(CNSNews.com) - U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft Thursday denied Democratic lawmakers' allegations that the Justice Department violated terms of the USA PATRIOT Act when it detained illegal aliens in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Citing a June 2 report by the U.S. Inspector General that found "significant problems" with the way the department held the illegal aliens on immigration charges, several Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee zeroed in on the attorney general.
"This report confirms my worst fears about the unaccountable Ashcroft Justice Department, that its war on terrorism is just a war on the Constitution and basic human rights," ranking Democrat John Conyers (D-Mich.) said.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) noted that under the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001, Congress authorized Justice "up to seven days" to hold someone "certified as a suspected terrorist," while the previous law had allowed for only 48 hours.
"Now, we find that you've never once used this expansive power that Congress provided...because previously, you drafted a regulation on custody procedures that has gotten around the reporting requirements and the time limits," Berman told Ashcroft.
This has led "to the conclusion," Berman said, "that in many cases, there are average detentions of 80 days, sometimes up to 200 days, without either a criminal charge or an order of deportation."
Once a deportation order is issued, Berman explained, Justice has "an additional 90 days to determine whether to bring criminal charges.
"It's in this area, not restricted to actual terrorists but anyone you happen to pick up, where you hold them, you don't charge them and you don't seek deportation, that some of us find that the collateral damage may be greater than it needs to be in the conduct of this war (against terrorism)," Berman said.
Ashcroft acknowledged that, in addition to a criminal charge or a deportation order, a person may also be held on a "civil charge of violating the immigration laws." But he pointed out that "Ground Zero was still smoldering" when detainees were being held at New York and New Jersey facilities and FBI agents were "operating out of a garage."
Ashcroft said he had "sympathy" for the wish expressed by the Inspector General's office for the Justice Department "to do our job more quickly." However, he said there was "tension" between the June 2 report issued by the IG "criticizing us for holding people" and a February 2003 IG report "criticizing us for not being able to deport people."
The February report concluded that the Justice Department failed to process 87 percent of those slated for deportation because those individuals had not been detained and were allowed to "melt back into society."
The department had to "balance the risk of sending people back into the culture," Ashcroft said, noting that the 87 percent reported by the IG represented a "high level" of flight risk and underscored the post-9/11 decision to detain the immigration violators.
"We try to process these individuals as fast as we can. I hope we can do better, but we did not violate the law," Ashcroft said.
Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) called the June 2 IG report a "grave injustice" to Ashcroft's department and suggested that the IG "may have had a memory lapse." He noted that since 9/11, no major attacks had occurred under Ashcroft. "I'm not sure we could say the same" had Ashcroft not made certain decisions, such as the one to detain the illegal aliens, Hostettler said.
During the hearing, Ashcroft also urged lawmakers to grant his department greater powers to keep suspected terrorists in pre-trial custody and allow penalties of life imprisonment or death for those convicted. He requested that lawmakers expand the USA PATRIOT Act to give him the ability to charge those who join terrorist groups with providing "material support" to terrorist activity.
The committee might find it "hard to believe," Ashcroft said, but there have been several reports of American citizens participating in training with terrorist organizations after the 9/11 attacks.
"There are some courts that say going and taking training and joining up with a (terrorist) operation does not mean that you're helping the operation," Ashcroft said. "Our view is that that could be clarified" by Congress.
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