Stiffer Terror Laws Urged

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Times Staff Writer

A resolute Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft on Thursday urged Congress to expand the Justice Department’s arsenal of weapons in the war against terrorism, just days after internal investigators issued a rebuke of the department’s treatment of 762 people detained after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In his first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee since just after the bombings of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Ashcroft said he supported broadening an already favorite tool of prosecutors targeting people who provide “material support” to terrorists. He suggested increasing the number of federal terror-related crimes punishable by life sentences or the death penalty.

And he sought more leeway in denying bail to suspected terrorists, putting them in a category with more conventional criminal defendants like drug traffickers and gangsters.


“Our ability to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil would be more difficult, if not impossible, without the Patriot Act,” Ashcroft said, referring to the post-Sept. 11 law that made it easier for federal agents and the intelligence community to combine forces in the terrorism war.

“Unfortunately, the law has several weaknesses, which terrorists could exploit, undermining our defenses.”

The prospects for a legislative sequel to the act, which the Justice Department has been considering for months, has been dreaded by immigrant and civil rights groups, who view the original as running roughshod over the Constitution. They fear that more abuses may be on the way.

Even some Republican committee members who showered the attorney general with praise for keeping the nation safe from another devastating attack indicated their support has limits. Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said at the hearing that his support for the Patriot law was “neither perpetual or unconditional.”

A Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration hadn’t decided whether to support additional legislation in the current session; the official said Ashcroft was offering up opportunities for Congress to “clarify the law” or make “common sense updates.”

Under current law, for instance, terrorists who kill someone while sabotaging nuclear facilities or military installations cannot receive the death penalty, the official said.


In sometimes emotional testimony laced with stories of the families of the victims of 9/11 or of the war in Iraq, Ashcroft declared that “Al Qaeda is diminished but not destroyed. Defeat after defeat has made them desperate to strike again.” He urged the country to be “vigilant” and “unrelenting.”

He also disclosed some progress: more than 15 criminal plea violations since Sept. 11, 2001, many under court seal, in which defendants were actively cooperating with authorities.

Without providing details, he said one individual has identified U.S. locations being scouted or cased for potential attacks by Al Qaeda, and that another had provided intelligence on weapons stored in the United States.

During the 4 1/2-hour hearing, Ashcroft also was peppered with questions as varied as the ability of federal agents to access library records in the name of national security and the whereabouts of immigrants in Texas who disappeared in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The testimony followed a sometimes withering report released Monday by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General that found “significant problems” in how law enforcement officials treated some of the 762 people detained after the Sept. 11 attacks on visa and other immigration violations. Nearly all were deported, but only a few were charged with crimes.

The 198-page report found lengthy delays in processing suspected terrorists; the average detention was 80 days, and some dragged on for six months. Only about 60% were charged within an immigration goal of 72 hours. Often, people were denied access to lawyers, limited in their ability to communicate with friends and outsiders.


“Some of us find that the collateral damage [from detaining people] may be greater than it has to be,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), who said he found the department’s response to the report to be “defensive” and “troubling.”

“Surely, no modern prosecutor in modern history has been granted as much power as you now hold,” said Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.). “You said in your statement we must not forget that our enemies are ruthless fanatics.... But the solution is not for us to become zealots ourselves.”

But Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.), a committee member, praised Ashcroft.

“I believe that the Office of Inspector General report does a grave disservice to yourself and all the other dedicated Justice Department employees who worked tirelessly to protect us from another devastating terrorist attack in the days immediately following 9/11,” Hostettler told the attorney general.

Hostettler credited the lack of another terrorist attack to the department’s efforts. “I am not sure that we would be in the same situation if you had been constrained by the niceties sought and the inconsistencies brought out by the Office of the Inspector General,” Hostettler said.

In response to the criticism, Ashcroft said officials were concerned that if detainees were released much before their scheduled deportation they would flee, and the country would still be at risk.

“None of the individuals ... was in the United States legally,” he added. Among those detained, he said, were a roommate of one of the 19 hijackers and a suspect with a vast collection of photos of the Twin Towers and propaganda urging holy war against the United States.


“Obviously, in an ideal world we would like to be able to have cleared people instantly,” he said. “We would like to know anytime someone is charged, in the very shortest period of time, whether they are innocent or guilty, or whether they were associated with terrorism or not.

“You have to remember what the situation was in New York. When this was happening, Ground Zero was still smoldering. The FBI was operating out of a parking garage,” he said.

The internal inspector general’s report also found evidence of alleged beatings and other abuse at a high-security federal prison in Brooklyn, N.Y., where 84 of the people were detained.

Ashcroft said the department’s civil rights division had concluded that 14 of 18 cases of alleged abuse stemming from the detentions did not merit criminal charges, and that officials were still evaluating the remaining four cases. In response to a question, he said he had no plans to appoint a special counsel to investigate the cases.

In discussing possible changes in the law, Ashcroft indicated that he would like to see an expansion of a law making it a crime to “provide material support” to terrorists.

He argued that a weakness of the law is that it punishes people who furnish training or personnel to a terrorist group -- but not those who actually engage in the training or fighting.


Defense lawyers said the suggested change would make it a crime to attend a terrorist training camp, even unwittingly, based on attendance alone.

Some of the defendants in a suspected terror cell in Lackawanna, N.Y., argued that they were unaware what they were getting into when they journeyed with friends to Afghanistan to what turned out to be an Al Qaeda training camp.

The attorney general also said he favors adding terrorism to the list of crimes covered by a 1984 law that permits the government to indefinitely detain people without bail in drug and violent crime cases.

But some lawyers said the government hasn’t had trouble so far keeping suspected terrorists in custody, partly because judges have set bail so high.