When President Bush signs into law today new anti-terror legislation, the Justice Department and the FBI will immediately launch a law enforcement offensive as all-consuming as the one Robert F. Kennedy waged against organized crime 40 years ago, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said Thursday.
It will start with an extensive “guidance” paper that Ashcroft said he will send to the 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices and 56 FBI field offices across the country, directing them to immediately implement the new sweeping--and controversial--counter-terrorism law, which the Senate approved Thursday.
Intelligence information on suspected terrorists that was previously off-limits to FBI agents will be handed over to them so they can begin building criminal cases.
Special “roving” wiretaps, which follow an individual rather than a phone number, will be put in place, and expanded search warrants prepared and executed. Authorities will pursue a dramatically broadened list of terrorism-related crimes. In many cases, authorities will be able to hold suspects in custody for longer periods, in an effort to link them to suspected terrorist plots.
Agents will pursue suspected terrorists into the darkest corners of cyberspace, taking advantage of new subpoena power to obtain previously prohibited information about their credit cards and bank account numbers.
And information obtained through grand jury subpoenas will be shared with other law enforcement authorities, loosening the secrecy that has long surrounded the federal indictment process, according to senior Justice Department officials.
By day’s end Thursday, the number of people taken into custody in connection with the terrorism investigation had climbed to at least 952. That number was expected to rise sharply once the new law goes into effect, according to FBI agents, prosecutors and Ashcroft.
Echoing remarks Ashcroft made to the nation’s mayors in a morning speech, Justice Department officials said they expect the new law enforcement activities to have an immediate effect.
“This unleashes us to pursue these cases to the fullest measure,” said one senior Justice Department official. “We could literally deploy within minutes.”
The official said FBI agents and federal prosecutors were already preparing to go after a first wave of targets, and to receive long-awaited information gathered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which in the past was used primarily to disrupt threats to national security.
The official would not discuss the potential number of cases, and said the sensitive “hand-off” of information will be overseen by the new terrorism task force that Ashcroft created at the Justice Department.
Some defense lawyers said the new powers will further erode the constitutional and civil rights of Middle Easterners and others caught up in a federal law enforcement dragnet since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
“It sounds scary, doesn’t it?” asked John Byrnes, a federal public defender in Manhattan, where many of the terrorism-related cases are being brought. “The potential for abuse is there. Look what they’re doing now, without special provisions. They’re locking people up even without all this new stuff.”
Jan Handzlik, a former federal prosecutor who now heads the American Bar Assn.'s national white-collar crime committee, said defense lawyers are very nervous about the new law.
Also expressing concern was Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and constitutional law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
“When they declare war [on terrorism], that in itself is a troubling thought,” said Levenson. “In the name of war, a lot of civil liberties can get trampled.”
Ashcroft, anticipating such criticism, defended the new powers in his speech. “They are careful. They are balanced. They are long-overdue improvements in our capacity to prevent terrorism.”
The attorney general said he will apply to suspected terrorists the vow of then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy to jail every mobster found “spitting on the sidewalk.”
What that means, Ashcroft said, is that anyone suspected of being involved in terrorist activity will be taken into custody and kept there as long as possible, even for the slightest of legal infractions. And those who overstay their visas “even by one day” could be deported.
“Atty. Gen. Kennedy made no apologies for using all of the available resources in the law to disrupt and dismantle organized crime networks,” Ashcroft said. “Very often, prosecutors were aggressive.”
He said his own investigators and prosecutors would be no less dogged.