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White House Asks for Tougher Anti-Terrorism Laws - 2001-09-18

The Bush administration is seeking new legal weapons in its fight against terrorism. It is asking lawmakers for increased powers to thwart terrorists and wants them enacted quickly. Federal agents will also begin flying aboard commercial airliners to guard against hijackings like the ones that led to the crashes into the World Trade Center and U.S. military headquarters.

The U.S. law enforcement agency, the Justice Department, has sent Congress proposed legislation to make it easier for the federal government to identify, stop, and punish terrorist acts. The agency's chief, Attorney General John Ashcroft, says current laws are inadequate. "We are identifying instances where the law currently makes it easier to prosecute drug trafficking and organized crime or espionage than it is to prosecute terrorism," says Mr. Ashcroft. "If terrorism has not had a priority in the criminal justice system previously, it's time for us to understand that it needs to be a priority in the criminal justice system now."

Mr. Ashcroft says the measures would increase the government's authority to conduct electronic surveillance and searches of suspected terrorists, trace and seize the assets of terrorist groups, and detain foreigners. They would also eliminate time limits in which terrorist crimes could be prosecuted, and increase penalties for supporting terrorists.

The proposal on electronic surveillance, for example, would give federal agents broader authority to eavesdrop on telephone conversations of terrorist suspects. Currently, agents can tap only a specified telephone number. But in this age of mobile and disposable phones, the government is seeking authority to target an individual and listen to any conversation the person has on any phone.

The Attorney General discussed the measures Sunday with members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, and is seeking their urgent passage into law. "We will call upon the Congress of the United States to enact these important anti-terrorism measures this week," said Mr. Ashcroft. "We need these tools to fight the terrorism threat which exists in the United States, and we must meet that growing threat."

Mr. Ashcroft revealed that U.S. immigration officials have detained 49 people in connection with the investigation into last week's airliner hijacks, or because of their immigration status. One of the Attorney General's deputies, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller, would not disclose how many arrests have been made in the investigation because of court secrecy rules.

To protect U.S. airliners, Mr. Ashcroft says federal agents would begin boarding flights, but he did not specify a number.

FBI chief Mueller noted several acts of vengeance against Arabs and Muslims in the United States, and warned Americans not to take the law into their own hands. "Vigilante attacks and threats against Arab-Americans will not be tolerated," Mr. Mueller said. Such acts of retaliation violate federal law, and, more particularly, run counter to the very principles of equality and freedom upon which our nation is founded."

Mr. Mueller says his agency is investigating 40 "hate crimes," many of which have been directed against Muslim mosques and community centers. He says they include physical assaults, threats, fires, and possibly two ethnically motivated murders.