U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft Monday pressed U.S. lawmakers for quick passage of the Bush administration's proposals to crack down on terrorism. At a Congressional hearing, Mr. Ashcroft also updated lawmakers on the progress of the investigation into the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Attorney General Ashcroft told members of Congress 352 people have been arrested or detained in connection with the September 11 attacks. He said he believed those in custody have information about the terrorist incidents.
Mr. Ashcroft said nearly 400 other people are being sought for questioning. He also confirmed that crop-dusting planes were grounded for a second day Monday because of fears they could be used in a chemical or biological attack. "The FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] assesses the use of this type of aircraft to distribute chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction as potential threats to Americans," Mr. Ashcroft told lawmakers.
The attorney general said one of the suspected hijackers involved in the attacks, Mohamed Atta, had been seeking information on the use of crop-dusters. He added that another person now in custody had downloaded information about the planes from the Internet.
Mr. Ashcroft also used his appearance before the committee to urge passage of the administration's proposals to fight terrorism. "It is our position at the Justice Department and the position of this administration that we need to unleash every possible tool in the fight against terrorism and to do so promptly because our awareness indicates that we are vulnerable and that our vulnerability is elevated as long as we don't have the tools we need to have," the attorney general said.
The administration's proposals would, among other things, give law enforcement officials greater powers in telephone and computer surveillance.
Some Democrats, like John Conyers of Michigan, expressed concern that such proposals would violate privacy rights. "There are a number of provisions in your measure that give us Constitutional trouble," Rep. Conyers told the attorney general.
Mr. Ashcroft argued the proposals would uphold Constitutional guarantees.
The administration's anti-terrorism package also calls for stiffer penalties for those who harbor terrorists.