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Threatened with congressional hearings, Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the government’s new practice of listening in while some detained in the terrorist investigation talk with defense attorneys. “We’re talking … about 13 prisoners nationally in the United States of America whom we have reason to believe would be seeking to continue with criminal activity while they are in jail,” Ashcroft said Friday on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” “Of the 13, some are terrorists,” Ashcroft added. A rule published Oct. 31 in the Federal Register says the monitoring of mail and phone calls can take place when Ashcroft concludes there is “reasonable suspicion” that the communications are related to future terrorist acts. The rule went into effect the day before it was disclosed to the public. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the attorney general, “I need answers to the grave concerns raised by your new policy.” Leahy asked Ashcroft to detail when the conversations were first monitored and what the legal basis was for the interceptions. “I expect the Senate Judiciary Committee will be holding prompt hearings on these matters,” said Leahy. American Bar Association president Robert A. Hirshon said the new rules “run squarely afoul” of the Constitution. If the government has probable cause to believe criminal activity is occurring or is about to occur, it can ask a judge to approve the type of monitoring allowed by the regulation, he said. “No privilege is more indelibly ensconced in the American legal system than the attorney-client privilege,” Hirshon said. Ashcroft argued that terrorists might try to use their attorneys to signal accomplices to commit acts of terrorism. “This is a very narrowly focused thing, less than 0.01 percent of all the prison population,” Ashcroft said. “None of the information could be used against them subsequently in court that was a result of what is overheard.” The rule requires the government to give the attorney and his client notice of its listening activities. According to the rule, a “privilege team” filters out confidential attorney-client information to ensure investigators and prosecutors never see protected communications. Leahy said the setup was unacceptable. “I am deeply troubled at what appears to be an executive effort to exercise new powers without judicial scrutiny or statutory authorization,” wrote Leahy. “When the detainee’s legal adversary — the government that seeks to deprive him of his liberty — listens in on his communications with his attorney, that fundamental right, and the adversary process that depends upon it, are profoundly compromised,” Leahy added. Copyright 2001 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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