Ashcroft says those questioning administration's anti-terror plan could be aiding enemy

Friday, December 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Attorney General John Ashcroft said trying Taliban members in open U.S. court could create ``Osama TV.'' He defended military tribunals for terrorists and suggested that anyone who criticized them was aiding the enemy.

But Democrats said Congress must have a say in creating tribunals to ensure that they're fair. At a Senate hearing Thursday, they gave Ashcroft their own proposal that would guarantee terrorists public trials and American-style innocent-until-proven-guilty rights.

They also questioned why Ashcroft would not allow the FBI to search gun purchase records to find out if those detained since Sept. 11 had bought weapons recently.

Ashcroft squared off with Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee while presenting his strongest defense yet of military trials and other anti-terrorism measures that the Bush administration, without congressional approval, has implemented in its post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism.

``Our legal powers are targeted at terrorists,'' he told the committee. ``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 said.

Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said Friday that Ashcroft wants public debate about the anti-terrorism measures but opposes the ``spread of misinformation'' about the policies. She said it is wrong to suggest that Ashcroft was critical of those who don't agree with him.

``Ashcroft was very clear he wanted public debate,'' said Tucker. ``Anyone who reported that he criticized anyone who opposed him was absolutely wrong and in doing so became part of the exact problem he was describing.''

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Friday that criticism can hurt the anti-terrorism fight if it undermines anti-terrorism legislation pushed by the administration.

``If that criticism was to lead to reversal of those actions, it would take one tool away from the government in its ability to fight terrorism,'' the spokesman said.

The attorney general held up a manual from the al-Qaida terrorist organization that he said was chock full of instructions on how to exploit America's freedoms and legal system to further the group's destructive goals.

``When we come upon those responsible in Afghanistan, are we supposed to read them Miranda rights, hire a flamboyant defense lawyer, bring them back to the United States to create a new cable network of Osama TV or what have you and provide a worldwide platform from which propaganda can be developed?'' he said.

His testimony brought fresh complaints from groups that oppose the administration's anti-terrorism tactics, which include plans to interview young men of Middle Eastern descent who are in America temporarily and eavesdrop on conversations between jailed terrorism suspects and their lawyers.

``The attorney general's implication is clear. If you do not march in lock step with the government, you are supporting the terrorists,'' the Center for National Security Studies said in a statement.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he didn't want to protect terrorists, only protect American freedoms that could be trampled on in the quest to find and punish those behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

``It's to make sure our government has good reason before snooping in our bank records, our tax returns, our e-mails,'' said Leahy, an outspoken critic of many of the new anti-terrorism measures.

``We can be both tough on terrorists and true to the Constitution. It is not an either or choice,'' he said.

Leahy's proposed legislation authorizing President Bush to establish military tribunals calls for open trials unless public safety or national security is threatened, right to counsel for defendants and the presumption of innocence.

Ashcroft said military tribunals will be fair but said it's up to the Defense Department to establish the rules. He said Congress should make their recommendations to the department.

On the gun purchase issue, Ashcroft said background check records may be used only be used for auditing purposes.

``Do you think it ought to be changed?'' asked Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

``I will be happy to consider any legislation that you would propose,'' Ashcroft replied.