The new anti-terrorism powers in the Patriot Act have prevented further terrorist attacks on the United States but Congress should fix weaknesses that could be exploited to cause additional harm, Ashcroft told lawmakers.
"Our ability to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil would be more difficult if not impossible without the (USA) Patriot Act," Ashcroft told the House Judiciary Committee. But "the law has several weaknesses which terrorists could exploit, undermining our defenses."
Ashcroft said he wants the law changed so that anyone supporting or working with suspected terrorist groups can be prosecuted as "material supporters;" all terrorist acts can result in the death penalty or, at least, life in prison; and suspected terrorists can be held indefinitely before trial.
"In criminal cases where public safety is a concern such as drug dealing, organized crime and gun crimes, defendants in federal crimes are presumptively denied pretrial release," Ashcroft said. "It seems as though the crime of terrorism should have the same presumption."
Ashcroft, who held up copies of al Qaeda's declarations of war against America and read aloud some of the names of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said new penalties in the USA Patriot Act have helped the Justice Department prevent more terrorist attacks in America.
Ashcroft was also expected Thursday to make his first public comments on a Justice Department report critical of the government's treatment of illegal aliens held after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The department's inspector general found "significant problems" in the Bush administration's actions toward 762 foreigners held on immigration violations after the attacks. Only one, Zacarias Moussaoui, has been charged in the United States with a terrorism-related crime, and he was arrested before the attacks; 505 have been deported.
While department officials have said no laws were broken, Ashcroft himself has been silent and did not answer questions from reporters at the Justice Department on Wednesday.
The attorney general also was expected to be questioned about the USA Patriot Act, which granted the government broad new powers to use wiretaps, electronic and computer eavesdropping and searches, and the authority to access a wide range of financial and other information in its investigations.
Critics say the law violates civil liberties, something House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., says he is sensitive to. "To my mind, the purpose of the Patriot Act is to secure our liberties and not undermine them," he said.
Sensenbrenner complained earlier this year that the department wasn't sharing enough information with lawmakers for them to judge how the act is working. That lack of information has made it unlikely that he will support expanding the department's powers, or renewing its current authority when the act expires in October 2005, Sensenbrenner said in April.
"My support for this legislation is neither perpetual or unconditional," he said Thursday.
Since then, the Justice Department has answered dozens of written questions from the House Judiciary Committee and has sent several Justice Department officials to testify before it.
More than 100 cities and one state have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act, saying it gives the federal government too much snooping power.
"It's no secret there has been a lot of questions and controversy about the way some things have been done at the department," Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, said. He later told Ashcroft: "We are a nation of laws and not men."
In a recent filing, the Justice Department disclosed that public libraries have been contacted about 50 times by federal investigators as part of their anti-terrorism efforts. It had detained fewer than 50 people as material witnesses without charging them in the war in terror as of January.
"Fewer than 10" FBI offices have conducted investigations involving visits to mosques, the Justice Department said. It also said the FBI does not keep files on information collected at public places or events unless it relates directly to a criminal or terrorist probe.
The government disclosed last month that it had requested and won approval for a record 1,228 warrants last year for secret wiretaps and searches of suspected terrorists and spies.
A draft of the new domestic security bill Ashcroft is seeking, published by a nonprofit government watchdog group in February, indicates that among other things, it would prohibit disclosure of information regarding people detained as terrorist suspects and prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from distributing "worst-case scenario" information to the public about a nearby private company's use of chemicals.
In addition, the measure would create a DNA database of "suspected terrorists;" force suspects to prove why they should be released on bail, rather than have the prosecution prove why they should be held; and allow the deportation of U.S. citizens who become members of or help terrorist groups.
In claiming that the Patriot Act had prevented terrorist attacks, Ashcroft said that as an example, "one individual has given us information on weapons locations being cased as potential targets."
The General Accounting Office reported earlier this year that federal prosecutors had exaggerated their success convicting would-be terrorists last year by wrongly classifying three of four cases as "international terrorism."
Overall, almost half of 288 convictions deemed "terrorism-related" were found by investigators to have been wrongly classified as such for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the GAO found.