WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft asked Congress Thursday for expanded powers to hold suspected terrorists indefinitely before trials and to let him seek the death penalty or life imprisonment for any terrorist act.
Ashcroft told the House Judiciary Committee that the 2001 Patriot Act signed into law after the Sept. 11 attacks should also be expanded to let prosecutors bring charges against anyone who supports or works with suspected terrorist groups as "material supporters."
"The law has several weaknesses which terrorists could exploit, undermining our defenses," Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft, who held up copies of al-Qaida'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 also said the department did not break any laws despite an internal Justice Department report that criticized the government's treatment of illegal aliens held after the 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; 505 have been deported.
Some of the Sept. 11 detainees were held for up to eight months, although most were deported before a 90-day deadline for releasing them.
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.
He also said the Justice Department would investigate allegations of abuse of the detainees, 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.
The USA Patriot Act 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.
Under the threat of the increased USA Patriot Act penalties, several detainees are cooperating with the Justice Department to reduce their sentences, Ashcroft said.
"Since September 11, we have obtained criminal plea agreements, many under seal, from more than 15 individuals who, according to the agreement and in order to have the agreement carried out, will continue and must continue to cooperate with the government in its investigation of terrorists," he said.
One person gave federal officials intelligence on terrorist weapons stored in the United States, while another has identified places being scouted or cased for potential attacks by al-Qaida, he said.
"With the Patriot Act and our prevention strategy, we can point to steady progress in America's war on terrorism," he said.
Several Democrats complained about the department's use of the new anti-terrorism powers. "We are concerned about the way you have used your powers, the way you have detained immigrants," said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.
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."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., says he is sensitive to civil liberties complaints. "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.