Washington Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft resolutely defended the Justice Department's aggressive anti-terrorism tactics Thursday, telling a Senate committee the measures are necessary to prevent future attacks and suggesting that criticism of them aids the terrorist cause.
Peppered by congressional skepticism but bolstered by overwhelming public support in recent weeks, Ashcroft appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to champion Bush administration strategies since the Sept. 11 attacks. The methods include the detention of hundreds of foreign nationals and plans to try alleged terrorists and their accomplices before military tribunals.
The attorney general accused unidentified critics of exaggerating or mischaracterizing administration policies, saying the Justice Department "has sought to prevent terrorism with reason, careful balance and excruciating attention to detail."
"We need honest, reasoned debate, not fear mongering," Ashcroft said. "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's bold language prompted protest from interest groups, who, along with some in Congress, have criticized government tactics as infringements of civil liberties. But Judiciary Committee members were circumspect in comparison, confining most of their questions to specific policy issues and appearing reticent to pick a public fight with an attorney general leading an enormously popular anti-terror campaign.
The most spirited debate centered not on terrorism 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 government's post-Sept. 11 investigation had sought to purchase guns in the United States.