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Ashcroft defends use of military tribunals to try terrorists

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft Tuesday strongly defended President Bush's decision to allow secret military tribunals to try any suspected non-U.S. terrorist who might be captured during the war on terrorism.

"Can you imagine the spectacle of capturing a soldier-terrorist in Afghanistan, bringing them back with a publicly paid, high profile, flamboyant defense lawyer on television, making it the Osama network, sending signals to the terrorist around the country?" Ashcroft said in an interview with CNN. "That's not really what our judicial system is about."

Last week, Bush signed a military order giving him the option of trying non-U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism before a special military commission as opposed to trying them in open, civilian courts.

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"War criminals have always been tried in military courts," Ashcroft said. The attorney general said trying terrorists in civilian courts could put jurors and courthouses at risk, and could inadvertently reveal defense secrets.

Ashcroft also rejected criticism that new surveillance and detention powers granted to federal law enforcement authorities erode civil liberties, saying that although new tools are necessary in the war on terrorism, they would still fall within the parameters of the Constitution.

"We simply are not going to tolerate terrorists coming to this country to kill thousands of innocent Americans," Ashcroft said.

Anthrax probe points to one suspect, Ashcroft says

The military tribunal decision was strongly criticized Tuesday by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, a daughter of former Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Cuomo's criticism came hours before Ashcroft joined President Bush at a ceremony naming the Justice Department headquarters for RFK.

As for the status of the investigation into a series of anthrax-laced letters, Ashcroft said "a number of tips" have come in since the FBI released its profile of the likely culprit.

"It appears that these all came from the same individual," he said of the letters. Ashcroft said he could not say with "finality" that the letters were the work of a domestic terrorist, but "the kind of tips we're getting would lead us in that direction."

On Monday, Health and Human Service Secretary Tommy Thompson said the letters were probably not the work of al Qaeda -- the network headed by suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden -- but were the product of a homegrown terrorist.



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