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Too Tough?

June 5, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Attorney General Ashcroft defends his department and the Patriot Act. Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: John Ashcroft told members of the House Judiciary Committee this morning that the Justice Department has used expanded powers under the Patriot Act to fight terrorism successfully and has stayed within its limits.

JOHN ASHCROFT: The Patriot Act gave us the tools we needed to integrate our law enforcement and intelligence capabilities to win the war on terror. It allowed the Department of Justice to use the same tools from the criminal process on terrorists that we use to combat mobsters or drug dealers. We use these tools to gather intelligence and to prevent terrorists from unleashing more death and destruction within our country. We use these tools to connect the “dots.” We use these tools to save innocent lives.

KWAME HOLMAN: Congress passed the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11 attacks, giving federal authorities license to use wiretaps, computer eavesdropping and access to a wide range of financial and other personal information. But critics, some Democrats on the committee among them, have worried about the broad reach of the Patriot Act. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas:

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: My fear is that we may go to the point of changing the culture of America– the First Amendment protections, the Fourth Amendment protections.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ashcroft was prepared to answer the critics.

JOHN ASHCROFT: Despite the terrorist threat to America, there are some both in Congress and across the country who suggest that we should not have a U.S.A. Patriot Act: Others, who supported the act 20 months ago, now express doubts about the necessity of some of the Act’s components. Let me state my view as clearly as possible. Our ability to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil would be more difficult, if not impossible, without the Patriot Act. It has been the key weapon used across America in successful counterterrorist operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner asked the attorney general how the Justice Department’s approach to preventing terrorism changed after being granted broader power.

JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, let me just say that the entire effort of the Department of Justice has undergone a significant evolution from the idea that we somehow existed so that we could prosecute crimes that had been committed. And in that sense we waited until a crime was committed and then sought to prosecute it, to finding a way to prevent a crime from being committed. So we had to make a shift in the way we thought about things. So being reactive, waiting for a crime to be committed or waiting for there to be evidence of the commission of a crime, didn’t seem to us to be an appropriate way to protect the American people.

KWAME HOLMAN: But several committee Democrats focused on an internal Justice Department report released Tuesday that sharply criticized the treatment of several hundred illegal immigrants detained following Sept. 11. California’s Maxine Waters:

REP. MAXINE WATERS: Your testimony is that these 515 individuals were deported. So how are any of these individuals linked to the Sept. 11 investigation? To the contrary, isn’t it a fact that after you rounded up these individuals, you found that they had no involvement with terrorist activity but found a problem with the immigration status that provided you a simple legal basis to support them? When you answer that, please refer also to the inspector general’s report that talked about holding these people without charge for over a month in unconscionable conditions and them unable to contact an attorney or have a telephone call.

JOHN ASHCROFT: All of the individuals the subject of that report were in the U.S. illegally. The policy of my department for which we do not apologize was that until individuals apprehended who were here illegally who don’t have a right to bail or bond, who are here illegally before we would release them prior to their deportation, we wanted to have them cleared. We believe that’s the right policy in protecting the American people.

KWAME HOLMAN: California’s Howard Berman followed up.

REP. HOWARD BERMAN: It’s in this area of not restricted to suspected terrorists but anyone you happen to pick up, where you hold them, you don’t charge them, and you don’t seek their deportation, that some of us find that the collateral damage may be greater than it needs to be in the conduct of this way.

KWAME HOLMAN: But without being asked, Ashcroft addressed allegations that some of the detainees had been abused physically.

JOHN ASCHROFT: The inspector general indicated that there were some cases among the 700 plus individuals where there are accusations of abuse in the prison system. We do not stand for abuse, and we will investigate those cases. There are 18 cases that were brought to our attention, 14 of those cases have been investigated. We don’t tolerate violence in our prisons. Generally we don’t tolerate violence in holding individuals. That’s not a policy of the department.

KWAME HOLMAN: Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott then asked Ashcroft about so-called enemy combatants who may be held indefinitely and without access to an attorney.

REP. BOBBY SCOTT: Are there people who were arrested in the United States who are now being held without being able to talk to a lawyer?

JOHN ASCHROFT: People are being detained as enemy combatants, who are being detained and they are not being, and are not given access to lawyers.

REP. BOBBY SCOTT: Let me see how this works. Once they are designated as an enemy combatant and you have some factual basis to support that determination, how would someone who is factually innocent of the crime or of the charge, had nothing to do with it, false identification or bogus evidence, how would they ever get out of jail?

JOHN ASCHROFT: Individuals who are detained as enemy combatants are detained by, under the Article II powers of the president to defend the country, they are not detained in a criminal justice system, and they are detained pending the termination, during pendancy of the conflict, the habeas corpus action, which…

REP. BOBBY SCOTT: I’m running out of time. I think I understand your question to be that they have to wait till the end of the conflict and then they might get out at that time, even though they were factually innocent.

KWAME HOLMAN: The attorney general acknowledged some practices under the Patriot Act may need improvement. Nonetheless, he said the Justice Department is likely to ask Congress for expanded antiterror powers including the ability to hold more suspects indefinitely and broader use of the death penalty.