In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Ashcroft said the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 would allow easier monitoring and jailing of suspected terrorists.
The legislation comes in the wake of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed over 6,000 people.
The administration says the new laws are necessary, pointing out that the FBI had tracked several of the suspects before the attacks, but did not have sufficient evidence to detain them.
During his 60-minute testimony, Ashcroft laid out some of the specifics of the administration’s proposal and urged the committee to approve the changes quickly.
“Everyday that passes with outdated statutes and the old rules of engagement, each day that so passes is a day that terrorists have a competitive advantage. Until Congress makes these changes we are fighting an unnecessary uphill battle,” Ashcroft said.
Members of the House committee expressed concern over the breadth of powers the new law may give the federal government. One of the main points of contention involved the government’s ability to hold a suspect indefinitely during a time of national emergency.
“There are a number of amendments in your proposals … that give us constitutional trouble,” said Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. “We’ve got to get these guys. But indefinite detention has never been allowed by the courts.”
One of the proposed changes would allow a court-ordered wiretap to apply nationwide and to the Internet instead of on a single phone within one state.
“Terrorists are trained to change cell phones frequently, to route email through different Internet computers in order to defeat surveillance. Our proposal creates a more efficient, technology neutral, standard for intelligence gathering,” Ashcroft said.
Attorney General Ashcroft also used the hearing to confirm rumors that one of the suspects of the attacks had inquired about crop dusting aircraft. Investigators fear that crop dusters could be used in a biological or chemical warfare attack.
“The FBI has confirmed that Mohammed Atta, one of the suspected hijackers, was acquiring knowledge about crop dusting aircraft prior to the attacks on September 11th,” Ashcroft told the committee. “Search of computers and computer disks and personal baggage of another individual whom we have in custody reveal a significant amount of information downloaded from the Internet about aerial application of pesticides or crop dusting.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has grounded all crop dusters until until midnight tonight.
Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001
1. Intelligence gathering:
Nationwide wiretapping permitted.
Internet included under wiretap laws
Broadens definition of “terrorist activity”.
More discretion in mandatory detention
3. Criminal justice:
Extends statute of limitations
Increases conspiracy penalties
4. Financial infrastructure:
Tightens money laundering laws.
Authorizes forfeiture of property
5. Emergency authorizations:
Benefits to disabled public safety officers.
Increased rewards for information