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Bush Defends War Tribunals as Necessary

Terrorism: Military trials and other tough tactics can protect freedoms, the president says. Ashcroft unveils plan to help informers with their residency status.


WASHINGTON — President Bush on Thursday defended his controversial plans to let military tribunals try suspected terrorists and let law enforcement officials question thousands of foreigners in the United States, characterizing them as necessary steps during war.

Each is a centerpiece of the government's attack on terrorism, and each has drawn criticism--from the left and the right--as a violation of civil liberties.

Presenting his first detailed defense of the measures, Bush said at an annual meeting of U.S. attorneys: "We're an open society. But we're at war.

"We must not let foreign enemies use the forums of liberty to destroy liberty itself. Foreign terrorists and agents must never again be allowed to use our freedoms against us."

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, meanwhile, announced a plan to let foreigners extend their stays in the United States--and possibly ease their way toward U.S. citizenship--if they provide investigators with "critical and reliable" information about terrorists or planned terrorist attacks.

He outlined the Responsible Cooperators Program during appearances on morning television shows as part of an administration effort to counter growing criticism of both the proposal to use the military tribunals and the plan for interviewing foreigners.

Under that plan, law enforcement agencies across the country are seeking to interview 5,000 men, largely within Arab American and Islamic communities, who have entered the country in the last two years.

In Michigan, federal authorities are "inviting" the men to call to schedule interviews, trying to lend a less coercive air to the meetings.

Bush, in his speech, declared that, as authorities move ahead with investigations, laws will be "enforced fairly."

He said the interview program will be conducted "on a voluntary basis."

He added: "We're saying, 'Welcome to America. You have come to our country; why don't you help make us safe? Why don't you share information with us? Why don't you help us protect innocent people, women and children and men? Why don't you help us value life? As you enjoy the freedoms of our country, help us protect those freedoms.' "

Ashcroft presented his new initiative to encourage would-be citizens to produce information to investigators about terrorism in part as a response to offers of help from the Muslim community.

Under it, the Justice Department would reward noncitizens who offer information that helps the FBI apprehend terrorists or thwart attacks by assisting them in obtaining what are known as S visas.

Holders of these visas may remain in the United States for up to three years.

During that period, Ashcroft said, they may apply to become permanent residents and ultimately citizens.

Scores of Informers Over Last Three Years

Noncitizens who provide useful and reliable information but are not eligible for S visas would receive assistance in seeking either "parole" or "deferred action" status, which allows them to reside legally within the United States.

They may then apply for permission to seek jobs, permanent residence and eventual citizenship.

The initiative builds on a program in which 177 people and 172 of their family members were granted the visas during the last three years.

They often gained the documents because information they provided to authorities about crime or terrorism endangered their lives, Justice Department officials said.

A top official of the American Civil Liberties Union quickly criticized Ashcroft's initiative, saying it could still leave immigrants who volunteer information subject to arrest.

"The attorney general's statement is misleading immigrants into thinking they will not be arrested when in fact [an] INS memo states that visa violators will be arrested and jailed," said Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.

Bush, in his remarks to the U.S. attorneys, used forceful language to defend the possible use of military tribunals to try foreigners suspected of terrorism, such as Osama bin Laden.

Polls Show Public Supports Tribunal Plan

This system would permit convictions by less-than-unanimous military panels.

"Non-U.S. citizens who plan and/or commit mass murder are more than criminal suspects. They are unlawful combatants who seek to destroy our country and our way of life," he said.

"And if I determine that it is in the national security interest of our great land to try by military commission those who make war on America, then we will do so," the president said to sustained applause from the prosecutors.

The president's military tribunal plan, announced Nov. 13, has drawn support in U.S. opinion polls. On Thursday, a poll by the Washington Post and ABC News found that 59% of those surveyed thought non-U.S. citizens charged with terrorism should be tried by military panels, rather than in the U.S. court system.

Seven in 10 said the government was doing enough to protect the civil rights of suspected terrorists.

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