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Leahy: Ashcroft 'owes explanation' about tribunals, other measures

Sen. Patrick Leahy  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft "owes the country an explanation" of new law enforcement measures issued by the Bush administration for use in the battle against terrorism, the chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee said Sunday.

In an interview on NBC's "Meet The Press," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said he wants Ashcroft to appear before his committee for a lengthy hearing to discuss President Bush's order allowing the use of military tribunals to try suspected terrorists, a Justice Department's decision to monitor phone conversations between suspects and their lawyers and the questioning of thousands of people of Middle Eastern descent.

Leahy said these "ad hoc, outside-the-justice system methods" go well beyond the new anti-terrorism measures that Congress recently approved at Ashcroft's urging.

"It is bothering a great number of people, Republicans and Democrats. I think the attorney general owes the country -- certainly owes the Congress -- an explanation," he said.

Leahy and the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, sent Ashcroft a letter asking him to appear before the committee. Leahy said Sunday that Ashcroft is now scheduled to appear the week after next.

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The scope of the law enforcement battle against terrorism won't be the only topic being investigated on Capitol Hill in the near future. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday that the committee will hold hearings after the first of the year on what went wrong prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"We need to know what happened, how it happened and what we can do about it. And then, after that, I think we have to look forward," Shelby said on NBC. "I think it's going to take a restructuring, legislatively, of our entire intelligence ... communities."

In addition to the questioning of Ashcroft by Leahy's committee, the House Judiciary Committee is also considering holding hearings on Bush's authorization allowing the use of military tribunals.

The tribunals could be used to try non-citizens accused of terrorist acts, using rules set out by the secretary of defense. Individuals brought before the tribunals would have no right to a jury trial, no right to confront their accusers and no right to judicial review of trial procedures or sentences, which could include death.

Critics on both the left and right have assailed the order, saying it is too far-reaching and compromises American principles. But Bush has defended the plan, calling it "the absolute right thing to do" to maintain national security in the event that terrorists are captured alive and to spare criminal court jurors from potential harm.

But Leahy said the United States has "an enormous ability" to deal with terrorist suspects without resorting to such extraordinary means.

"We end up looking to the people we've asked to be our allies more and more like some of the things that we are fighting against," he said.


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