WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – The Bush administration was considering lifting a decades-old executive order banning U.S. involvement in assassinations overseas, officials said Sunday as the United States prepared to wage war against ”terrorism.”
Wary that the people involved in plotting the staggering attacks may still be on U.S. soil, the administration also sought quick congressional action on proposals to expand the FBI’s ability to conduct wiretaps, track money laundering and detain foreigners.
“We do believe that people involved in the terrorist attack with connections to terrorist groups may be present in the United States,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker. “We believe that that is a significant enough threat to warrant quick action on Congress’ part.”
In Tuesday’s choreographed attack, hijackers took control of four U.S. airliners, crashing two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon. A fourth airliner was brought down in Pennsylvania.
Hundreds of people are confirmed dead, and thousands more are missing and presumed dead in the attacks.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the administration was reviewing the 1976 executive order enacted by President Gerald Ford banning U.S. personnel from engaging in, or conspiring to engage in, assassinations.
“It’s still on the books and as part of our campaign plan we are examining everything – how the CIA does its work, how the FBI and Justice Department does its work, are there laws that need to be changed and new laws brought into effect to give us more ability to deal with this kind of threat?” Powell said on CNN’s “Late Edition” program.
“So everything is under review.”
Along with lifting the assassination ban, Vice President Dick Cheney said CIA field officers may once again be allowed to recruit foreign agents linked to human rights violations to conduct the “mean, nasty, dirty, dangerous business” of spying on extremist groups.
The administration has named Saudi exile Osama bin Laden as a prime suspect in the hijacked airliner assaults on New York and Washington, sparking speculation U.S. retaliation might involve killing the multimillionaire leader of the al-Qaeda network, who is believed to live in Afghanistan.
On the domestic front, Attorney General John Ashcroft briefed congressional leaders on the threat of further attacks, and sought support for strengthening the Justice Department’s arsenal of investigative weapons.
As part of legislation being drafted, Ashcroft was seeking to loosen wiretap laws, for example, to allow federal agents to track calls of a suspect anywhere in the country. Current law allows agents to seek court orders to tap specific phone lines, not calls by a specified suspect.
“It’s easier to get a wiretap against a drug dealer or someone who’s involved in illegal gambling than it is against terrorists,” Ashcroft said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Ashcroft also proposed stiffer criminal penalties.
“We need, for instance, to elevate the penalties for those who would harbor or assist terrorists to at least the same level as the penalties for those who would harbor or assist those who have been involved in espionage,” he said.
The FBI has about 4,000 agents tracking down 40,000 leads in the attacks, making the code-named PENTTBOM probe the largest investigation in U.S. history, he said.
Two unidentified people have been arrested in the New York area as material witnesses in the investigation, the latest on Saturday in Jersey City, New Jersey. Such witnesses are typically considered important enough to affect the outcome of a case.
A further 25 people were taken into custody on alleged immigration violations and were being questioned, and the FBI was seeking more than 100 others for questioning.
Although President Bush and other U.S. officials have named bin Laden as the prime suspect in the attack, Ashcroft said the investigation has not focused exclusively on the militant leader and his network.
“We are not limiting our investigation or our effort to any particular network,” he said on Fox.
Along with the investigation, the Justice Department has been tracking alleged anti-Arab incidents in the United States.
“The Department of Justice has made it clear that we don’t think this is a time for Arab-Americans and other Americans to be persecuted [or be] victims of activity that is inappropriate,” he said.