention to their concerns about civil liberites. Hearings are likely to be held soon in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.