WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 — In forceful and unyielding testimony, Attorney General
John Ashcroft today defended the administration's array of antiterrorism
proposals and accused some of the program's critics of aiding terrorists
by providing "ammunition to America's enemies."
Emboldened by public opinion surveys showing that Americans overwhelmingly support the administration's initiatives against terrorism, Mr. Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists."
He said that people who were hoping that the kind of attacks that occurred on Sept. 11 would not be repeated "were living in a dream world." Holding up what he said was a training manual for Al Qaeda, Mr. Ashcroft said that "terrorists are taught how to use America's freedoms as a weapon against us."
The Democratic critics on the committee were careful in their questioning and most laced their remarks with some support for the administration, even for the proposal thought to be the most controversial, the establishment of military tribunals to try terrorists. But they also sought to show the potential for abuse raised by the broad scope of the presidential order on tribunals and called for more Congressional involvement in drafting such initiatives.
Senator Russell D. Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who has been the Senate's most resolute critic of the administration's antiterror proposals, quickly took on Mr. Ashcroft over his testimony that criticism of the administration "gives ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends." He asked the attorney general if the series of Senate hearings culminating in today's session was somehow aiding the enemy.
Mr. Ashcroft blandly replied that he welcomed the Senate hearings as proper oversight. "We need reasoned discourse as opposed to fear- mongering," he said. "This is the place where reasoning and discourse take place."
Some of the sharpest questioning came over the Justice Department's refusal to provide the F.B.I. with information about whether any of the more than 1,200 people who have been detained in the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks had sought to purchase guns. The New York Times reported today that some F.B.I. and other law enforcement officials were frustrated by the Justice Department's decision to block its investigators from examining records of gun buyers' background checks to determine whether any of the detainees had purchased guns.
"Why is the department handcuffing the F.B.I. in its efforts to investigate gun purchases by suspected terrorists?" asked Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Mr. Ashcroft said that he believed the law that created the national directory of gun purchase applications could not be used for anything other than an audit of the system.
"I believe we did the right thing in observing what the law of the United States compels us to observe," he said.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, suggested that Mr. Ashcroft's reasoning was incorrect and the decision reflected the administration's opposition to gun control. "You're looking for new tools in every direction and I support most of those," Mr. Schumer said. "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."
Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said that Mr. Ashcroft was exquisitely sensitive to the Second Amendment's right to bear arms while he was arguing for flexibility on other constitutional guarantees. Mr. Kennedy later said that it appeared that the attorney general was "putting the interests of the gun lobby above above the nation's public safety in the battle against terrorism."
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the committee, aimed his criticism largely at the administration's unwillingness to consult with Congress on several of its initiatives including the military tribunals, the order allowing authorities to monitor conversations between some terrorist suspects in jail and their lawyers and the planned questioning of some 5,000 men, mostly from the Middle East, now living in this country.
"The division of power and the checks and balances built into our system help sustain and earn the public's confidence in the actions taken by the government," Mr. Leahy said, pleading for a more active role for Congress. He said that it was always difficult to raise questions about the behavior of the executive branch in wartime. "But whether the administration's recent actions are popular or unpopular at the moment — well, that's not the issue."
Mr. Leahy said Congressional oversight was not "as some have mistakenly described it, to protect terrorists. "It is to protect ourselves as Americans and protect our American freedoms."
Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the committee, said in response that there was sometimes too much Congressional oversight. He dismissed complaints that the Congress had not been consulted, saying: "It's not that we don't have a solemn obligation to assess the department's actions to ensure that they are both effective and sufficiently protective of our civil liberties. But do any members of this committee really believe that in this time of crisis, the American people, those who live outside the capital beltway, really care whether the president, the secretary of defense or the attorney general took the time to pick up the telephone and call us, prior to implementing these emergency measures?"
Mr. Leahy said that some of the concerns about the military tribunal order had been allayed by comments over the last several days by administration officials who suggested it would be used more narrowly than its scope would allow.
"This oversight process already has contributed to clarifying the president's order to establish military tribunals," he said.
"It now seems, following these hearings, that the president's language that ostensibly suspends the writ of habeas corpus and the language providing for secret trials and the expansive sweep of the president's November 13 order were not intended," Mr. Leahy said, referring to the recent comments, some made publicly by administration figures and others attributed anonymously to officials.
Nonetheless, he asked Mr. Ashcroft to consider a proposed bill he provided today that would incorporate some of those understandings in the law while giving Congress a role in the enterprise. Mr. Ashcroft looked back at Mr. Leahy but did not respond.
The only explicit assurance Mr. Ashcroft gave about the scope of the tribunals was that they would be used only for war crimes. In defending the tribunals, he said, "When we come to those responsible for this, say who are in Afghanistan, are we supposed to read them the Miranda rights, hire a flamboyant defense lawyer, bring them back to the United States to create a new cable network of Osama TV or what have you, provide a worldwide platform from which propaganda can be developed?"
Mr. Ashcroft also provided a warning for John Walker Lindh, the American captured in Afghanistan fighting alongside the Taliban, saying that while he would not be tried by a military tribunal, "I would say very clearly that history has not looked kindly upon those that have forsaken their countries to go and fight against their countries, especially with organizations that have totally disrespected the rights of individuals, that make women objects of scorn and derision, that outlaw education."
In his testimony, Mr. Ashcroft provided updated numbers for those who had been arrested in connection with the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks. He said that federal criminal charges had been brought against 110 people, 60 of whom are in jail. The department has named most of them. There are also 563 people detained on immigration charges; their names have not been released.
Mr. Ashcroft's comments describing criticism of the administration as aiding the enemy produced angry rebuttals from several civil liberties groups. In one example, Ralph G. Neas, the president of People for the American Way, said Mr. Ashcroft was trying to intimidate his critics into silence.
"Smothering dissent is not the American way," Mr. Neas said.