WASHINGTON — Attorney General John Ashcroft urged Congress on Thursday to expand the new anti-terror law to permit the government to hold more suspects indefinitely and extend the death penalty to more people accused of terrorist crimes.
He also said the current anti-terror law, which critics say is cramping citizens' legitimate rights, needs to be expanded to let prosecutors bring charges against anyone who helps or works with suspected terrorist groups as "material supporters."
Ashcroft held aloft what he said were copies of terrorist declarations of war against America. One quoted Nasser al-Fahd, a prominent Muslim cleric known to be sympathetic to al-Qaida, as saying it would be permissible if a bomb killed 10 million Americans.
Ashcroft also read aloud the names of people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks as he defended the Justice Department's use so far of anti-terrorism powers.
The USA Patriot Act has led to more than 3,000 "footsoldiers of terror" being stopped, Ashcroft said. But he also told the House Judiciary Committee the law "has several weaknesses which terrorists could exploit, undermining our defenses."
The death penalty provision would allow for executions in cases where a terrorist caused "massive loss of life" by attacking a military base, nuclear plant or energy plant, the Justice Department said.
Ashcroft also said some courts have said that "going and taking training, and joining up with" terrorist groups abroad could not be prosecuted under the current material support statute, and he wants that fixed.
"We need for the law to make it clear that it's just as much a conspiracy to aid and assist the terrorists, to join them for fighting purposes, as it is to carry them a lunch or to provide them with a weapon," the attorney general said.
In addition, federal suspects in gun, drug and organized crime cases "where public safety is a concern" automatically are held indefinitely when they are arrested, Ashcroft said. "It seems as though the crime of terrorism should have the same presumption," he said.
It was unclear whether the Bush administration would request any legislative proposals before the end of the congressional session.
House Democrats, meanwhile, complained about the way the Justice Department has used its current anti-terrorism powers, especially considering a department inspector general report Tuesday that criticized the government's treatment of illegal immigrants held after the attacks.
The 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; 505 have been deported. Some were held for up to eight months and others complained of abuse.
Ashcroft said department policy, "for which we do not apologize," is to detain people who are in the country illegally for as long as it takes to clear them before they are deported.
But Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said, "My fear is that we may go to the point of changing the culture of America, the First Amendment protections and the Fourth Amendment protections."
Added Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif.: "Some of us find that the collateral damage is greater than it needs to be in the conduct of this war."
Ashcroft said he would investigate all abuse allegations, although 14 of 18 cases referred so far already have been cleared without any charges being filed. "We do not stand for abuse," Ashcroft said.
While critics complain that civil liberties are being curtailed by the anti-terrorism law, Ashcroft said without it there might have been another major attack.
"Our ability to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil would be more difficult, if not impossible, without the Patriot Act," Ashcroft said. "It has been the key weapon used across America in successful counter-terrorist operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists."
The tougher penalties in the law have persuaded some suspected terrorists to help the federal government root out other terrorists in exchange for lighter sentences, he suggested.
"One individual has given us intelligence on weapons stored here in the United States," Ashcroft said. "Another cooperator has identified locations in the U.S. being scouted or cased for potential attacks by al-Qaida."
The law expires in October 2005, and while House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner praised Ashcroft's work so far, he added, "My support for this legislation is neither perpetual or unconditional."
"I believe the department and Congress must be vigilant toward short-term gains which ultimately may cause long-term harm to the spirit of liberty and equality which animate the American character," the Wisconsin Republican said.