Osama bin Laden's terrorist network is operating in "dozens and dozens and dozens of countries around the world," and investigators suspect that terrorists still at large in the United States may be planning a fresh round of attacks, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft warned Sunday in his strongest assessment to date of the danger level.
"We believe that there is the likelihood of additional terrorist activity," Ashcroft said, and as the United States moves toward possible military action, "our risks go up."
Ashcroft, in Sunday morning talk-show appearances on CBS and CNN, sounded a series of often dire warnings about the ongoing threat that the American public faces nearly three weeks after the Sept. 11 hijackings. His remarks were consistent with those of a White House official to The Times on Saturday.
Although Ashcroft has spoken repeatedly in recent weeks about a "clear and present danger," he has maintained a reserved and at times even reassuring public tone. But the attorney general appeared to hold back little on Sunday, and observers said that the rhetorical escalation could signal that the Bush administration is considering an even stronger expansion of federal police powers--a trend many members of the public appear willing to support.
Ashcroft coupled his warnings Sunday with an appeal to Congress to move quickly to pass the Bush administration's package of toughened anti-terrorism measures, including broader powers for federal agents to wiretap suspected terrorists and to detain and deport immigrants who might be linked to terrorist groups.
The Bush plan has encountered some strong objections over civil liberties concerns, but administration and congressional leaders met over the weekend to try to work out a compromise on key sticking points.
"Everybody knows that we're going to have to make sure that we have some kind of a check and balance" in the anti-terrorism measures, said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Sunday.
"We don't want to be like countries that we criticize all the time" for holding Americans "without even telling them what they are holding them for," Leahy said.
A Justice Department official said Ashcroft's heated warnings Sunday about future attacks were not meant to step up pressure on Congress to move more quickly on the administration's terrorism plan.
Ashcroft "clearly intended to send a message to Congress that he thinks it's time to do this. . . . But he's been very clear about the threat level from the beginning. That is not changing just because Congress is taking additional time to look at this," the official said.
But Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, appeared with Leahy on CBS's "Face the Nation" and said Congress needs to pass the legislation by Friday or risk further attacks.
"That's what the president has asked for. That's what John Ashcroft has asked for. If we don't do it, we risk . . . having another incident that could cost the American people very, very dearly."
Indeed, Ashcroft said he thinks terrorists remain at large in the United States "who would have plans . . . to do things."
Although authorities have already arrested more than 500 people since Sept. 11 in connection with the terrorist probe, Ashcroft said he thinks it is "very unlikely" that everyone associated with the hijackers is now in custody.
Ashcroft suggested for the first time Sunday that he considers some of those now in custody to be "suspected terrorists."
The debate over extending police powers comes against a backdrop of repeated attempts dating back to Bill Clinton's presidency to bring down Bin Laden. As Clinton himself has acknowledged, he approved a secret campaign aimed at arresting and if necessary killing Bin Laden.
The Clinton administration obtained an indictment against Bin Laden in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and concluded he was not covered by an executive order barring assassination of high foreign officials. It also authorized covert operations by the CIA inside Afghanistan.
Now, the Bush administration is demanding that Bin Laden be surrendered to U.S. authorities by the Taliban regime. And American special forces are understood to have begun operations inside Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, investigators probing the Sept. 11 attacks have focused intensely on the activities of a handful of people in custody--including two men found on an Amtrak train in Texas with box-cutters in their possession, and a third man in Minnesota who had been taking flight training classes. Before Sunday, the Justice Department had studiously avoided saying that any of those in custody were "suspected terrorists," saying instead that they might have information on the case or the hijackers.
Since the hijackings, federal authorities have taken a slew of extraordinary steps to tighten security on airlines and to investigate threats posed by crop dusters, hazardous material cargo and a number of other possible risks.
But terrorist camps in Afghanistan have trained extremists to launch a second round of attacks three or four months after the initial hit, once public frenzy and vigilance have died down, according to a Bin Laden associate now imprisoned in the United States. And Ashcroft made clear Sunday that he believes a high level of danger remains.
"We think that there is a very serious threat of additional problems now. And frankly, as the United States responds, that threat may escalate," he said.