Expecting an antiterrorism bill to be signed into law by Friday, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has immediate plans to use the new legislation – specifically more liberal surveillance allowances and expanded jurisdiction of search warrants – to capture known and suspected terrorists operating in the United States.
“The fight against terrorism is now the first and overriding priority of the Department of Justice,” Ashcroft told the United States Conference of Mayors, which held its emergency, safety, and security summit in Washington D.C. this week. “Yesterday, by an overwhelming margin, the House passed the Antiterrorism Act of 2001. Hours from now the Senate are poised to follow suit. The president is expected to sign this legislation on Friday,” he said.
The hour this bill becomes law, Ashcroft said he would guide the U.S. attorneys offices and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offices around the country to use these new capabilities in intelligence gathering to track down terrorist activity.
Specifically, this bill will allow investigators and prosecutors to seek court orders for intercepting communications regarding suspected terrorist activities, whether they are related to planned attacks or to financing or supporting terrorist networks, Ashcroft said. The bill will also expand wiretapping capabilities by allowing investigators to listen in on multiple phones used by a suspected terrorist, instead of tying the wiretap authority to one physical phone as current law does.
Under the proposed law, investigators will also be able to pursue suspected terrorists on the Internet by using devices that capture a message sender’s and receiver’s e-mail address; by allowing for search warrants that can be used to play unopened voice mail messages stored on a computer; and by being able to subpoena credit card and bank account information of suspected terrorists that is accessible from the Internet, Ashcroft said.
The measure would also extend the authority of a court order to trace communications of suspected terrorists when that interaction goes outside of the court’s jurisdiction, eliminating the time-consuming procedure of having to obtain additional court orders. One court order will also be sufficient to allow for the reading of unopened e-mail anywhere in the nation, he added.
These allowances are necessary for what the Attorney General referred to as a new era in law enforcement. “They are careful, they are balanced, and they are long overdue improvements in our capacity to prevent terrorism,” Ashcroft said.
The Justice Department will pursue terrorism with the same vigor that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy fought organized crime in the early 1960s, Ashcroft continued. Much as Kennedy vowed to convict mobsters for minor infractions such as spitting in public, Ashcroft said that the Justice Department would arrest and detain any suspected terrorist found violating the law.
“We will use every available statute. We will seek every prosecutorial advantage. We will use all weapons within the law and under the Constitution to protect life and enhance security in America,” he said, adding that if a suspected terrorist is detained and found not to have broken the law, nor is linked to terrorist activity, he or she will be released.
Earlier at the summit, Tom Ridge, director of the U.S. Office of Homeland Defense, told the mayors he plans to coordinate antiterrorism efforts on national, state, and local levels. Yet he stopped short of outlining how he will organize the 46 agencies and at least 13 departments within the federal government – not to mention state and local governments – that play a role in securing the nation against future attacks.
“Once I present a national strategy to the president, a redesign of some agencies might be an outcome,” Ridge said.
The director reiterated his belief that his position does not require statutory authority or congressional confirmation – measures that some law makers are calling for – in order to do his job. He offered up as an example Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, who often works with cabinet members without overseeing them or having control over their budgets.