WASHINGTON—Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft asked congressional leaders Sunday to quickly give U.S. law-enforcement agencies more authority to pursue people suspected of involvement in terrorist activities.
Ashcroft met for nearly two hours with House Democratic leader Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Assistant Senate Republican Leader Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, presenting the outlines of a legislative package he will send to Capitol Hill next week.
Kori Bernards, a spokeswoman for Gephardt, said the Democratic leader reached no conclusion regarding Ashcroft's request.
"There's a delicate balance between law enforcement's ability to do its work and making sure people's privacy is protected," Bernards said.
Ashcroft, who returned to Washington on Sunday from a two-day stay at Camp David, Md., said the proposed legislation would include measures that would make it easier to tap private telephones.
Broader wiretaps sought
With wiretaps and electronic surveillance, current law requires police to get permission from a judge each time they tap a phone. That means they must get new permission each time the suspect changes locations. Ashcroft said he wants the law rewritten so that the legal permission would apply to the suspect, not to an individual telephone.
"There are areas of our laws and procedures which give us better tools against organized crime, against illegal gambling, for example, than we have against terrorists," Ashcroft said. "We need to make sure that we provide the maximum capacity against terrorists in the United States."
Support for Ashcroft's proposals was predicted Sunday by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
"If you have the person, rather than the phone, that will be much more efficient," Hyde said during an appearance on WGN radio..
Ashcroft said the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies would step up efforts to disrupt terrorist networks they believe to be working in the United States.
The Justice Department also may seek authority to wiretap individuals across jurisdictional lines; currently a wiretap can be obtained only within a specific judicial district. Department officials said they will seek other powers as well, describing the package as "comprehensive."
The FBI has long pushed for such tools, but lawmakers have resisted these requests as handing too much power to law enforcement. In the current climate, however, Congress is likely to be far more receptive.
Civil rights concerns
Still, several lawmakers already have expressed concerns about the dangers of rushing legislation through Congress, many citing fears of violating Americans' civil liberties. During World War II, for example, Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps for fear that they could be working for the government of Japan.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said over the past week that "when the facts are in and the facts are clear," his committee will re-evaluate the government's electronic surveillance laws.
Similarly, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has warned colleagues against rashly changing the law.
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, has spent several months putting together a bill that would create a "terrorist czar" within the administration and would expand the ability to eavesdrop into suspected terrorists' phone conversations.
Aides said Graham plans to introduce his legislation in the Senate on Thursday when Congress returns to Washington.
Other lawmakers also have begun to express support for eliminating the prohibition on government-sponsored assassinations.
President Bush has the authority to reverse President Gerald Ford's 1976 executive order on his own, but the administration may ask Congress to sign off on the reversal in any legislation package sent to Capitol Hill.
Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said last week that in confronting terrorism, every rule should be re-examined.
Earlier Sunday, Ashcroft told reporters at Camp David that the administration also would seek to increase penalties for those who aid terrorists in the U.S., so that terrorist activities would be equated with acts of treason and espionage.
The attorney general did not rule out the possibility that law-enforcement officials might increase their use of suspect profiling as they step up efforts to combat terrorist networks at work in America.
Profiling has led to broad criticisms of law-enforcement agencies because race has sometimes been a factor that police considered when trying to determine the likelihood that someone might be a criminal.
Ashcroft said he opposed the use of race in profiling, and has spoken out against it in the past.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has long fought to protect the rights of U.S. citizens, refused to comment Sunday. Spokesman Gabe Rottman said the group's officials want to wait and review the proposals first.