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Attorney General Asks Congress for New Authority - 2001-09-16


U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is asking Congress for new authority to allow federal agents to better go after suspected terrorists.

Tuesday's attacks in New York and Washington are prompting the government to rethink some of the rules that restrict eavesdropping and surveillance techniques long favored by law enforcement.

Some in Washington are describing the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as a massive failure of American intelligence, given the fact that the United States now spends several hundred million dollars a year on intelligence and other measures to combat terrorism.

In fact, Secretary of State Colin Powell says U.S. intelligence had no warning whatsoever that the multiple terrorist strikes were in the making. "Nobody would have anticipated that kind of threat without some sort of cueing or warning that such an attack was on the way or we had some kind of intelligence that such an attack was coming," the secretary said.

The idea that both the nation's financial center as well as it's capital were caught completely off guard is renewing debate about the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence in fighting terrorism and what should be done to improve it.

Attorney General Ashcroft is now calling for quick Congressional action to change the law to give federal agents greater rights to eavesdrop on telephone calls. Authorities are now required to get a court order to tap phone lines.

But Mr. Ashcroft believes such restrictions hamper law enforcement since suspected terrorists are able to evade wiretaps by using mobile phones, laptop computers and other state of the art technology. "If a person ceases using one telephone and begins to use another telephone, we have to go back to court to get new authority," the attorney general said. "Most Americans, we all understand, that you can buy disposable telephones now, use them for a limited period of time, and throw them away and it simply doesn't make sense to have the surveillance authority associated with the hardware or with the phone instead of with the person or the terrorist."

Law enforcement has better tools to investigate illegal gambling, he says, than it does to pursue suspected terrorists.

President Bush told reporters Sunday any changes in the law should respect Americans' right to privacy but that law enforcement needs to have new tools to fight the kind of threats the nation now faces. "We're facing a new kind of enemy, somebody so barbaric that they would fly airlines into buildings full of innocent people," Mr. Bush said. "And therefore, we have to be on alert in America. We're a nation of law, a nation of civil rights. We're also a nation under attack."

Some members of Congress are also suggesting restrictions be revised on how the Central Intelligence Agency recruits agents. In the 1970's, following allegations of CIA involvement in political assassinations overseas, Congress assigned more oversight to the agency, while restricting its ability to deal with potential informers inside terrorist organizations or unsavory governments.

Appearing on CNN Sunday, Florida Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it's time for what he calls a more pragmatic approach toward intelligence gathering. "The fact is that if you want to get somebody to get close to [Osama] Bin Laden to be able to understand what he's thinking about and what actions he may be likely to take, I would not suggest that you go to the monastery to try to find that person," Ahmad Shah Masood. "The people that have the ability to get close are likely to be the people pretty much like the ones who are now working with Bin Laden."

Former CIA director James Woolsey says the events of the past week have prompted what he calls a sea change in attitudes toward intelligence gathering. Congress will soon have to decide where an individual's right to privacy stops and where law enforcement's right to use increasingly intrusive measures to battle terrorism begins."

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