Attorney General John Ashcroft resolutely defended the Justice Department’s anti-terrorism tactics yesterday, telling a Senate committee the measures are necessary to prevent future attacks and suggesting that criticism of them aids the terrorist cause. Ashcroft defended Bush administration measures declaring the nation must not let down its guard against threats that present “a daily chronicle of the hatred of Americans by fanatics.”
He also defended the White House’s plans for secret military tribunals, insisting that he would not allow Congress to interfere with what he says is the executive’s right and duty to punish those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. He also acknowledged that the tribunals could be applied to any noncitizen.
Ashcroft has emerged as one of the key figures in the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. He pushed Congress to quickly approve legislation in October that expanded the ability of law enforcement to tap phones and conduct other forms of surveillance in pursuit of terrorists. He issued administrative rules to monitor privileged communications between attorneys and detainees; ordered prosecutors to seek interviews with more than 5,000 young, mostly Middle Eastern men visiting the United States; and presided over a broad national effort to detain hundreds of foreign nationals accused of immigration violations or minor crimes.
The most heated questioning yesterday centered not on military tribunals or mass detentions but on gun policy, as several Democratic senators criticized Ashcroft for preventing the FBI from checking whether some of the hundreds of people detained in the post-Sept. 11 investigation had sought to purchase guns in the United States.
Presenting what he said was a training manual for the Al Quaeda network, Ashcroft defended the Bush administration’s executive order establishing military tribunals and the detention of over 1000 men since September 11th. But Republican Senator Alan Spector urged Ashcroft to explain why he retains the power to indefinitely detain individuals, even though the Patriot Act stipulates that they may not be held for longer than 7 days.
Since Congress passed the Patriot Act, a few Senate leaders have criticized how the Attorney General has exercised his new authority. A series of Senate Judicial Oversight hearings are being held in Congress to address concerns about the secretive practices of the Department of Justice during its national probe into terrorism. Attorneys who represent a number of the detainees have confirmed suspicions by civil rights advocates that the Justice Department has abused its authority.
This week Senate Democrat Russ Feingold chaired the hearing of Ali al-Maqtari of Yemen, who was detained for two months for a visa violation. When al-Maqtari, a French teacher from Yemen, dropped his American wife off at her base in Kentucky on September 15th, he was pulled from their car and interrogated for 12 hours by the INS, the FBI and the Army.
The majority of detainees are from Muslim countries — up to 280 are believed to be from Pakistan and some 20 originate from India. Reports of harassment and intimidation on the part of prison wardens and fellow prisoners have added to the worry of the families of the men. In India, human rights groups have also criticized New Delhi for failing to come to the help of its citizens being held in the US and ignoring the plight of their families back home. Here are some of the voices of several family members of Indian detainees held in US.