WASHINGTON – While his proposals for anti-terrorism legislation wouldn't necessarily have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation needs better laws than it has for a safer future, says Attorney General John Ashcroft.
``The mere fact that we can't do everything shouldn't keep us from doing what we can do,'' he says.
Ashcroft, testifying Monday before the House Judiciary Committee, told lawmakers that the Justice Department needs the new anti-terrorism legislation quickly.
``The American people do not have the luxury of unlimited time in erecting the necessary defenses to future terrorist acts,'' the attorney general said.
He takes his case to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Questions about the constitutionality of his provisions and how it would affect Americans' civil liberties have prompted lawmakers to slow down the legislation.
The House committee had planned to vote on the legislation Tuesday, but House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., delayed it until late next week to give the panel time to work out worries aired by some lawmakers.
``We are very close to reaching a bill that has bipartisan support and that would pass the House of Representatives,'' Sensenbrenner said.
Ashcroft, a former senator, wants Congress to expand the FBI's wiretapping authority, impose stronger penalties on those who harbor or finance terrorists and increase punishments of terrorists. ``Every day that passes with outdated statutes and the old rules of engagement is a day that terrorists have a competitive advantage,'' Ashcroft said.
But he said the new powers would not necessarily have prevented the attacks two weeks ago that killed more than 6,000 people in New York City, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. ``We do know that without them the occurrence took place, and we do know that each of them would strengthen our ability to curtail, disrupt and prevent terrorism,'' Ashcroft said. ``But we have absolutely no assurance.''
Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee said the issues are too important to rush the legislation.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the panel's senior Democrat, said the parties had agreed on 16 items in Ashcroft's package, but that some others ``give us constitutional trouble.''
Ashcroft's proposal also would allow immigrants suspected of terrorism to be held indefinitely — something Conyers said the courts already have viewed as unconstitutional.
Concerns also were raised about the proposed use in U.S. courts of electronic surveillance gathered by foreign governments with methods that violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
``While some would say that's unconstitutional on its face, let me be more polite: We're deeply troubled,'' Conyers said.
Ashcroft said he was sure his bill would pass constitutional muster. ``We are conducting this effort with a total commitment to protect the rights and privacy of all Americans and the constitutional protections we hold dear,'' he said.