WASHINGTON—In his first appearance before Congress to defend the Bush administration's anti-terrorism tactics, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft lashed out Thursday at his harsher critics, accusing them of spreading fear, dividing the country and helping the enemy.
"We need honest, reasoned debate, not fear-mongering," Ashcroft said during a four-hour hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "To those who would pit Americans against immigrants and citizens against non-citizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve."
Democrats did not hesitate to hit back, criticizing an array of administration actions. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) noted that President Bush's proposed military tribunals could in theory sentence someone to death by a mere 2-1 vote. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) asked Ashcroft to guarantee that everyone now in custody in connection with the terror investigation would get a lawyer, and Ashcroft said he could not.
But Ashcroft said some of his detractors were mangling the truth. "Their bold declarations of so-called fact have quickly dissolved, upon inspection, into vague conjecture," he said. "Charges of kangaroo courts and shredding the Constitution give new meaning to the term `the fog of war.'"
The clash was long anticipated. The Justice Department began implementing a series of hard-hitting legal procedures shortly after the terrorist hijackings of Sept. 11, prompting immediate protest from civil libertarians.
Far from backing down, Ashcroft waved a copy of what he said was an Al Qaeda manual, bound in purple and encased in a plastic bag, to dramatize the threat facing the country.
Ashcroft's accusations prompted Feingold, who has questioned the administration's tactics, to ask whether the attorney general was challenging the committee's right to scrutinize his actions. Ashcroft denied any such meaning.
Other administration critics also reacted forcefully. "Atty. Gen. Ashcroft's attempts to smear and silence his critics demean his office," Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way, said after the hearing. "Smothering dissent is not the American way."
Ashcroft may have been emboldened by recent opinion polls indicating strong support for President Bush and the war on terrorism. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, at times seemed defensive, saying, "Whether the administration's recent unilateral actions are popular or unpopular at the moment, that's not the issue."
Issue of gun-purchase data
Some of the fiercer exchanges focused on revelations that the Justice Department had turned down a request from the FBI to check gun-purchasing records. FBI agents wanted to determine whether any of those arrested as part of the terrorism investigation had bought guns.
Ashcroft told the senators that the law forbids using the records on background checks for this purpose. But Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) questioned that stance in light of the administration's oft-repeated statement that it is using any available weapon to fight terror.
"Why is it when it gets to the 2nd Amendment--when it gets to this question of purchasing firearms, particularly by illegal immigrants who are here in the United States and have connections with terrorism--that there is such a blind eye from the Department of Justice?" Durbin asked.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted that the Bush team asked Congress to make the law tougher on terrorism in other areas. But when it came to gun rights, Schumer said, "this administration becomes weak as a wet noodle."
Ashcroft, an avid supporter of gun owners' rights, said he would consider any bill lawmakers proposed. "If Congress passes a law to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists and others who should not have guns, I will fight to sustain it and I will enforce it," Ashcroft said.
Bush's order paving the way for the creation of military tribunals is among the administration's most controversial actions, but by the time of the hearing the issue appeared somewhat defused. The Bush administration has promised in recent days to soften the tribunals' procedures, while many Democrats have conceded the tribunals are constitutional.
Nonetheless, Democrats voiced concern about whether the tribunals, which would have jurisdiction only over non-U.S. citizens, would dispense with many basic rights.
"History has shown that military commissions have been effective, but they've also been abused," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). "This time, we want to get it right."
North Carolina's Edwards, a former trial lawyer, suggested that Bush's order, if read literally, would allow the president or the attorney general to overrule an acquittal and declare someone guilty, though Ashcroft said that was not the intent.