- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

A long-anticipated showdown between the White House and Senate Democrats yesterday at a hearing on anti-terrorism measures failed to produce the expected fireworks as Attorney General John Ashcroft stoutly defended the administration's actions.
Judiciary Committee Democrats had taken Mr. Ashcroft to task over plans for military tribunals for war-crimes suspects, on Justice Department efforts to monitor conversations between federal inmates and their attorneys, and to question and detain foreigners.
"In accordance with over 200 years of historical and legal precedent, the executive branch is now exercising its core constitutional powers in the interest of saving the lives of Americans," Mr. Ashcroft told senators at the hearing.
"I trust … Congress will respect this president's authority to wage war on terrorism and defend our nation and its citizens with all the power vested in him by the Constitution and entrusted to him by the American people," he said.
In response, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said, "Nobody up here has questioned the fact that you can have military tribunals, but … if you have congressional framework, congressional approval, a lot of the questions that are being asked would stop."
The panel's chairman closed with a plea that Congress be included in any discussions on how the tribunals operate and requested that the attorney general review draft legislation calling for a resolution authorizing President Bush's use of tribunals.
"Please take a look at some of the ideas I've sent and others we'll send you because ultimately we work better when we work together," Mr. Leahy said.
At one point, the hearing reverted to a discussion on gun control, with Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois asking why Mr. Ashcroft refused an FBI request to check background records to determine if any of those detained after the September 11 attacks had purchased guns.
"I'm a little befuddled," Mr. Schumer said. "You're looking for new tools in every direction. … But when it comes to the area of even illegal immigrants getting guns and finding out if they did, this administration becomes as weak as a wet noodle."
Mr. Ashcroft said the Brady law passed by Congress creating the National Instant Criminal Background Check System for gun purchasers "specifically outlaws and bans" its use for weapons checks.
He said the only recognized use of the information is limited to an auditing function.
"I believe that my responsibility, which was rather forcefully provided to me as an admonition as I took this job and took the oath of office, is to enforce the law," he said, referring to bitter accusations by Democrats at his confirmation hearings that as a conservative, he would not evenly enforce the law.
During three hours of testimony, Mr. Ashcroft said the Justice Department has undertaken the "largest, most comprehensive criminal investigation in world history" to identify those responsible for the September 11 attacks and to prevent further attacks.
"We are at war with an enemy who abuses individual rights as it abuses jet airliners as weapons with which to kill Americans. We have responded by redefining the mission of the Department of Justice. Defending our nation and its citizens against terrorist attacks is now our first and overriding priority," Mr. Ashcroft said.
He also hit back at critics of the administration's security measures.
"Some of our critics, I regret to say, have shown less affection for detail," he said. "Their bold declarations of so-called fact have quickly dissolved, upon inspection, into vague conjecture. Charges of 'kangaroo courts' and 'shredding the Constitution' give new meaning to the term, 'the fog of war.'"
Mr. Ashcroft said each action taken by the department has been "carefully drawn to target a narrow class of individuals terrorists."
He denied that anyone's constitutional rights had been violated, adding that the "legal powers" of the department had been "carefully crafted to avoid infringing on constitutional rights while saving American lives."
In response to committee questions, Mr. Ashcroft said:
All persons being detained have the right to contact their lawyers and their families. Out of respect for their privacy and concern for saving lives, the department will not publicize the names of those detained.
The department has the authority to monitor the conversations of 16 of the 158,000 federal inmates and their attorneys because it suspects these communications are facilitating acts of terrorism. Each prisoner has been told in advance his conversations will be monitored.
The department has asked foreigners holding passports from countries with active al Qaeda operations to speak voluntarily to law enforcement, although none has been forced to cooperate.
He said that since September 11, the country has faced a choice of believing the suicide strikes were a "fluke" that could never happen again or to "summon all our strength and all our resources and devote ourselves to better ways to identify, disrupt and dismantle terrorist networks."
"America has made the choice to fight terrorism not just for ourselves but for all civilized people," he said.
Mr. Ashcroft said "sleeper" terrorists in this country are "waiting to kill again," and have exploited the openness of the American society. Citing from an al Qaeda training manual, he said terrorists loyal to Osama bin Laden are told how to use America's freedoms as weapons against the United States.
He said the manual tells how to exploit the judicial process; anticipate questions from U.S. authorities and lie about who they are, what they are doing and who they know; concoct stories of torture and mistreatment at the hands of U.S. officials; and "communicate with brothers outside prison and exchange information that may be helpful to them in their work."

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