House, Senate committees ready to move on Ashcroft's request for new anti-terrorism law

Tuesday, September 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Congressional committees plan to move quickly to take up the Bush administration's new counterterrorism package, prompted by Attorney General John Ashcroft's warning that terrorists could still be active in the United States.

The Senate Judiciary Committee canceled its hearings this week so it can take up Ashcroft's recommendations, and anti-terrorism laws will be the next order of business for the House Judiciary Committee as well.

One day after privately briefing congressional leaders, Ashcroft publicly urged Congress to quickly expand the FBI's wiretapping authority, impose stronger penalties on those who harbor or finance terrorists and increase punishments on terrorists themselves.

Ashcroft, a former senator, told lawmakers the FBI needs his package passed this week, even though Congress is observing the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. ``I'm optimistic that we will be able to act quickly to provide law enforcement with the additional tools that are necessary to fight terrorism,'' Ashcroft said.

House and Senate leaders had yet to see the specifications of Ashcroft's proposal Monday afternoon. The attorney general said it would be ready in a ``day or two,'' which led to uncertainty over whether committees will hold hearings or just send the package directly to the House and Senate floors for votes.

The Senate already has approved changing wiretapping laws by amending the Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill last Thursday to make terrorism a reason to request a wiretap.

Part of Ashcroft's terrorism package includes a request to allow the FBI to seek wiretapping orders for a suspect instead of a specific telephone.

That would mean law enforcement agents would be able to tap any phone a suspect uses, instead of having to ask for a new wiretapping order whenever the suspect changes telephones.

``That's a key piece of legislation that would be helpful to us,'' FBI Director Robert Mueller said Monday.

Ashcroft also wants wiretapping orders to extend over state lines. That would allow investigators around the country to tap all of a suspect's calls without getting a separate wiretapping warrant in each jurisdiction.

The attorney general also said he wants Congress to give him expanded electronic surveillance and search authority as well as the ability to identify, seize and forfeit terrorists' assets.

The package would make contributing to terrorism groups a crime under money-laundering statutes, lift the statute of limitations on prosecuting terrorists and increase penalties for harboring terrorists.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, ``All of us want to see the details of any legislative plan if there's going to be a legislative response, but Congress, I believe, is in the mood to do whatever it takes to win this war against terrorism.''

But some groups warned against moving too fast. The American Civil Liberties Union, for one, says Congress should slow down and hold hearings and deliberative debates on Ashcroft's proposed legislation to ensure it doesn't infringe on civil liberties.

``If we allow our freedoms to be undermined, the terrorists will have won,'' said Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director.