WASHINGTON -- Attorney General John Ashcroft, defending administration measures to counteract terrorism, declared Thursday the nation must not let down its guard against threats that present "a daily chronicle of the hatred of Americans by fanatics."
Holding aloft an al-Qaida terrorism manual, Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee: "We are war with an enemy that abuses individual rights as it abuses jetliners. ... Defending our nation and its citizens against terrorist attacks is now our first law enforcement priority."
Ashcroft's appearance came in an atmosphere of mounting criticism by Senate Democrats that the Justice Department moved too far, too quickly, to implement a host of stern investigative measures in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Ashcroft chided critics of the various measures, including the government's detention and questioning of hundreds of Middle Eastern men.
He said critics are uninformed. "Charges of kangaroo courts and shredding the Constitution give new meaning to the term 'the fog of war,"' he said.
"Each action taken by the Department of Justice as well as the war crimes commission ... is carefully drawn to cover a narrow class of individuals -- terrorists," Ashcroft declared.
On the 87th day since the attack, Ashcroft told lawmakers he received chilling daily intelligence reports.
"My day begins with a review of the threats to Americans and American interests," Ashcroft said. "If ever there were proof of evil in the world it is in these reports.
"They are a chilling daily chronicle of the hatred of Americans by fanatics, who seek to extinguish freedom, enslave women, corrupt education, and to kill Americans wherever and whenever they can."
The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the president was taking a risk by acting without Congress to establish a tribunal system that might not survive Supreme Court scrutiny.
"It is a calculated risk that the Supreme Court will uphold something it has not upheld before," Leahy said.
Ashcroft replied that Bush has an "inherent authority and power" to prosecute war crimes. He would not specify whether terrorists trying to enter the United States would be covered by the tribunals, only promising "full and fair proceedings."
"We have set as a priority the prevention of additional terrorists attacks and we don't ever want anything like Sept 11. to again visit us on our own soil with innocent victims," the attorney general said. "We hope to improve our performance regularly by making whatever changes we can to upgrade our ability to detect and prevent terrorism -- to disrupt it and to make it difficult, in fact impossible.
"We did not have the kind of protection we needed on Sept 11," Ashcroft added. "So, for us to continue and act like no changes would be appropriate may not be in our best interests."
Ashcroft was questioned by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., about why the Justice Department denied the FBI access to the National Instant Check System records to determine whether any of the detainees had bought guns.
"The only permissible use for the national check system is to audit the maintenance of that system, and the Department of Justice is committed to following the law in that respect," he replied.
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