- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

As he has consistently done since September 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft, testifying yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, made a strong and compelling case for much of the Bush administration's effort to bring terrorists to justice and prevent future acts of barbarism on American soil. Unfortunately, however, he did little to explain the procedures the administration plans to put in place to ensure that the military tribunals ordered by President Bush do not become "kangaroo courts." And, in response to questions about the administration's unwillingness to make public the names of roughly 500 non-citizens jailed on immigration violations and other criminal charges, Mr. Ashcroft did little to clarify the confusing and seemingly contradictory explanations coming from the administration.
Mr. Ashcroft did eloquently describe the vicious nature of Osama bin Laden's terror network. He held up a copy of an al Qaeda terrorist manual, which the Justice Department will soon post on its web site. The manual (first made public during the trial earlier this year in which four al Qaeda terrorists were convicted in the 1998 bombings of two United States embassies in Africa) includes a section instructing terrorists how to manipulate the judicial process if they are arrested. As Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff did before the panel last week, Mr. Ashcroft called attention to passages in the manual instructing al Qaeda operatives how to sneak hidden messages out of jail to terrorists on the outside. This, Mr. Ashcroft said, is why the administration is seeking authority to monitor telephone conversations involving a limited number of al Qaeda suspects and their lawyers (between 12 and 16 of the 158,000 individuals in federal prison today). The attorney general emphasized that his department would institute strict safeguards to ensure that officials monitoring these conversations confined themselves to looking for evidence of planned terrorist activity and did not share extraneous information with prosecutors.
Mr. Ashcroft was much less persuasive on other matters. Regarding the administration's controversial plan for military tribunals, he would only say that critics were poorly informed and that "every action" taken by the Justice Department or the tribunals would be "carefully drawn to cover a narrow class of people." Beyond that, Mr. Ashcroft referred most of the specific questions about tribunals to the Department of Defense, which is apparently several weeks away from presenting concrete proposals. Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold pressed Mr. Ashcroft on the government's refusal to release the names of the aforementioned 500 incarcerated individuals. Why, Mr. Feingold wanted to know, has the administration offered seemingly contradictory explanations, saying that: a) the information must be kept secret because U.S. security would be compromised if bin Laden learns which of his goons are in custody; b) confidentiality laws to protect inmates' privacy bar the government from releasing that information; and c) inmates and/or their families are free to go public with the fact that someone is incarcerated? Mr. Ashcroft had no persuasive answer, and one suspects that none exists.
Despite Mr. Ashcroft's best efforts, the administration has failed thus far to make the case for military tribunals and keeping detainees' names secret.


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