Ashcroft defends Patriot Act against those critical of secrecy

Sunday, November 16, 2003

WASHINGTON -- With the government's anti-terrorism legal strategy under increasing scrutiny, Attorney General John Ashcroft tried to assure lawyers Saturday that the Bush administration welcomes oversight and is using new powers to make "quiet steady progress" in the terrorism fight.

The government so far has successfully fended off legal challenges of its imprisonment of U.S. "enemy combatants," secrecy about immigrants arrested after the Sept. 11 attacks and the detention of terrorism suspects in Cuba.

Ashcroft told a conservative lawyers group, the Federalist Society, that the government is "protecting the American people while honoring the Constitution and preserving the liberties we hold dear."

But courts have yet to rule on constitutional challenges to an anti-terror law, the Patriot Act. Last week, the Supreme Court moved into the middle of the post-Sept. 11 debate, announcing that the nine justices would decide whether foreigners held at a military base in Cuba can contest their captivity in American courts.

Also this month, the Supreme Court asked the administration to explain the secrecy surrounding the detention of one of the immigrants arrested in Florida after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"There is no question the Bush administration wants more power in the executive branch," said Robert Levy, a constitutional expert with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, who attended the speech.

Response to attacks

Ashcroft has mounted a public defense of the government's response to the attacks, especially the Patriot Act. The law, enacted weeks after the attacks, expanded government surveillance capabilities, toughened criminal penalties for terrorists and allowed greater sharing of intelligence information.

Ashcroft is trying to counter the effort to scale back the law by critics, both Democrat and Republican, who believe it was rushed through while the country was in a panic after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The attorney general said Saturday that the law gives courts oversight to ensure that powers are not abused and that the administration welcomes a "bright light of inquiry" on the issues.

Ashcroft's appearance came on the final day of the annual meeting of the society, a 21-year-old influential lawyers group with about 30,000 members.

Hayley Reynolds, a Cornell Law School student, said she and many members of the Federalist Society are conflicted because they generally support the administration but worry about giving the government too much power.

"Whatever their political leaning, people are concerned about civil liberties," she said.

Ashcroft was warmly greeted by the several hundred lawyers who attended his early morning speech.

He got in a poke at a liberal rival group, the American Constitution Society, which held its first national meeting this year. Former Attorney General Janet Reno was one of the draws of the event, hosting a late night "dance party" for law students and lawyers.

"They let Janet Reno speak at a far more civilized hour," Ashcroft said. "How do you expect me to speak this morning and still be fresh for a John Ashcroft dance party this evening?"

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