Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft defended his aggressive and controversial counter-terrorism tactics in a Capitol Hill appearance Thursday but refused to support a change in law that would allow the FBI to determine if illegal immigrants and suspected terrorists have bought guns.
The government's detention of more than 1,200 people--most of them illegal immigrants--in the investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, its new power to monitor prison conversations between some detainees and their lawyers, and ongoing law enforcement interviews with 5,000 men--most of whom are Muslim--created few sparks during Ashcroft's highly anticipated four-hour appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Some senators voiced concerns over those measures and the Bush administration's plan to put terrorists on trial before military tribunals rather than in federal court. Ashcroft indirectly chastised them and other critics, saying "we are at war," and that such aggressive measures are necessary and constitutional.
But Ashcroft's repeated refusal to address the gun issue prompted unusually sharp rebukes from committee members, other lawmakers and gun control activists. Several senators accused the attorney general of hypocrisy.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Ashcroft's lack of support for such an obvious investigative tool has "handcuffed" the FBI in its efforts to see if any of the suspects in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon had purchased guns.
The New York Times reported Thursday that Ashcroft had refused to let the FBI check its database of background checks on gun buyers for clues to potential terrorist activity because gun buyers are protected by confidentiality laws.
The National Instant Check System, run whenever someone tries to legally buy a firearm, determines whether the prospective gun buyer has a criminal record or other disqualifying status, such as being an illegal immigrant or a foreigner on a non-immigrant visa.
Ashcroft said Thursday that the federal law that authorized the database did not permit use of the records, which are kept for 90 days, to investigate individuals.
As a Republican senator from Missouri, Ashcroft opposed required background checks on gun buyers. In 1998, he proposed an amendment to gun control legislation that would have destroyed such records immediately after authorities checked the purchaser's background. The amendment failed, but Ashcroft has remained a strong supporter of gun rights--so much so that the National Rifle Assn. recently put him on the cover of its magazine.
During Thursday's hearing, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he was "befuddled" by Ashcroft's refusal to support a change in the law in the midst of the administration's intensive efforts to strengthen counter-terrorism laws and policies.
"You're looking for new tools in every direction," Schumer told Ashcroft. "I support most of those. But when it comes to the area of even illegal immigrants getting guns and finding out if they did, this administration becomes as weak as a wet noodle. And the question is why, and how we can change that."
Schumer and other senators offered to propose a change in the law that would immediately allow the FBI to review such records. Each time, however, Ashcroft refused to support such a change.
After the hearing, a senior FBI official said in an interview that the bureau was in open disagreement with Ashcroft, who oversees the FBI as head of the Justice Department.
"We'd like to see it used as an investigative tool when circumstances dictate, such as when aliens' names come up in the course of an investigation," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It is in our interest to determine as much as we can about them."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D- Los Angeles) called Ashcroft's position "incredible."
"The American people have been asked repeatedly by the Justice Department to forgo civil liberties and privacy protection in the fight against terrorism," Waxman said at a news conference. "But the administration makes an exception when it comes to records of gun purchases."
Several gun control advocates also criticized Ashcroft.
"If the FBI came to us [with such a request], the answer would have been yes," said Mathew Nosanchuk, who helped draft the regulations regarding the database's use as a Justice Department lawyer in the Clinton administration.
Ashcroft has placed "the paranoid views of the gun lobby over the safety and security of all Americans," said Nosanchuk, now legislative counsel for the Violence Policy Center.
A National Rifle Assn. spokeswoman said her group would "support wholeheartedly" efforts to prevent terrorists from purchasing firearms. She would not comment on whether existing records should be opened.
Much of the hearing focused on Ashcroft's use of aggressive counter-terrorism measures. Most of the complaints from senators focused on President Bush's order authorizing the use of military tribunals. Ashcroft said such tribunals are constitutional, useful and necessary to prevent such trials from becoming public spectacles.
And he said federal authorities have ensured that all detainees are given the right to have a lawyer. The move to monitor prison conversations between some suspected terrorists and their lawyers, he said, came in response to an "Al Qaeda manual" prepared by Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
Holding aloft a seized copy of the manual, Ashcroft said it instructed incarcerated terrorists to use their lawyers and fellow inmates to help commit further acts of terrorism.
"We are at war with an enemy that abuses individual rights as it abuses jetliners. It abuses those rights to make weapons of them with which to kill Americans," Ashcroft said.
Nevertheless, he added, "Our efforts have been crafted carefully to avoid infringing on constitutional rights while saving American lives."
Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said he supported many anti-terrorism policies but remained concerned about civil liberties.
"We can be both tough on terrorists and true to the Constitution," he said.