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Attorney General Testifies Before House Judiciary Committee

Aired September 24, 2001 - 14:50   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: I think we want to go back now to the capital where the House Judiciary Committee continues to question Attorney General John Ashcroft for his request for expanded powers of investigation on the part of the federal government.

This is John Conyers, the ranking Democrat.


REP. JOHN CONYERS (D), MICHIGAN: You would operate within the Constitution of the United States in fashioning these laws. Is that not correct?

JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I'm not prepared to say whether it's three or four times, but I assured you and I am willing to say to you that it is my conviction that these laws operate within the constitutional confines, the parameters of the Constitution.

CONYERS: Thank you. And Mr. Thompson, deputy attorney general, I counted you as assuring me three times to that same effect, that we work within the parameters of the United States Constitution, right?

LARRY THOMPSON, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I don't remember the exact number of -- Mr. Chairman -- Mr. Congressman, I don't remember the exact number of times. But I did assure you that in my judgment none of these provisions crossed any kind of constitutional divide.

CONYERS: Thank you very much. I'm now pleased to recognize Howard Berman, the distinguished colleague of ours from California.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gentleman from California is recognized for four minutes.

CONYERS: Well, wait a minute. We'll control the time, Mr. Chairman, if it's OK with you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've been keeping track, Mr. Conyers, and...

CONYERS: Yes, but we'll divide it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've taken 11 minutes.

CONYERS: We will decide the time among ourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have four minutes left total.

CONYERS: Thank you.

REP. HOWARD BERMAN (D), CALIFORNIA: Very quickly. A number of compelling recommendations. The notion that a grand jury investigation could produce information about a planned attack like the one that we saw on September 11th and you cannot...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can't hear you, Howard.

BERMAN: ... and you could not share that with intelligence agencies is -- that law needs to be changed.

Two things stirring around of concern. One is that in your proposal terrorist crimes are defined so broadly that any act of violence or any threatened act of violence not for financial gain is deemed a terrorist act. I would like your reaction to that criticism.

And secondly, that under this proposal, even though you never decide to prosecute and you never decide to deport, you give -- this proposal gives you or people you designate an ability to detain in perpetuity people in detention without limit, without requirement of deportation, without requirement of prosecution.

I'd just like the Justice Department reaction to those two criticisms from the public.

ASHCROFT: First of all, I don't believe that our definition of terrorism is so broad as is represented there. And it is broad enough to include things like the assaults on computers, and assaults that are designed to change the purpose of government, the nature of government, and assaults that obviously have objectives other than financial or property objectives.

Secondly, I don't believe that the law provides for an indefinite ability to maintain people in custody without deportation. Now, there are -- in emergencies, it requires -- it allows for prolonged, but that would be subject to judicial supervision and subject to the safeguards that would be provided in the judicial system.

CONYERS: Thank you very much. Mr. Chairman -- I mean Senator Ashcroft -- I mean Attorney General Ashcroft, as you realize, can calculate, there are 11 members on our side who haven't said a single word. Could I appeal to you and your kind consideration and your very difficult schedule to accommodate at least these members for a couple of minutes of observation or question?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Had the gentleman from Michigan arrived at the beginning of the hearing and in time to make his opening statement, the chair announced that the attorney general has to leave at 3 o'clock, and that the time from 2:30, which is when you concluded your delayed opening statement until 3 o'clock would be divided in half between the Republicans and the Democrats.

The chair further announced that Mr. Thompson would be able to spend an extra half hour, and Mr. Chertoff and Mr. Dinn (ph) an extra hour, and that this part of the hearing would conclude at 4 o'clock. And nobody had any objection to that, and I do think that we're lucky to have the attorney general here for an hour. And he's here because we agreed to accommodate his schedule, because he is in charge of conducting probably the largest law enforcement operation in the history of the world with the horrific acts that occurred in New York and at the Pentagon.

So the other -- the other -- the other...

CONYERS: Mr. Chairman, I addressed my appeal to the witness, not to you, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, Mr. Conyers, you knew what the attorney general's time frame was. Nobody...

CONYERS: I still addressed it to the witness, sir.


CONYERS: If you'd let him respond, please.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Attorney general, would you like to answer Mr. Conyers?

ASHCROFT: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I do have a responsibility that I'm required to meet at 3 o'clock. I have asked that these three individuals accompany me. Frankly, they are individuals of great expertise in all of these areas here, and they are the individuals with whom we have been working over the course of the last 10 days or so to fashion these. They are expert to the extent that I am not. They are better at the technical aspects of this than I am, and I gladly confess that, because they are persons of that talent.

They are all individuals appointed by the president, confirmed by the United States Senate. They have line and substantive responsibility here, and I am pleased that they are available and willing to be here.

Mr. Thompson has another compelling responsibility at 3:30. The others can stay later.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Smith of Texas will ask the last question of you, Mr. Attorney General.

REP. LAMAR SMITH (R), TEXAS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Attorney General, I have two questions. The first is prompted by an article in yesterday's "Washington Post," which described an individual with connections with radical Islamic extremists.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can't hear you.

SMITH: My mike is on. I don't know why it's not working.

