Washington — Seeking to gain improved cooperation, the Justice Department on Thursday offered foreigners a fast track to American citizenship if they give investigators useful information about terrorists.
Attorney General John Ashcroft offered the carrot while defending the administration's stick in the domestic war on terrorism its decision to allow the creation of secretive military courts to try accused terrorists.
Meanwhile, a federal magistrate in suburban Alexandria, Va., ordered an Indonesian man accused of document fraud held without bail because prosecutors showed he had close ties to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Ashcroft said the government will provide visa assistance and a "pathway to citizenship" for immigrants including "responsible" but illegal aliens who aid the war on terrorism.
The "responsible cooperators program" would defer deportation indefinitely for illegal aliens who qualify, and allow those with visa problems to enter the country.
Foreigners who "provide information that is reliable and useful in the apprehension of terrorists or prevention of acts of terrorism" would be eligible for the program, Ashcroft said in a memo to the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Justice Department's criminal division.
It would be up to federal prosecutors to decide whether the information provided meets the standard, Justice Department officials said.
Ashcroft made the rounds of morning talk shows to defend the extraordinary military tribunals being added to the government's legal arsenal a tactic some in Congress say President Bush may not have the authority to use.
The attorney general said public trials for terrorists could spill intelligence secrets, give them a propaganda tool and make the location of proceedings subject to terrorist attack.
"We're not going to hand that to the enemy," he said.
In Alexandria, Va., U.S. Magistrate Theresa Carroll Buchanan on Thursday ordered Indonesian Agus Budiman, 31, held without bail after an FBI agent testified Budiman knew some of the hijackers, including suspected ringleader Mohammed Atta.
"I cannot ignore the defendant's close ties to the hijackers of Sept. 11," Buchanan said, adding the ties "lift the events out of the realm of the ordinary" fraud case.
FBI agent Jesus Gomez testified Budiman knew several of the hijackers from their time in Hamburg, Germany, and that he confided to investigators that Atta blamed the United States for the wars of the world.
Gomez testified hijacker Ziad Samir Jarrah used Budiman's name to get into the United States, and Ramsi Binalshibh, a Muslim cleric from Hamburg, also twice used Budiman's name to unsuccessfully get into the country. The FBI believes Binalshibh was supposed to be the 20th hijacker on Sept. 11.
"The ties are very extensive. They're suspicious and they're troubling," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Mellin said in arguing that Budiman be held. But Mellin conceded, "We don't know what is the reason behind those ties."
Budiman's attorney, Mark Thrash, dismissed the government's case as "smoke and mirrors" and said that "the only thing Mr. Budiman did wrong is put this (fake) address on a form."
Budiman is charged with helping another man, Mohammad Bin Nasser Belfas, obtain a false Virginia driver's license.
Regarding the agent's testimony about Atta's hatred for the United States, Thrash said, "There was never any testimony that Mr. Budiman agreed with that."
On Wednesday, senators told the government's top terrorism prosecutor that they should have been consulted before the Bush administration decided to allow the Pentagon to create the military courts.
But Michael Chertoff, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's criminal division, said Bush has the authority to create the tribunals without Congress' approval. And he defended get-tough tactics as necessary to stop "sleeper" terrorists secretly waiting to strike Americans.
"We face an extraordinary threat to our national security and physical safety of the American people of a character that, at least in my lifetime, we have never faced," Chertoff told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.
Republican and Democratic committee members insisted they should not have been left out of the loop about the tribunals, which could afford less protections for defendants than civilian courts.
Chertoff also faced pressure on other tactics, such as the secret detentions of hundreds of suspects and the monitoring of jailhouse conversations between lawyers and clients. He said officials feared quiet terrorist cells may still be in operation.
The committee's Democratic chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said he was concerned some measures may infringe on civil liberties or undercut American justice.