Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Democrats confronted Attorney General John Ashcroft with fresh criticism of Bush administration responses to terrorism, maintaining Thursday that the Justice Department moved too quickly in authorizing broad new investigative powers without consulting Congress.
A top Republican, however, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the first priority should be protection of Americans in time of war.
Ashcroft went before the committee to defend the administration's proposals for military-style tribunals, questioning of young men of Middle Eastern descent and eavesdropping on conversations between jailed terrorism suspects and their lawyers.
The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the government needs a good reason to snoop into bank records, tax returns and e-mails.
But Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, countered: "Let's keep our focus on where it matters -- protecting U.S. citizens."
Also of interest to senators is the handling of people already detained in the terror investigation. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued in federal court Wednesday to force the Justice Department to reveal basic information about those individuals arrested and detained since Sept. 11.
"We are committed to being an open society, so we must ask whether those who serve as law enforcers are being as open as they reasonably can be," Leahy said.
"We are committed to being a nation of laws, so we must ask whether our law enforcers are abiding by the law. And we are committed to being a nation of freedom, so we must ask whether constitutional rights are being respected, and whether incursions on our liberty are being kept to the minimum necessary for our national security," Leahy said.
Senators may also ask Ashcroft why the Justice Department denied the FBI access to records to determine whether any of the detainees had bought guns.
The denial was made in October because Justice Department officials decided it would be an improper use of records, Justice spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said.
In addition to the civil rights concerns, some senators are unhappy that the White House and Justice Department acted without telling most members of Congress in advance.
Democrats are especially upset about some of the administration's plans because no one from the administration mentioned them during weeks of negotiations between Ashcroft and Congress to expand police powers in response to Sept. 11.
The Democrats see their questioning of Ashcroft as protecting the integrity of the constitutional separation of powers.
"This administration has preferred to go it alone, with no authorization or prior consultation with the legislative branch," Leahy said. "This is no mere technicality. It fundamentally jeopardizes the separation of powers that undergirds our constitutional system."
Ashcroft's relationship with the committee has been rocky all year. In his first appearance in front of the committee as attorney general, Ashcroft only stayed about 90 minutes, which kept some of the committee members from asking questions. Democratic senators have not forgotten.