Ashcroft: Religious, political groups could be watched
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON Attorney General John Ashcroft warned yesterday that religious or political groups normally free from government intrusion could be monitored by agents if they are suspected of engaging in terrorism.
"People who hijack a religion and make out of it an implement of war will not be free from our interest," he declared as government officials took to the Sunday news shows to debate America's new anti-terrorism police powers.
The Senate's top Democrat said he might support the narrow use of one of the most controversial tactics secret military tribunals to try terrorists.
"Under certain circumstances, very, very restricted circumstances, depending on how it's handled, I'm willing to look at it," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
"With regard to the situation in Afghanistan in particular, trying a Taliban or terrorist or ... people involved in terrorist activity, clearly there's at least the possibility that something like that might have merit," Daschle said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The debate offered a preview of a Senate hearing set for this week at which Ashcroft is to address concerns of both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans that the new tactics will erode civil liberties.
On the news shows, Ashcroft previewed his appearance scheduled for Dec. 6 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he is to confront criticism about some of his department's hardest line tactics.
"We're going to do what we need to do to protect the American people," Ashcroft said on ABC's "This Week" when asked whether restrictions designed in the 1970s to protect religious and political groups from government monitoring were being eased.
"If a religion is hijacked and used as a cover for killing thousands of Americans, we're interested in that," he said.
"We will respect the rights of political freedom and religious freedom, and we are deeply committed to that,” he said. “But for so-called terrorists to gather over themselves some robe of clericism ... and claim immunity from being observed, people who hijack a religion and make out of it an implement of war will not be free from our interest."
Ashcroft told "Fox News Sunday" that military tribunals would be limited to non-U.S. citizens and "not just normal criminal activity, but war crimes." He refused to rule out military tribunals for any foreigners detained on U.S. soil.
"Can you imagine apprehending a terrorist, either in the deserts of Afghanistan or on the way to the United States to commit a crime, and having to take them through the traditional justice system?" Ashcroft asked.
"Hiring a flamboyant lawyer at public expense? Having sort of Osama television ... allowing that kind of propaganda to go out, jeopardizing American assets in the intelligence community and in the war? Putting a courthouse and a community as a target for terrorism?"
Republican Rep. Bob Barr, a conservative former federal prosecutor from Georgia, said he opposed tribunals for any suspect detained on U.S. soil. "I'm not worried about tribunals, for example, overseas, but domestically we have to abide by the Bill of Rights," he told ABC.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the former Democratic vice presidential candidate from Connecticut, said he supported using tribunals for terrorists who engaged in acts of war but opposed them if used against people legally in the United States.
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