Mr. Chairman, let me repeat that. My first question is prompted by an article in yesterday's "Washington Post," and let me read some of the excerpts from it. It describes an individual who had connections with radical Islamic extremists, possibly trained at terrorist camps in Afghanistan, had links to Osama bin Laden, and who enrolled in a flight school that grew suspicious when he wanted to fly a Boeing 747 having never flown even a single-engine plane, and only wanted to know how to steer the plane, not take off or land.

The owner of the flight school was so concerned he called the FBI. Unfortunately, under our current laws, they were not -- law enforcement officials were not able to obtain a search warrant.

Is the administration considering any measures that would allow for a search warrant in the future in that type of circumstance?

ASHCROFT: We have not proposed an amendment to the standard for search warrants in this -- in this proposed legislation.

SMITH: Given the threat that an individual like that posed, that is something the administration might want to consider.

Mr. Attorney, my second question guess to wiretap, and that is, as you may know, as I've been told, that next month is going to -- disposable cellular phones are going to be widely available in the United States. What is the administration proposing in the changing of wiretap authority to address the kind of problem that that poses?

ASHCROFT: Well, obviously as individuals use cell phones and throw them away -- and some of them are -- it depends on how much you want to spend. You can make your phone disposable now. And some drug dealers do that. They don't use a phone very long and they throw it away and they get another one.

And we believe -- that's the reason we want to have this ability for the surveillance authority not to be attached to a specific phone, which ends up in a garbage can, but to be -- the surveillance authority to cover the communications of a specific person. And not only should it be -- follow the person regardless of what phone the person is using, but it should be able to follow the person across jurisdictional lines.

And I think that these are some of the things in the bill that have pretty broad support, because technology has simply rendered antiquated our weapons in this kind of surveillance.

SMITH: Thank you, Mr. Attorney General.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much. Mr. Attorney General, thank you for spending the hour that you have spent with us. I really appreciate your carving time out of a schedule that I know is crushing. All of the members of the committee and our staffs on both sides of the aisle look forward to working with you as we try to put together legislation that will protect the American public from a future terrorist attack.

CONYERS: May I add my compliments as well, Attorney General.

ASHCROFT: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Conyers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much. And now, Mr. Attorney General, you can go off on your way, and Messieurs Dinn (ph), Thompson and Chertoff will...

WOODRUFF: What we have been watching are the first public signs of extreme discomfort, we have to say, with some of the expanded powers that the Justice Department, Attorney General John Ashcroft are asking for. We heard the attorney general among other things say that the failure to make terrorism a national priority right now is causing his agency great problems. We're hearing -- we're hearing not only from Democrats on this committee, but from conservative, conservative groups expressing concerns that some of these expanded powers violate Americans' constitutional rights.

Joining me now, CNN's legal analyst Roger Cossack.

Roger, what is it that people who are expressing these concerns are most worried about.

ROGER COSSACK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: There seems to be a couple of major considerations, one of which, of course, was this notion of having detention, indefinite detention without having any charges filed against you, without having any criminal -- even having much evidence against you, but having this ability to sort of indefinitely hold you.

The great writ, as it's called, the writ of habeas corpus was one of the first acts done under our constitution so that people would not -- that could not happen to people. The attorney general has said, well, there will be judicial review, but obviously this is the kind of thing that is concerning the congressmen right now. And of course, we've heard also the expanded use of wiretaps, the expanded surveillance.

But one of the things I thought was quite interesting was that the attorney general said, look, we are asking for the process to be expanded, we are not asking for the standards to be lowered. That is, if we want to get a wiretap, we are still saying that we have to stand up to whatever the regulations and the requirements that are in place today. We're not asking them to be lowered. We're just asking to have a greater ability because of technology.

WOODRUFF: And I want to stress again that this -- even though what we have been hearing on the committee just now came from, who'd have to say, liberal Democrats like Barney Frank of Massachusetts, John Conyers of Michigan, we are -- our Kelli Arena, our justice correspondent, reminding me just a moment ago that is 100 or more groups that are expressing concerns. A number of those are what you'd have to define as conservative in their thinking. But all of them concerned that this is in some way infringing on people's constitutional rights.

Roger, one other thing: We heard the attorney general questioned by John Conyers about, if I understood it correctly, that he's asking, among other things, that wiretaps that were conducted on U.S. citizens overseas, that that information be permitted to be used in a case against that person back here. Now, why is this a problem?

COSSACK: Well, it's not just wiretaps. It's illegal wiretaps. Wiretaps that perhaps would not meet our constitutional muster be permitted as in evidence to be used against people here in American courts.

That is a touchy issue, because it's not so clear that that wouldn't meet the standard right now. There have been cases where evidence gathered in other countries that would not be constitutional under our standards have been permitted in our American courts. So, that's a touchy issue, and it's not clear, Judy, that that would not meet constitutional muster, or at least would not violate our constitutional standards right now.

WOODRUFF: All right, our legal analyst Roger Cossack. And of course, we'll be keeping an eye on that Judiciary Committee as the debate continues today on this request by the Bush administration for further investigative powers.



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