The Justice Department yesterday offered to put foreigners in this country and overseas on a fast track to U.S. citizenship in return for information on the terrorists who attacked America on September 11 or on those who might strike again.
Also yesterday, President Bush defended another administration action in the war on terrorism his decision to allow military tribunals to try foreign terrorists, insisting that such defendants are not entitled to the presumption of innocence accorded Americans in civilian courts.
The “Responsible Cooperators Program” was announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft, saying it targeted foreigners with “useful and reliable information” on the whereabouts of terrorists.
“The United States will be grateful to responsible cooperators who help us protect American lives,” Mr. Ashcroft said at a news conference yesterday. “We are at war with a fanatical terrorist network that claims to have nuclear weapons and wants to slaughter innocent civilians. We believe al Qaeda continues to operate within the United States.”
Under the new initiative, the Justice Department will provide immigration benefits to noncitizens who furnish information to help apprehend terrorists or stop terrorist attacks. The offer is available to all noncitizens in the United States or those who seek to enter the country.
In return for information that will “aid the war on terrorists,” the department will assist nonresident aliens in obtaining “S visas,” which will be available when the information they provide is determined to be “critical and reliable.” S visa holders may remain in the United States for up to three years, during which they can apply to become permanent residents and ultimately U.S. citizens.
“For many people, a visa that provides a pathway to American citizenship is worth its weight in gold. It provides access to the freedoms and opportunities that define our nation,” Mr. Ashcroft said.
But people with other intentions toward the United States should not get such a welcoming reception, Mr. Bush said yesterday in a speech to U.S. attorneys at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
“Non-U.S. citizens who plan and/or commit mass murder are more than criminal suspects,” Mr. Bush said. “They are unlawful combatants who seek to destroy our country and our way of life.
“And if I determine that it is in the national security interests of our great land to try by military commission those who make war on America, then we will do so,” he added, drawing applause from the federal prosecutors. “We will act with fairness, and we will deliver justice, which is far more than the terrorists ever grant to their innocent victims.”
Mr. Bush said there is nothing wrong with what he called “the option of trial by military commission for foreign terrorists who wage war against our country.” He suggested such trials would prevent foreign terrorists from twisting the U.S. Constitution to their defense.
“We’re an open society, but we’re at war,” the president said. “The enemy has declared war on us.
“And we must not let foreign enemies use the forms of liberty to destroy liberty itself,” he added. “Foreign terrorists and agents must never again be allowed to use our freedoms against us.”
Although Mr. Bush is coming under increasing fire from civil liberties groups and the press for his creation of military tribunals, the public overwhelmingly supports the idea. A poll this week by National Public Radio showed 64 percent of Americans favor the tribunals, or about 21/2 times the 26 percent who oppose them.
A second poll, released yesterday by ABC News, showed an identical level of support 64 percent for the tribunals. A third poll, by Gallup and USA Today, showed the president’s job approval ratings at 87 percent, almost as high as the all-time record of 90 percent he established shortly after the September 11 terrorist strikes.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the polls prove that public support for the president’s war against terrorism, including the military tribunals, is broad and deep. He pointed out that most Democrats in Congress balked Wednesday when one of their own, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, proposed an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would block funding of the tribunals.
“He actually filed his amendment with the House Rules Committee to put it to a vote,” Mr. Fleischer told reporters yesterday. “The Democrats asked him not to put it to a vote because they knew that if it was put to a vote it would lose in an overwhelming bipartisan display.
“So I submit to you that if there was such widespread opposition to what the president was doing you might see a test vote in the Congress,” he added. “There’s a reason that no test votes have been taken: It’s because a bipartisan majority of the Congress supports what the president has done; so, too, the American people.”
Kucinich spokeswoman Kathie Scarrah said, “The amendment was a vehicle to raise the profile of the issue inside the House of Representatives. He wants to thank Mr. Fleischer for his help in that regard.”
The Justice Department’s initiative provides help to those persons who supply information but are ineligible for S visas in any efforts they might make to defer any action against them. Such a deferment would allow a person to reside legally within the United States while his case was being decided. That person may then apply for work authorization, permanent residence status and eventually citizenship under normal immigration rules.
“We need continued help from every responsible individual within our nation’s borders,” Mr. Ashcroft said. “People who have information about terrorist activity must make a choice: either they will come forward to save American lives or they will remain silent against evil.
“The people who have the courage to make the right choice deserve to be welcomed as guests in our country and one day to become fellow citizens,” he said.
“As the president has emphasized, the war against terrorism must be waged by all,” he said in a memo outlining the plan to Justice Department, FBI, and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, along with the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys. “Terrorism threatens global security and safety, and freedom-loving people around the world must join in the common effort to defeat this modern threat to humanity.”