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Judy Woodruff: Attorney General Ashcroft and civil liberties

Attorney General John Ashcroft
Attorney General John Ashcroft  

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She is also anchor of "Inside Politics." She joined the chat room from Washington DC.

CNN: Welcome, Judy Woodruff, to the chat room.

WOODRUFF: Hello, I'm glad to join you.

CNN: What struck you as the most news making information from your interview Tuesday with Attorney General John Ashcroft?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think perhaps the most newsworthy statement that he made was his belief that the people who may be prosecuted under the newly crafted justice procedures, including military tribunals are not Americans. He said we're talking about suspected alien terrorists, war criminals. I thought his making such a distinction between citizens of this country, and others living here, was interesting to see. The Constitution provides that a "person's" right shall be protected, and I was struck that the Attorney General was in effect saying that if you're not an American citizen, then different rules apply.

Message Board: Ashcroft and civil liberties 

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Judy do you think John Ashcroft is overstepping his authority?

WOODRUFF: I could not comment on that as a reporter... I think it's clear that he doesn't think he's overstepping his authority. There were several times during the interview when he cited what the President wants. There was a point in the interview when he said the President should have the right to protect American lives by asking the terrorist war criminals be tried in military courts. So, he does not see this as stepping over any bounds.

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CNN: How did he respond to questions pertaining to the allegations that his orders are violating the civil liberties of those effected?

WOODRUFF: I asked him about a comment made yesterday. It was ironic that at the same time [as] Ashcroft and the President were participating in a ceremony to rename the justice building after Robert Kennedy, one of Kennedy's daughters, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, was speaking out publicly elsewhere, saying that what the Bush administration is doing undermines civil liberties. She said her father would not have approved, and when I asked the Attorney General about her comments, he said that we are simply not going to tolerate terrorists killing innocent Americans. I can quote this, he said "We're going to use every tool in the American judicial system to protect innocent lives." So again, you see where he's coming from. He's not at all troubled by these broader powers, and thinks they're entirely appropriate.

CNN: You reported the live CNN broadcast on Tuesday in which Attorney General Ashcroft and George W. Bush spoke at a ceremony honoring the late Robert F. Kennedy. These are two conservatives honoring a icon of liberalism. In your entire career, have you ever witnessed such an event?

WOODRUFF: I thought about that yesterday, as I was describing what was happening. As we were watching this, it literally jumped out of the pages of history. Here you have an icon of liberal democratic politics having a building renamed for him, not only by a conservative Republican President, but by a conservative Attorney General whose nomination was vigorously opposed by Robert Kennedy's brother, Senator Teddy Kennedy.

CNN: What does it say about the changing face of politics in Washington?

WOODRUFF: I think that we are now in the aftermath of September 11 in a period that none of us is really accustomed to seeing. We have been so used to having Republicans and Democrats yelling at each other, conservatives and liberals shouting across a vast divide, but in the wake of 9-11, we all realize that there are matters we should work on together, and you're seeing cooperation in everything from support for the war to support for New York City in the wake of that disaster. But having said that, they are political animals, and in the last few weeks, in the arguments over airport security, and in the ongoing debate over how to best stimulate the economy, we are witnessing many of the same divides between Democrats and Republicans. When it comes to spending money, and the role of the government, those divisions are just not going away.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is the Justice Department going to use these new rules to possibly provide greater investigative power over American citizens that may be breaking the law?

WOODRUFF: So far, they've indicated that, for example, the new wiretapping provisions that they've promulgated will only apply to the terror investigation. Now some will ask if it's possible to draw the line, the argument being once you've let the fox into the henhouse, can you bar the door... whatever cliche you want to use. They'll be asked to defend their decision time and again, and I think people are right to ask the government to demonstrate that they're not taking advantage of some of these broad powers. We need to watch, and watch closely. We're accustomed to enormous freedoms in the United States, and we accord protection to individuals accused of law-breaking. The presumption is you're innocent until proven guilty. When the government suddenly has the ability to cut corners and use shortcuts to get information by listening in on phone conversations, and all sorts of things I hear they're trying to acquire the ability to do, I think we have to watch closely.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: I am not an American citizen but live here, what rights do I have (if any) if I get wrongly accused of terrorism?

WOODRUFF: Well, that's a very good question, and one that's ever more urgent in the talk of military tribunals by the Attorney General. He's saying that unless you're a citizen, you can't count on those rights, but the Constitution applies to people, not just citizens. So, that's why it's important for news reporters to keep asking these questions of the Bush administration.

CNN: Is he discouraged over the apparently stalled anthrax investigations?

WOODRUFF: I'm sure that he and others in the Bush administration are discouraged, but they say they remain focused on finding the perpetrators. Yesterday, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said that they believe that the preponderance of evidence is pointing to a domestic source.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today. Do you any closing comments for us?

WOODRUFF: I'd like to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving, and at a time when we've all suffered greatly as a nation, and we have troops overseas, men and women away from their families, we should take a moment to thank whomever we worship for our blessings. We all have a lot to be thankful for, in spite of the great troubles we've had over the last few months.

CNN: Thanks again for joining us today.

WOODRUFF: I'm delighted to.

Judy Woodruff joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Wednesday, November 21, 2001.


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