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Ashcroft Under Fire for U.S. Anti-Terrorism Tactics

By Reuters, December 4, 2001


WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- John Ashcroft, who survived a bitter confirmation battle to become U.S. attorney general, has come under increasing fire from lawmakers and civil liberties groups for anti-terrorism tactics adopted since Sept. 11.

Ashcroft, facing a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday in which he will be questioned about measures critics say undermine basic civil liberties, has been prosecuting the Bush administration's war on terrorism in the United States.

Since the Sept. 11 hijacked plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Ashcroft has helped push legislation through Congress providing broad new powers to wiretap phones, monitor Internet traffic and apprehend suspects.

Criticism escalated when the administration followed up on the legislation, without consulting Congress, by proposing the creation of military tribunals to try foreigners suspected of terrorism.

Ashcroft, 59, also ordered the listening in on some conversations between inmates and their lawyers, and the questioning of 5,000 foreign men, mostly from Middle Eastern countries, a move he denied was a form of racial profiling.

Ashcroft, the nation's top law officer, has staunchly defended the tactics as necessary to prevent another terrorist attack on the United States.


``Our efforts have been deliberate, they've been coordinated, they've been carefully crafted to not only protect America but to respect the Constitution and the rights enshrined therein,'' he told federal prosecutors on Friday.

``Still, there have been a few voices who have criticized. Some have sought to condemn us with faulty facts or without facts at all. Others have simply rushed to judgement, almost eagerly assuming the worst of their government before they've had a chance to understand it at its best,'' Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft, a conservative Republican, has compared the aggressive arrest and detention tactics used against terrorists to measures adopted by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, a Democrat, in the early 1960s in cracking down on the Mafia.

More than 600 people remained in custody on federal criminal or immigration charges brought after Sept. 11, Ashcroft said last week. None of those being held has been publicly charged with directly taking part in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have been upset the administration failed to consult with them before proposing the military tribunals and taking the other steps.

Ashcroft has also come under criticism from a wide range of civil liberties groups.


Ralph Neas, president of the liberal group People For the American Way, said the measures posed ``serious threats to the Constitution and our democratic principles. These orders endanger the right to legal counsel, the right to due process and other constitutional freedoms.''

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights said Ashcroft at the hearing should declare publicly and specifically how the U.S. government will inform the American people and the world about any military trials.

It said Ashcroft should answer whether the Bush administration will disclose the location and presiding official of any tribunal, the defendants, the charges, the verdict and the sentences.

Recent opinion polls show the majority of Americans endorse the steps taken by the administration to investigate and prosecute suspected terrorists.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll last week showed nearly 60 percent of those surveyed favored military tribunals. A Gallup poll found one in four Americans thought President Bush and Ashcroft had not gone far enough in restricting civil liberties to fight terrorism and 60 percent said actions so far were about right.

Ashcroft, who previously had been a governor and U.S. senator from Missouri, won confirmation by the Senate after a bruising battle early this year. Months earlier, he had lost his Senate re-election bid in Missouri to the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash three weeks before the November 2000 election.

Of all Bush's Cabinet appointees, Ashcroft encountered the most opposition and had the most votes against him. He was confirmed by a 58-42 vote.

Some Democratic senators charged he was racially insensitive. Ashcroft vowed to enforce vigorously the civil rights laws, along with laws he has personally opposed -- such as abortion rights, gay rights and gun control.

© 2001 Reuters
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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