WASHINGTON - Under intense criticism, Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the Justice Department's handling of the terrorism investigation yesterday and said federal authorities are carrying out a "deliberate campaign of arrest and detention to protect American lives."
His remarks came as civil rights groups and some in Congress have raised alarms about the scope and secrecy of the federal dragnet that followed the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings today that will focus on how to balance U.S. counterterrorism efforts with the protection of civil liberties. Ashcroft is scheduled to testify before the panel next week to justify his department's actions.
Yesterday, the attorney general began answering his critics. He disclosed that more than 600 people remain in custody, among them suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
None has been charged directly in the Sept. 11 attacks, but Ashcroft described some of the detainees as "suspected terrorists" and said the widespread arrests had helped prevent attacks on the United States.
"We believe we have al-Qaida membership in custody," Ashcroft said yesterday at a Justice Department news conference in Washington. "And we will use every constitutional tool to keep suspected terrorists locked up."
In his first detailed accounting of the hundreds of people detained in the investigation, Ashcroft said that 603 people are in custody - 548 are being held on immigration violations, 55 are charged with other federal crimes.
Forty-nine others have been charged and have been released on bail or are still being sought.
Ashcroft would not say how many of those in custody are suspected of being members of al-Qaida.
"I don't want to try and be more specific," he said.
Critics have raised concerns about the Justice Department's aggressive investigation tactics, which have targeted mainly people of Middle Eastern background.
They have also denounced new department policies that allow investigators to listen in on some attorney-client conversations. And they have called for the release of more information about the hundreds of people detained.
The attorney general described the widespread arrests as part of a "delicate and deliberate" campaign to block terrorist violence. He said all of the detainees had had opportunities to meet with lawyers and that he was unaware of any legal challenges alleging abuses of civil rights during the investigation.
Ashcroft confirmed that he will testify before the Judiciary Committee next week and said that he welcomes the lawmakers' inquiries.
"I think it's entirely proper that the U.S. Senate and House exercise oversight over the Justice Department," said Ashcroft, a former Republican senator from Missouri. "I'll be there, and I will respond to them."
Earlier, the Justice Department had said that 1,182 people had been detained in connection with the anti-terrorism investigation. But until yesterday it was unclear how many were still in custody.
Besides those 603, Ashcroft said, an unspecified number of people are being held as material witnesses in grand jury investigations or on local or state charges.
In cases filed across the country, federal authorities have charged individuals with obtaining false identification papers, lying to the FBI and illegally possessing firearms, among other charges, Justice Department records show. None of the cases has been filed in federal court in Maryland.
In a case in Virginia, a federal agent said this week that one defendant, Agus Budiman, was a close associate of Mohammed Atta, the suspected leader of the 19 suicide hijackers on Sept. 11.
Budiman, 31, an Indonesian, had had contacts with Atta and another hijacker, Marwan al-Shehhi, FBI Special Agent Jesus Gomez testified this week. Gomez said Budiman also was associated with Ramsi Binalshibh, who the FBI has said was meant to be the 20th hijacker.
But like many of those who have been publicly charged, Budiman faces relatively minor document fraud charges unrelated to the September attacks.
For many of those charged, federal investigators have offered no details linking them to the hijackers or to any other terrorist cells. In some cases, such as those charging several men in Pennsylvania with fraudulently obtaining permits to haul hazardous materials, FBI officials have acknowledged that there is no connection to September's terrorist violence.
Advocacy groups who have called for more public information about the investigation said yesterday that they welcome Ashcroft's disclosures. But they argued that many more details are needed.
"By releasing fragmentary information today, Attorney General Ashcroft finally seems to have recognized that who the government chooses to arrest and hold in custody cannot be kept a secret," said Tim Edgar, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.