By BILL STRAUB
Scripps Howard News Service
June 12, 2003
WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft is pushing for enhanced law enforcement powers to conduct the nation's ongoing war on terrorism, but the White House is taking a cautious route in the face of some public and congressional reservations.
Ashcroft, the moving force behind the USA-PATRIOT Act, said the law he credited with helping to "save innocent lives" nonetheless contains "several weaknesses which terrorists could exploit, undermining our defenses."
With that in mind, the Justice Department continues to work on what is popularly referred to as PATRIOT II, which would further broaden law enforcement's mandate. Ashcroft already is publicly lobbying for three changes - making it unlawful to fight for a designated terrorist organization, imposing the death penalty for various terrorist actions and extending pre-trial detention for those arrested for terrorism-related offenses.
Several members of Congress, including Republicans like Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have expressed concerns about providing law enforcement with much more authority, raising questions about civil liberties.
"I believe the (Justice) Department and Congress must be vigilant toward short-term gains which ultimately may cause long-term harm to the spirit of liberty and equality which animate the American character," Sensenbrenner said.
Now the White House is sending signals that it prefers a slow approach to dealing with any changes and is promising to work with lawmakers in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the anti-terrorism laws.
Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, said the administration is constantly reassessing the status of anti-terrorism laws, "because it's an ongoing issue against opponents who quickly realize what strengths we have and then design ways to get around our strengths to exploit potential weaknesses."
It's likely, he said, that the period of constant review will continue for an extended period.
"And this will also be, of course, done with an eye toward maintaining civil liberties and constitutional protections," Fleischer said. "And this is where it's very important to continue to discuss these matters with members of Congress in both parties who have important thoughts about this."
Asked specifically if President Bush supports Ashcroft's push for broader powers, Fleischer said, "the president wants to work closely with members of Congress on anything that will help strengthen our ability to fight terrorism, and it depends on the specifics and we'll work with Congress on those."
Recent reports have raised questions about the USA-PATRIOT Act as it pertains, for instance, to holding individuals in police custody without a warrant while authorities investigate their immigration status. A recent inspector general's report criticized the Justice Department for the treatment accorded some illegal aliens who were rounded up and detained even though it turned out they had no connections with terrorism.
Ashcroft is unapologetic, insisting that the USA-PATRIOT Act has resulted in "steady progress in America's war on terrorism." The Justice Department, he said, has reached plea agreements with 15 individuals charged under the law who are providing "critical intelligence about al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, about their safe houses, their training camps, their recruitment, their tactics in the United States and the operations of terrorists who mean to do citizens harm, both here and abroad."