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Ashcroft: Critics of new terror measures undermine effort

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft displays what he called a terror manual from the al Qadea network  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft lashed out Thursday at critics of the administration's response to terrorism, saying questions about whether its actions undermine the Constitution only serve to help terrorists.

"To those who pit Americans against immigrants, citizens against non-citizens, 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," Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.

"Our efforts have been crafted carefully to avoid infringing on constitutional rights, while saving American lives."

Ashcroft flatly rejected criticism of the administration's policies, including President Bush's decision to allow the use of military tribunals to try non-U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism, the detention of hundreds of immigrants in connection with the terrorism probe, the "voluntary" questioning of thousands of men from mostly Middle Eastern countries, and eavesdropping between attorneys and their clients in terrorism cases.

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Each of those initiatives, he said, balance constitutional rights against the threat of terrorism.

"Charges of kangaroo courts and shredding the Constitution give new meaning to the term 'fog of war,'" Ashcroft said.

But Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the chairman of the committee, opened the hearing with some implied criticism of the administration, insisting "tremendous government power" had to be balanced against civil liberties.

"The need for congressional oversight is not -- as some mistakenly describe it -- to protect terrorists," Leahy said. "It is to protect Americans and protect our American freedoms that you and everyone in this room cherish so much. And every single American has a stake in protecting our freedoms."

Senators, mostly Democrats but some Republicans, pressed Ashcroft to outline what kind of guidelines would apply to the military tribunals. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, conceded the tribunals could be effective, but said they had "enormous potential for abuse" unless they were conducted with a clear set of rules and limits.

The specific guidelines for the tribunals, Ashcroft said, would be drafted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but he said Bush's order had been for "full and fair proceedings." Those tribunals, however, could be held in secret when the president determined it was in the interest of "national security" to do so, Ashcroft said.

The attorney general said his day begins with a rundown of terrorist threats from the around the world, describing it as "a chilling daily chronicle of the hatred of Americans by fanatics."

To buttress that point, Ashcroft said the Justice Department will post on its Web site "several lessons" from a terrorist manual "so that Americans can know about the enemy."

Ashcroft said the manual came from the al Qaeda network and was first made public during the trial earlier this year of men who were later convicted of bombing two U.S. embassies in Africa.

The attorney general said the manual shows that terrorists are taught to manipulate the U.S. judicial system and news media to their advantage.

The administration had its defenders at the hearing. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the top Republican on the panel, suggested the criticism of the White House's policies was nothing more than a reflection of Senate egos.

"I would implore my colleagues, let's keep our focus where it matters: on protecting our citizens," Hatch said.


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