Washington Attorney General John Ashcroft, defending administration measures to counteract terrorism, declared Thursday the nation must not let down its guard against threats that present "a daily chronicle of the hatred of Americans by fanatics."
Holding aloft an al-Qaida terrorism manual, Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee: "We are at war with an enemy that abuses individual rights as it abuses jetliners. ... Defending our nation and its citizens against terrorist attacks is now our first law enforcement priority."
Ashcroft's appearance came in an atmosphere of mounting criticism by Senate Democrats that the Justice Department moved too far, too quickly, to implement a host of stern investigative measures in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Ashcroft chided critics of the various measures, including the government's detention and questioning of hundreds of Middle Eastern men.
He said critics are uninformed. "Charges of kangaroo courts and shredding the Constitution give new meaning to the term 'the fog of war,"' he said.
"Each action taken by the Department of Justice as well as the war crimes commission ... is carefully drawn to cover a narrow class of individuals terrorists," Ashcroft declared.
On the 87th day since the attack, Ashcroft told lawmakers he received chilling daily intelligence reports.
"My day begins with a review of the threats to Americans and American interests," Ashcroft said. "If ever there were proof of evil in the world it is in these reports.
"They are a chilling daily chronicle of the hatred of Americans by fanatics, who seek to extinguish freedom, enslave women, corrupt education, and to kill Americans wherever and whenever they can."
The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the government needs a good reason to snoop into bank records, tax returns and e-mails.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, countered: "Let's keep our focus on where it matters protecting U.S. citizens."
Leahy said the president was taking a risk by acting without Congress to establish a tribunal system that might not survive Supreme Court scrutiny.
"It is a calculated risk that the Supreme Court will uphold something it has not upheld before," Leahy said.
Ashcroft replied that Bush has an "inherent authority and power" to prosecute war crimes. He would not specify whether terrorists trying to enter the United States would be covered by the tribunals, only promising "full and fair proceedings."
"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, 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.
Ashcroft also told the committee:
He could not comment on any legal actions to be taken against John Walker, an American caught with Taliban fighters. But he warned, "History has not looked kindly upon those who have forsaken their countries to go and fight against their countries."
Only individuals accused of war crimes would be subject to military tribunals, not those charged with violating U.S. criminal laws.
Some individuals will be detained pending the final outcome of charges in cases involving national security.
Ashcroft was questioned by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., about why the Justice Department denied the FBI access to the National Instant Check System records to determine whether any of the detainees had bought guns.
"The only permissible use for the national check system is to audit the maintenance of that system, and the Department of Justice is committed to following the law in that respect," he replied. "When the request first came, obviously the instinct of the FBI was to use the information to see. When they were advised by those who monitor whether or not we follow the congressional direction, we stopped, and I believe we did the right thing."
When it comes to listening in on inmates' conversations with their lawyers, Ashcroft said the Justice Department tells all parties that their conversations will be monitored beforehand, and said he is confident that all precautions required by the courts are being taken.
But federal officials are not willing "to allow individuals to continue terrorist activities or other acts that would harm the American public by using their lawyers and their conversations to continue or to extend acts of terrorism or violence against the American people," Ashcroft said.
Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., voiced concern about the legal rights of detainees. "Will you commit to this committee today that the Department of Justice will take immediate steps to make sure that every detainee is aware of his right to counsel?" he asked Ashcroft.
Said Ashcroft: "I believe there are rights, and I will take steps to make sure every detainee knows we believe they have a right to counsel. I do not intend to hold individuals without access to counsel. ... I don't believe that we are."