Tough Anti-Terror Campaign Pledged
Ashcroft Tells Mayors He Will Use New Law to Fullest Extent
by Dan Eggen, Washington Post, 26 October 2001
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft yesterday promised an aggressive campaign to detain and prosecute even minor lawbreakers in the Justice Department's fight against terrorism, comparing the effort to Robert F. Kennedy's campaign against organized crime in the 1960s.
In an unusually forceful speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors here, Ashcroft said Justice Department prosecutors and FBI agents will use new anti-terrorism legislation to unleash broad surveillance and searches on suspected terrorists and their associates, and will not shrink from using minor crimes or immigration violations to jail or deport them.
"Let the terrorists among us be warned," Ashcroft said. "If you overstay your visas even by one day, we will arrest you. If you violate a local law, we will . . . work to make sure that you are put in jail and . . . kept in custody as long as possible. We will use every available statute. We will seek every prosecutorial advantage. We will use all our weapons within the law and under the Constitution to protect life and enhance security for America."
Though somewhat less far-reaching than the legislation Ashcroft had proposed, the landmark anti-terrorism bill would dramatically expand the FBI's wiretapping and electronic surveillance authority and impose stronger penalties for harboring or financing terrorists. It also redefines some terrorist acts and increases the punishment for them.
The bill, proposed five days after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, was approved by the Senate yesterday, 98 to 1. The House overwhelmingly approved it Wednesday, and President Bush is expected to sign it today.
"These laws will help ensure that Americans will never be violated in the way we were on September 11," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
But Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), the only senator to oppose the bill, and civil liberties advocates said the package infringes on individual rights.
The bill would allow "roving wiretaps" in intelligence investigations covering multiple telephones, expand electronic surveillance powers to allow easier monitoring of e-mail and Internet traffic, and would permit agencies such as the FBI to easily share grand jury and wiretap information with intelligence agencies.
Immigration officials could also hold non-citizens certified by the attorney general as suspected terrorists for as long as seven days before charging them. Ashcroft originally had sought to make the time period indefinite.
"These new and unchecked powers could be used against American citizens who are not under criminal investigation, immigrants who are here within our borders legally, and also against those whose First Amendment activities are deemed to be threats to national security by the attorney general," said Gregory T. Nojeim, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office.
But Ashcroft, in declaring "a new era in America's fight against terrorism," said the bill will allow "airtight surveillance" of terrorist networks and will enable U.S. authorities to disrupt plans for further attacks.
He said he will issue guidelines immediately after the bill's signing to all U.S. attorneys and FBI field offices allowing them to start seeking court orders for wiretaps, nationwide search warrants, Internet monitoring and other surveillance to tighten the net on suspected terrorists.
Department officials yesterday characterized Ashcroft's speech as a change in direction at Justice, which since Sept. 11 has made prosecuting terrorists and preventing additional attacks its top priority. The FBI is considering an internal reorganization to focus more resources on counterterrorism efforts, several officials have said.
The attorney general's hard-edged statements differed markedly in tone from many of his previous comments on detention. Ashcroft has generally spoken about the increasing number of detainees in more measured terms, stressing that they were being treated fairly and were all accused of some wrongdoing.
Nearly 1,000 people have been detained so far, though an unknown number have been released. FBI officials have said that fewer than 10 of the detainees are suspected of having substantive ties to the hijacking plot, and civil liberties advocates have questioned whether prosecutors and the FBI are abusing their authority.
But Ashcroft forcefully defended the tactics yesterday, saying that he -- a conservative Republican -- would take inspiration from Kennedy, a Democrat and a former attorney general who used arcane statutes in pursuit of suspected organized crime figures. Ashcroft noted that in one case, two suspected mobsters -- a father and son -- were charged with lying on a home loan application.
"Some will ask whether a civilized nation, a nation of law and not of men, can use the law to defend itself from barbarians and remain civilized," Ashcroft said. "Our answer unequivocally is yes. Yes, we will defend civilization. And, yes, we will preserve the rule of law, because it is that which makes us civilized."
In a background briefing with reporters yesterday, two Justice Department officials said the legislation, combined with Ashcroft's statements, signals a significant change in attitude and direction for federal prosecutors.
One official said the pursuit of Al Capone, who was prosecuted on tax charges, and other mobsters would provide a template for the department's approach to terrorists and their accomplices.
"If we are dealing with people who are potentially linked to terrorists, we will prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law," the official said. "We don't care if it's chump change."
Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post Company
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.