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Stiffer Terror Laws Urged

Despite a rebuke of his department, Ashcroft calls for an increase in crimes punishable by life terms or death and new power to deny bail.

June 06, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A resolute Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft on Thursday urged Congress to expand the Justice Department's arsenal of weapons in the war against terrorism, just days after internal investigators issued a rebuke of the department's treatment of 762 people detained after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In his first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee since just after the bombings of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Ashcroft said he supported broadening an already favorite tool of prosecutors targeting people who provide "material support" to terrorists. He suggested increasing the number of federal terror-related crimes punishable by life sentences or the death penalty.

And he sought more leeway in denying bail to suspected terrorists, putting them in a category with more conventional criminal defendants like drug traffickers and gangsters.

"Our ability to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil would be more difficult, if not impossible, without the Patriot Act," Ashcroft said, referring to the post-Sept. 11 law that made it easier for federal agents and the intelligence community to combine forces in the terrorism war.

"Unfortunately, the law has several weaknesses, which terrorists could exploit, undermining our defenses."

The prospects for a legislative sequel to the act, which the Justice Department has been considering for months, has been dreaded by immigrant and civil rights groups, who view the original as running roughshod over the Constitution. They fear that more abuses may be on the way.

Even some Republican committee members who showered the attorney general with praise for keeping the nation safe from another devastating attack indicated their support has limits. Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said at the hearing that his support for the Patriot law was "neither perpetual or unconditional."

A Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration hadn't decided whether to support additional legislation in the current session; the official said Ashcroft was offering up opportunities for Congress to "clarify the law" or make "common sense updates."

Under current law, for instance, terrorists who kill someone while sabotaging nuclear facilities or military installations cannot receive the death penalty, the official said.

In sometimes emotional testimony laced with stories of the families of the victims of 9/11 or of the war in Iraq, Ashcroft declared that "Al Qaeda is diminished but not destroyed. Defeat after defeat has made them desperate to strike again." He urged the country to be "vigilant" and "unrelenting."

He also disclosed some progress: more than 15 criminal plea violations since Sept. 11, 2001, many under court seal, in which defendants were actively cooperating with authorities.

Without providing details, he said one individual has identified U.S. locations being scouted or cased for potential attacks by Al Qaeda, and that another had provided intelligence on weapons stored in the United States.

During the 4 1/2-hour hearing, Ashcroft also was peppered with questions as varied as the ability of federal agents to access library records in the name of national security and the whereabouts of immigrants in Texas who disappeared in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The testimony followed a sometimes withering report released Monday by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General that found "significant problems" in how law enforcement officials treated some of the 762 people detained after the Sept. 11 attacks on visa and other immigration violations. Nearly all were deported, but only a few were charged with crimes.

The 198-page report found lengthy delays in processing suspected terrorists; the average detention was 80 days, and some dragged on for six months. Only about 60% were charged within an immigration goal of 72 hours. Often, people were denied access to lawyers, limited in their ability to communicate with friends and outsiders.

"Some of us find that the collateral damage [from detaining people] may be greater than it has to be," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), who said he found the department's response to the report to be "defensive" and "troubling."

"Surely, no modern prosecutor in modern history has been granted as much power as you now hold," said Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.). "You said in your statement we must not forget that our enemies are ruthless fanatics.... But the solution is not for us to become zealots ourselves."

But Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.), a committee member, praised Ashcroft.

"I believe that the Office of Inspector General report does a grave disservice to yourself and all the other dedicated Justice Department employees who worked tirelessly to protect us from another devastating terrorist attack in the days immediately following 9/11," Hostettler told the attorney general.

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