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THE NATION

Senators Press Ashcroft to Justify Tactics in Terror War

Inquiry: 'The entire United States of America is a target,' the attorney general tells committee, defending White House's wide-ranging measures.

July 26, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft came under fire Thursday for his handling of the war on terrorism, as congressional critics charged that the Bush administration has gone too far in detaining immigrants, operating in secret and asking citizens to spy on their neighbors.

But Ashcroft defended the administration's wide-ranging law enforcement tactics and refused to ramp down anti-terrorist rhetoric that even some in the White House believe has become too shrill at times.

"I think the entire United States of America is a target for terrorist activities," Ashcroft told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee when asked about recent reports of terrorist "sleeper cells" operating in the Seattle area and other parts of the Northwest.

He said the threat of terrorists lurking within the United States "should be taken seriously" across the entire country, adding: "I would exempt no city." The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Ashcroft said, revealed a "presence" of terrorist supporters in San Diego, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Minneapolis and other cities that "might not appear [obvious] to those of us who would say, 'Now, where would you find a terrorist?' "

Ashcroft, a former senator, has faced stepped-up criticism in recent weeks for allegedly using the war on terrorism as his own political bully pulpit, and Senate Democrats at Thursday's hearing--joined by a few Republicans--sought to hold him accountable for the administration's missteps.

Sparking the most controversy was an element of President Bush's homeland security plan that would create a network of millions of American workers to report "suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity."

The program aims to enlist truck drivers and other workers whose jobs, the administration says, put them in a "unique position" to see suspicious activity.

The Justice Department is scheduled to begin its Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or Operation TIPS, in the fall, but the program has generated criticism from civil libertarians and other groups, and House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) proposed a measure last week that would ban its operation.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the program risks infringing on the privacy rights of all Americans.

"We can be vigilant, but we don't want to be vigilantes," Leahy told Ashcroft.

Leahy asked what the FBI would do, for instance, if a telephone repairman entered someone's home and spotted a photo of the World Trade Center, a book on Islamic terrorism or something else he considered suspicious. "If they call that in," Leahy said, "what happens?"

"Telephone repairmen have the opportunity, just like you have an opportunity, to call the FBI at any time," Ashcroft answered. "Any citizen has the opportunity to call the FBI."

Ashcroft, seeking to ease concerns among committee members, said he has received assurances from the administration that the tips generated by the program will be referred to appropriate law enforcement agencies but will not be stored in any database.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the committee, said he found that position "reassuring to me.... We don't want to see a 1984 Orwellian type situation here where neighbors are reporting on neighbors.

"We want to make sure that what this involves is legitimate reporting of real concerns that might involve some terrorist activity."

Senators also were concerned that the administration has refused to publicly spell out the standards it is using to detain immigrants or others with suspected terrorist ties, even if they are U.S. citizens--as in the case of accused "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla.

"There has to be a standard," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). "It's just not enough to say there is discretion, unfettered discretion, in the office of the attorney general."

The Justice Department "'goes awry" when it keeps such matters secret, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Whether the issue is creating military tribunals or locking "'enemy combatants" up in Cuba, "there are no guidelines, absolutely none. And everyone scratches their head and says, 'How far are they going to go?' " Schumer said.

Generating still more controversy at the hearing was a Justice Department decision last fall not to allow the FBI to run its database on gun purchase requests against a list of terrorism suspects to determine whether any of them had tried to buy firearms.

A report earlier this week by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, disclosed that a legal opinion last fall within Justice concluded that such a search was allowed. The opinion appeared to contradict Ashcroft's repeated assertions that the Justice Department believed such a search would have violated federal gun laws by using gun records for investigative purposes rather than general auditing.

Several senators suggested that Ashcroft, a staunch supporter of the 2nd Amendment who opposes the retention of federal gun purchase records for more than 24 hours, was letting his views on firearms get in the way of common-sense tactics against terrorists. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) became irate in questioning Ashcroft about the matter.

"In light of the legal opinion written by your own staff, I simply can't understand why the department decided to reject the FBI's request to investigate the gun purchases by suspected Sept. 11 terrorists," Kennedy said.

But Ashcroft stood his ground. He said the Justice Department opinion was "consistent with my testimony" concerning the issue in December, adding that "the only recognized use now of approved purchase records is limited to an auditing function."

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