Justice Dept. Defends Actions in Sept. 11 Investigation

By Jason Pierce | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - A top Justice Department official Wednesday told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee the Bush administration has stayed between constitutional lines in deciding to try suspected terrorists in military courts and not release the names of those currently being held for questioning.

Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff told the committee the administration's actions are not only legal under the Constitution, but also traditional in times of war.

"The president and the attorney general have directed the Justice Department to make the prevention of future terrorist attack our number one priority," said Chertoff. "All of us understand and appreciate the importance of honoring the Constitution and its enduring values in this time of national crisis.

"We believe that the Constitution gives us the tools to respond to the threat while respecting our basic values," he said.

Wednesday's hearing followed growing criticism from some high-profile lawmakers who claim that President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft overstepped their bounds by not consulting Congress before deciding to try suspected terrorists in military courts rather than civilian courts.

"The president's military order of November 13 paves an overly broad path to the use of military commissions to try those suspected of a variety of activities," said committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

"It is a marked departure from existing practices and raises a wide range of legal and constitutional questions and international implications," he said.

Leahy went on to say that such military orders have been questioned throughout history, and he predicted Bush's order would follow suit.

In addition, he said, the move toward military tribunals won't sit well with members of the international coalition in the war on terrorism, as evidenced by Spain's recent refusal to extradite suspected al Qaeda members to the U.S. without the promise of the suspects receiving a civilian trial or being spared the death penalty.

"It sends a terrible message to the world that, when confronted with a serious challenge, we lack confidence in the very institutions we are fighting for, beginning with a justice system that is the envy of the world," Leahy said.

Another point of criticism was the detainment of suspects whose names are not being released to the public by the Justice Department.

On Tuesday, Ashcroft told reporters that he made that decision out of national security concerns.

"When the United States is at war, I will not share valuable information with our enemies," he said. "We might as well mail this list to the Osama bin Laden - al Qaeda network as to release it."

Chertoff echoed Ashcroft's reasoning Wednesday, saying such practices are necessary under the current circumstances.

"We are pursuing a comprehensive and systematic investigational approach that uses every resource available," said Chertoff, who described the approach as one that employs "lawful techniques to identify, disrupt and possibly incarcerated or deport persons who pose a threat to our national security.

"Are we being aggressive and hard-nosed? You bet," he said. "But let me now emphasize that every step we have taken has satisfied the Constitution and federal law as it existed before and after September 11."