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Fielding sharp questions from New York City lawyers, Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff on Wednesday defended the U.S. Department of Justice’s attempts to disrupt and detain suspected terrorists since the Sept. 11 attacks. Chertoff, who appeared at a breakfast event hosted by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, described terrorists as “modern-day pirates” who deliberately place themselves outside the law and need to be addressed by something in between civilian and military justice. He said the Justice Department’s methods for fighting terrorists — including military tribunals and eavesdropping on conversations between lawyers and clients — were “aggressive, but at the end of the day, fair and balanced.” Chertoff, who was recently brought in to head the Justice Department’s criminal division, added that the department’s tactics complied with the U.S. Constitution, and were a measured response compared to past actions taken by the United States in times of duress, such as the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. When asked whether the Justice Department had engaged in racial profiling in detaining more than a thousand people since Sept. 11, Chertoff said the department did not practice profiling, and added that the tactic was, in any case, ineffective. He said other factors, such as a person’s travel history or the type of education sought while in the country, were used to determine suspects. The main goal of the Justice Department, he said, is to prevent another attack. Chertoff admitted that it was difficult to prove that the department’s investigation has so far been successful, but he said he believed it had been. As evidence, he pointed to Richard Reid, who was recently arrested after allegedly attempting to detonate explosives in his shoe during a flight from France. The fact that Reid acted alone, Chertoff said, suggested that the department’s investigation has had some affect on the methods of terrorists, who acted in teams on Sept. 11. Addressing military tribunals, Chertoff said their creation had historical precedent going back to World War II, and added that there would be a “general preference” for openness if tribunals were used. He questioned whether it was in the nation’s and the court system’s best interests — considering the need to provide security for judges and jurors — to try 10 to 15 terrorism cases a year all over the country. Forcing civilian courts to administer issues they were not designed to handle might actually harm the judicial system, he said. Chertoff did not offer any guidance on when final rules for the military tribunals would be set by the Department of Defense. LISTENING IN Chertoff also paid particular attention to new rules that allow the Justice Department to listen in on conversations between a lawyer and a detainee suspected of terrorism, saying that the provision would only apply to a “very, very narrow” subset of detainees: those who have shown in the past that they might use communication with the outside world to perpetrate a crime. He said that those who monitored the conversations would not share information with attorneys prosecuting the defendant. The monitoring was not intended to uncover what a defendant might know, Chertoff said, but to help the government learn of future threats. One lawyer complained that the rule would make detainees afraid to talk to their lawyers, thereby depriving them of effective assistance of counsel. Chertoff replied by stressing the small number of detainees to whom the rule would apply and saying that lawyers and clients have never had the right to a perfect, private relationship. For example, Chertoff said, if a client told a lawyer about a future crime, the lawyer would have an ethical obligation to come forward with that information. At least one lawyer, Frederick H. Cohn, who represents a man convicted for part of an attack on two U.S. embassies in Africa, has said he will challenge the rule on constitutional grounds in federal court. Other lawyers asked Chertoff why the Justice Department has refused to release the names of people detained in connection with the terrorist investigation, and they raised concerns about the treatment of those individuals, many of whom are being held in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Numerous attorneys have said that detainees are given only one phone call a week, and some say their clients complain of being underfed and kept in cells where the lights are on 24 hours a day. Responding to questions from Norman H. Siegel, former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Chertoff said it would be “troubling” and perhaps unconstitutional for the Justice Department to release the names of a specific group of people detained on immigration violations. Identifying a person as a possible terrorist, he said, would brand that person with a stigma akin to “sexual predator.” He also said rudeness on the part of detention center wardens, whom Siegel said have been uncooperative at every turn, was “unacceptable,” and that word had been sent to the centers to not impede detainees from obtaining legal counsel. Afterwards, Siegel said that “there was a lot to be desired” and “a little doublespeak” in Chertoff’s responses, but he added that it was great that Chertoff had agreed to address the bar. Siegel said he would request in writing that the Justice Department send representatives — preferably Attorney General John Ashcroft — to attend a public meeting in New York. Siegel, who is now director of the Freedom Legal Defense and Education Project, a new organization formed to address the legal rights of detained individuals and persons who lack representation, said that concerns about detainees’ privacy could be addressed by asking them if they would like to have their names revealed to the public.

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