WASHINGTON, D.C. -- At a hearing before Congress to defend the Bush administration's anti-terrorism tactics, Attorney General John Ashcroft accused his critics of spreading fear, dividing the country and helping the enemy. "We need honest, reasoned debate, not fear-mongering," Ashcroft said during a four-hour hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "To those who would pit Americans against immigrants and citizens against non-citizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve." Democrats critized an array of administration actions. But Ashcroft said some of his detractors were mangling the truth. The clash was long anticipated. The Justice Department began implementing a series of hard-hitting legal procedures shortly after the terrorist hijackings of Sept. 11, prompting immediate protest from civil libertarians. Issue of gun-purchase data Some of the fiercer exchanges focused on revelations that the Justice Department had turned down a request from the FBI to check gun-purchasing records. FBI agents wanted to determine whether any of those arrested as part of the terrorism investigation had bought guns. Ashcroft told the senators that the law forbids using the records on background checks for this purpose. But Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) questioned that stance in light of the administration's oft-repeated statement that it is using any available weapon to fight terror. "Why is it when it gets to the 2nd Amendment--when it gets to this question of purchasing firearms, particularly by illegal immigrants who are here in the United States and have connections with terrorism--that there is such a blind eye from the Department of Justice?" Durbin asked. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted that the Bush team asked Congress to make the law tougher on terrorism in other areas. But when it came to gun rights, Schumer said, "this administration becomes weak as a wet noodle." Ashcroft, an avid supporter of gun owners' rights, said he would consider any bill lawmakers proposed. "If Congress passes a law to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists and others who should not have guns, I will fight to sustain it and I will enforce it," Ashcroft said. Ashcroft mounted a forceful defense of the tribunals, arguing that trying terrorists in U.S. courts would be impractical. "Are we supposed to read them their Miranda rights, hire a flamboyant defense lawyer, bring them back to the United States to create a new cable network, Osama TV or whatever, provide a worldwide platform from which propaganda can be developed?" Ashcroft said. Broadly, Ashcroft's argument was that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are so ruthless that an aggressive counterattack is the only responsible action. Ashcroft also said terrorists use America's civil liberties as weapons against the nation. He told senators he receives a report every morning that outlines the threat facing the U.S. "If ever there were proof of the existence of evil in the world, it is in the pages of these reports," Ashcroft said. "They are a chilling daily chronicle of hatred of America by fanatics who seek to extinguish freedom, enslave women, corrupt education and to kill Americans wherever and whenever they can."
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