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Justice defends Ashcroft's congressional testimony

During his testimony, Ashcroft displayed what he called a terror manual from the al Qaeda network.
During his testimony, Ashcroft displayed what he called a terror manual from the al Qaeda network.  

By Terry Frieden

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department Friday defended Attorney General John Ashcroft's Senate testimony of a day earlier, insisting he referred only to "misstatements and the spread of misinformation" when he complained some critics of the administration "only aid terrorists" and "give ammunition to America's enemies."

Ashcroft's testimony was not aimed at stifling dissent, the Justice Department said in a written statement, reacting to sharp criticism from some editorial writers and Ashcroft critics.

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When he spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ashcroft said, "We need honest, reasoned debate, and not fear-mongering."

But those comments attracted less attention than the criticism he reserved for those he termed "some of our critics," said Mindy Tucker, the Justice Department's chief spokeswoman.

"To those who pit Americans against immigrants and citizens against noncitizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends," Ashcroft testified.

Political foes immediately attacked the testimony.

"Attorney General Ashcroft's attempts to smear and silence his critics demeans his office," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way. "We will not be silenced by Ashcroft's politics of intimidation."

The Washington Post's lead editorial blasted what it called "The Ashcroft Smear."

"Mr. Ashcroft may not like the criticism," the Post editorial said, "but his job is to defend dissent, not to use the moral authority of his office to discourage people from participating in one of the most fundamental obligations of citizenship."

The New York Times also weighed in. "The attorney general rashly claimed that some critics of the administration 'only aid terrorists' because they 'give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends,'" a Times editorial read." Mr. Ashcroft has that one completely backward."

In responding to the barrage of criticism, Tucker said Ashcroft was very clear that he wanted public debate about the actions of the Justice Department.

"What he does not think is helpful to the country is misstatements and the spread of misinformation about the actions of the Justice Department," Tucker said. "Anyone who reported this morning that he criticized anyone who opposed him was absolutely wrong and in doing so became a part of the exact problem he was describing."

Ashcroft apparently has some bipartisan support, too. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, ranking GOP member of the Judiciary Committee, was among Republicans who supported Ashcroft. So did Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who on the eve of the Senate hearing called for critics to "get off his back and let Attorney General Ashcroft do his job."

"These nit-pickers need to find another nit to pick," Miller said, responding to critics of proposed military tribunals for noncitizens.


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