Attorney General John Ashcroft wants Congress to strengthen a law it approved in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, giving authorities wide new powers to track down potential terrorists. A congressional committee Thursday examined whether provisions of the USA Patriot Act, and the way it is being enforced, have threatened privacy and civil liberties.
Mr. Ashcroft is known for outspokenness, and a sometimes contentious relationship with Congress on issues such as civil liberties.
Many believe the Justice Department, under his leadership, has gone too far in how it interprets and enforces the Patriot Act.
The law was overwhelmingly passed by Congress in October 2001. However, as the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner, reminded Mr. Ashcroft, Congress is keeping a close eye on how the government is using it.
"My support for this legislation is neither perpetual, nor unconditional," he said. "I believe the department and Congress must be vigilant toward short-term gains, which ultimately may cause long-term harm to the spirit of liberty and equality, which animate the American character."
Some used stronger language to voice concerns about two issues: intelligence-gathering, and the treatment of illegal immigrants, and minorities, under anti-terrorism statutes.
"We are concerned about the way that you have used your power, the way that you have detained immigrants," said California Congresswoman Maxine Waters. "We are concerned about the way you used the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act."
Under the Act, the FBI needs only to say it requires access to private records to investigate terrorist activities, rather than having to demonstrate "probable cause." Authorities also propose more extensive use of "data-mining" - information-gathering from the internet and other records.
Mr. Ashcroft says the government needs every tool at its disposal.
"Our ability to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil would be more difficult, if not impossible, without the Patriot Act," the attorney general said. "It has been the key weapon used across America in successful counter-terrorist operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists."
A recent report by the Justice Department's inspector general criticized the detention of foreigners, who were later deported for violation of immigration laws.
Mr. Ashcroft defended the deportations, and took lawmakers to task for appearing to weaken in their support of the anti-terror fight. He also urged expanded powers to send a strong message to terrorists, or those who would assist them.
"Some terrorist acts resulting in the death of citizens do not provide for the death penalty, or even life imprisonment," he said. "Terrorism offenses are not expressly included in the list of crimes that allow for pre-trial detention, even though it could prevent an attack."
Lawmakers have also criticized Mr. Ashcroft on grounds that the Justice Department has been slow to respond to congressional inquiries about implementation of new anti-terror laws.
Thursday's hearing was the latest in a series of hearings examining how the Patriot Act is being used.