by William Fisher
(IPS) NEW YORK -- Any doubts about whether new Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales would build on the aggressive legacy of his predecessor, John Ashcroft, were dispelled with the recent declaration of his top priorities.
In a speech at the Hoover Institution, a think-tank, Gonzales urged Congress to speed the process for deporting illegal immigrants, break the partisan logjam over judicial nominees, renew and extend the USA Patriot Act, crack down on obscenity, and reduce violent crime by creating five federal-local task forces nationwide.
"I am committed to prosecuting these crimes aggressively," he said at the Washington meeting.
The Senate confirmed Gonzales on Feb. 3 by a vote of 60 to 36. Democrats were critical of Gonzales's role as White House counsel in crafting administration policies on the treatment of suspected terrorist detainees.
In his previous job as President George W. Bush's lawyer, Gonzales requested and received from the Justice Department a memorandum that gave the president a legal rationale to abuse detainees. The memorandum was rescinded on the eve of Gonzales' confirmation hearing in the Senate.
The USA Patriot Act was hurriedly passed by Congress without debate in the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Only one senator, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, voted against the legislation, which gave law enforcement sweeping new counter-terrorism powers.
Parts of the Patriot Act are due to expire at the end of this year, and both the president and the attorney-general are pushing hard for their renewal. Sen. Feingold has recently introduced legislation to modify three of the more controversial sections of the law.
In his first major statement of priorities, Gonzalez described the immigration law system as "broken." Illegal immigrants have too many opportunities for appeals, and Congress should act to expedite the process, he said.
Legislation containing new rules for "expedited removal" is now making its way through the House of Representatives. The bill, introduced by conservative Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R -Wisconsin) would speed up the process for deporting illegal immigrants and sharply curtail their right to request asylum in the U.S.
When this legislation arrives in the Senate, it is likely to be attached to a piece of "must pass" legislation such as the supplemental request for additional funds to support the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, or for the tsunami relief program.
Tim Sparapani of the American Civil Liberties Union told IPS the so-called REAL I.D. Act contains a number of provisions that asylum-seekers "would find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to comply with. For example, a person asking for asylum because of political persecution would be required to produce documentation from the same people who perpetrated the persecution."
Two days after the attorney-general's speech at the Hoover Institution, the Justice Department suffered a major defeat when a federal judge in South Carolina ruled that the Bush administration lacks statutory and constitutional authority to indefinitely imprison without criminal charges a U.S. citizen who was designated an "enemy combatant."
District Court Judge Henry F. Floyd said the indefinite detention of Jose Padilla -- who the administration has said is a terrorist supporter of al-Qaeda -- is illegal and that Padilla must be released from a naval brig within 45 days or charged with a crime. Padilla has been in detention for almost three years. Floyd said Padilla's continued imprisonment without charge would "violate this country's constitutional tradition and betray U.S. commitment to the separation of powers that safeguards our democratic values and our individual liberties."
Floyd rejected administration assertions that foreigners and U.S. citizens alike who are designated "enemy combatants" by the president can be detained without trial or some other form of judicial review.
"If such a position were ever adopted by the courts, it would totally eviscerate the limits placed on presidential authority to protect the citizenry's individual liberties," he said.
The government's handling of Padilla has twice been repudiated in federal court. In December 2003, a federal appeals court in New York held that Bush lacked authority to hold Padilla in a military brig and ordered him released.
The Justice Department appealed the decision, and the Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 that Padilla's petition for release should have been processed in federal court in South Carolina, not New York. The government intends to appeal the South Carolina verdict, so it could be many months before Padilla faces trial.
Padilla, 34, was arrested by the FBI at Chicago's O'Hare airport after a flight from Pakistan in May 2002. He was held as a material witness to an ongoing terrorism investigation, and designated as an enemy combatant after demanding a lawyer.
The government charged that Padilla was planning to detonate a "dirty bomb." They said he had met with al-Qaeda officials and would pose a grave threat to the country if released.
Floyd's ruling found that the government faced "no impediments whatsoever" to trying Padilla on these charges in a civilian court.
March 9, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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