Ashcroft to appear before House panel on Patriot Act
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft will be called to testify in early June before a congressional committee examining how the Justice Department and FBI handled post-September 11 expanded powers to fight terrorism, sources said Wednesday.
Although it has not been announced, Justice Department officials and congressional sources said Ashcroft is tentatively set to appear June 5, before the House Judiciary Committee.
That committee Tuesday made public a recent 60-page Justice Department response to the lawmakers' concerns about the government's aggressive approach to searching for sleeper cells, suspicious fund-raising groups and others with suspected ties to terrorist organizations.
The report contains the first Justice Department acknowledgment that "fewer than 50" individuals have been detained in secrecy as material witnesses in connection with ongoing terrorism investigations. Unofficial newspaper estimates and interest group compilations had generally ranged from about two dozen to as many as 44. (Full story)
The report said fewer than 10 FBI field offices have been involved in investigations of individuals attending mosques, and in only one case was it not part of a specific criminal inquiry.
It also said about 50 libraries nationwide had been contacted by agents in terrorism investigations. Civil libertarians and library groups have raised concern about the potential for abuse if agents are able to pry into the reading lists of library users.
Although the attorney general has testified before the Senate and before spending committees, it will mark his first appearance before the House oversight panel since shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks that prompted congressional passage of the USA Patriot Act.
Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, has openly cautioned the Bush administration against seeking additional terrorist-hunting legislation until questions are resolved about the Justice Department's current use of key provisions of the Patriot Act.
Neither the Committee nor Justice Department indicated plans for additional legislative proposals.
Sensenbrenner responded cautiously to the Justice Department's explanation of how it is implementing the new law, saying Ashcroft's department "should be commended for the timing and thoroughness of these answers."
"There is a lot of new information in there, and members will no doubt want to follow up on it," said committee spokesman Jeff Lungren.
The ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, left no doubt about that in issuing a stinging criticism Wednesday.
"The most secretive administration in history continues to stonewall the American public with non-answers to vital questions about their most important civil liberties and personal freedoms," Conyers said.
"When Congress asks basic questions such as the mere number of times new surveillance powers have been used, it is either told there are no records or is told the number itself is classified," he added.
That prompted a strong Justice Department rebuke of Conyers in a written statement released Wednesday night by Barbara Comstock, the chief spokeswoman.
"Congressman Conyers made clear when he voted against the Patriot Act that he opposes the tools in the bill that we have demonstrated are greatly assisting us in tracking terrorists and disrupting their activities," said Comstock.
"The work of the department was clearly explained and outlined in the 60-plus pages of material that was provided to the Hill this week ... and dozens of hearings the department has participated in since September 11th," she said.
Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh, a key architect and defender of Justice Department policies, testified Tuesday before one of the panel's subcommittees, saying the information reflected restraint by investigators.
Dinh said the new law enforcement tools have been carefully targeted on cases of individuals where there is evidence of a crime.
The Justice Department has said the Patriot Act provisions that allow intelligence agents and prosecutors to share information have been a potent weapon in pursuing terrorists. Critics have complained the information sharing arrangements remove an important protection from prosecutorial abuse.
Assistant Attorney General Jamie Brown, who signed the report, said the Patriot Act has been crucial in preventing more terrorist attacks.
"The government's success in preventing another catastrophic attack on the American homeland in the 20 months since September 11, 2001 would have been much more difficult, if not impossibly so, without the USA Patriot Act," Brown said.