WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – Associates of hijackers who crashed jetliners into U.S. landmarks last week may be at large in the United States, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Monday in pressing Congress to expand powers to wiretap telephones, conduct searches and seize assets.
Ashcroft said the United States would face an “increased risk” after it launches a retaliatory strike in response to last week’s attacks, which leveled the twin towers of the World Trade Center and demolished a section of the Pentagon, but he added that agents were making progress in identifying the masterminds behind the attacks.
“Associates of the hijackers that have ties to terrorist organizations may be a continuing presence in the United States,” Ashcroft told a news conference at FBI headquarters.
He cited “this current threat assessment” in urging that Congress approve new anti-terrorist legislation that would make it easier for the FBI to tap suspects’ telephones, including mobile phones, and to track suspicious movements of money.
“We will call upon the Congress … to enact these important anti-terrorist measures this week,” Ashcroft said. “We need these tools to fight the terrorism threat which exists in the United States, and we must meet that growing threat.”
He said the FBI followed up on more than 7,700 phone calls and 47,000 potential leads received on its website about last Tuesday’s attacks, which left more than 5,000 people dead or missing.
The United States said Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian-born multimillionaire believed to be based in Afghanistan, is the prime suspect in the attack, and vowed military retaliation.
“We’re beginning to develop an understanding of whom these people were, whom their associates were, how this attack was perpetrated, and we’re beginning to develop links of evidence that indicate the source of the design against the United States,” Ashcroft said on CNN’s “Larry King Live” program.
“Frankly, I think we need to be careful and we need to understand that there is a risk, and when this nation responds globally, I think it’s fair to understand that it may be that there would be an increased risk associated with acts against the American people,” he added.
AIR MARSHALS ON FLIGHTS
Ashcroft told the news conference that the government would increase the number of air marshals aboard domestic flights and would send more than 300 deputy marshals to help the FBI follow-up leads at its 56 field offices across the nation.
“We want to make sure that our laws convey the seriousness of the crime of terrorism,” Ashcroft said, adding that the Justice Department planned to complete the comprehensive legislative package in the next day or two.
He said under current laws it was easier to watch a drug suspect or a spy than someone suspected of terrorism.
Proposed changes would eliminate the statute of limitation for terrorist crimes and allow money-laundering laws to be used to prosecute those who provide key support to terrorist groups, Ashcroft said.
Other changes would give the FBI the power to obtain a wiretap for a specific person. Now, the FBI can only wiretap a specific phone number. He said the change was needed for people who use “multiple telephones and changing cellular phones.”
NEARLY 50 HELD ON IMMIGRATION VIOLATIONS
At the same news conference, FBI Director Robert Mueller said 49 people were being detained for immigration violations in the course of questioning throughout the country about the attacks — up from 25 on Saturday.
A Justice Department official said some of the 49 were charged with immigration violations, and U.S. immigration authorities could move to have some or all of the 49 held without bond.
In addition to the 49, law enforcement sources said, at least four witnesses with key information about the attacks or who posed a flight risk have been arrested on sealed warrants. Mueller said a number of such material-witness warrants had been issued.
The FBI has begun 30 so-called hate-crime investigations involving reported attacks on Arab-American citizens and institutions, including houses of worship and community centers, Mueller said.
“Dozens of retaliatory hate crimes have been directed at members of the Arab-American community, including assaults, arson, threatening communications and two possibly ethnically motivated murders,” he said.
Mueller said the FBI was not targeting Arab-Americans for questioning based solely on their ethnic background.
“When we seek to interview and question an individual, we are doing so based on predications that the individual may have some information relating to the acts that took place last week. We do not, have not and will not target people based solely on their ethnicity,” he said.
Mueller also made a plea to the public, saying the FBI was actively seeking and recruiting English-speaking individuals who are proficient in Arabic and Farsi.
Those who wish to join the FBI must be American citizens who have been permanent residents for at least three of the last five years and must pass a “thorough background investigation and language proficiency examination,” he said.
CIVIL LIBERTIES CONCERNS
Ashcroft said the government was aware of the need to balance security needs with the protection of civil liberties. “We are also mindful of our responsibilities to protect the rights and privacies of Americans,” he said.
Mimi Devlin, a spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Congress will be unable to comply with Ashcroft’s request to approve the legislation this week.
“That is just not realistic,” Devlin said, saying the Senate Judiciary Committee had not yet even received the package. “We need to make sure that legislation is not ill-formed and will hold up.”
Rep. David Dreier, a R-Calif., said, “Any legislation that the attorney general sends up, we will look at very carefully and move as quickly as possible.”
“I’m convinced that there would be an overwhelming level of support for responsible ways in which we can assure that these terrorists are brought to justice,” said Dreier, who as chairman of the House Rules Committee helps control the flow of legislation in the House.