Attorney General John Ashcroft told House members yesterday that the investigative and prosecutorial tools Congress approved after September 11 have helped thwart terrorist attacks but that more are needed.
In his first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee since winning passage 18 months ago of legislation giving federal investigators more powers, Mr. Ashcroft said he wants stiffer penalties for those who train with terrorists and a penalty of execution or life in prison for some terrorist acts not now eligible for those punishments.
Mr. Ashcroft said changes in the law will help prosecutors make deals and break other terrorist cells still operating in the United States. “When individuals realize that they face a long prison term, like those under the Patriot Act, they will try to cut their prison time by pleading guilty and cooperating with the government,” he said.
He told lawmakers the USA Patriot Act has worked.
“Our ability to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil would be more difficult, if not impossible, without the Patriot Act,” Mr. Ashcroft said. “It has been the key weapon used across America in successful counterterrorist operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists.”
He cited more than 15 plea bargains obtained since September 11 in which individuals agreed to cooperate with authorities and provide information about al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
One individual, he said, gave them information on where weapons were stored in the United States, while another identified al Qaeda targets.
But several members of the committee, including the Republican chairman, said they want to make sure the powers extended in the Patriot Act aren’t abused. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, the chairman, told Mr. Ashcroft that his support for the Patriot Act “is neither perpetual nor unconditional.”
Democrats on the committee went even further.
“This administration and the attorney general have taken a series of constitutionally dubious actions that place the executive branch in the untenable role of legislator, prosecutor, judge and jury,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat.
Democrats scolded Mr. Ashcroft for the way his department has detained immigrants during the investigation into September 11. They pointedly noted a Justice Department inspector general’s report released earlier this week that found many of the 762 detainees did not know why they were being held, were prevented from getting legal representation and were denied bond.
“When the inspector general provides a list of institutional failures at DOJ — prolonged detentions without charges, a policy you referred to as ‘hold until cleared,’ that led to average detentions of 80 days, but sometimes up to 200 days, a policy of obstruction of access to counsel, and an unwritten policy of denying bond for all aliens, a policy not restricted to suspected terrorists — some of that is very troubling,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat.
But Mr. Ashcroft said those held for a long period of time were all illegal aliens, and the choice was between paroling them and hoping they could be found again for deportation, or holding them pending the investigation, which is lawful for illegal aliens.
Given that 87 percent of those paroled pending deportation are not found — a figure as high as 94 percent for those from countries on the terrorist watch list — Mr. Ashcroft said he thought the government had no choice.
“We could not afford, in a setting where individuals were clearly associated with the investigation regarding terrorism, to let those individuals be back into the public so that 85 or more percent of them could merge back into the American culture,” he said.
However, he said, he was concerned about the charges of abuse included in the inspector general’s report.
“We do not stand for abuse. We will investigate those cases,” he said.
He said of the 18 reports of abuse in the IG investigation, 14 already have been cleared by the Civil Rights Division of the department.
Mr. Ashcroft rejected calls from some Democrats to appoint a special counsel to investigate the assertions of abuse.
In response to questions, he defended the president’s right to designate terrorists as “enemy combatants,” thus allowing them to be held indefinitely by the government without access to lawyers, as happens in wartime.
“The last time I looked at September 11th, an American street was a war zone. There was a street in Virginia that was a war zone,” he said.
The nation’s top law enforcement official also gave the panel an accounting of progress in the domestic war on terror.
He said hundreds of suspected terrorists have been identified and tracked in the United States; 18,000 subpoenas and search warrants have been issued; and 70 investigations into terror financing have led to more than $125 million in assets in more than 600 accounts worldwide being frozen.
“We are arresting and detaining potential terrorist threats,” he said. “More than a dozen members of the alleged terrorist cells in Buffalo, Seattle, Portland, Detroit were arrested, along with more than 100 other individuals who were convicted or pled guilty to federal crimes as a result of our post-September 11th terrorism investigation.”