WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft says he will order U.S. law enforcement to immediately use broad new police powers contained in an anti-terrorism bill once President Bush signs it into law.
Congress is expected to deliver the bill to Bush on Friday. The president is expected to sign the legislation into law immediately.
Ashcroft spoke before the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington Thursday.
"History's judgment will be harsh ... if we fail to use every available resource to prevent future terrorist attacks," the attorney general said, promising, "Our enemies now have new reason to fear."
The new legislation promises an unprecedented flow of information between law enforcement and the intelligence services.
A key dynamic would be the use of intelligence information to zero in on terrorist suspects. Law enforcement would then investigate those suspects and charge them under whatever law they have broken, no matter how minor, in an effort to put potential terrorists out of action and behind bars.
Civil libertarians, particularly the American Civil Liberties Union, have pledged to challenge some of the new law's provisions in court on constitutional grounds.
Ashcroft said once the bill has Bush's signature he will order the 94 U.S. attorney's office and the 56 FBI field offices in the United States to begin implementing its provisions.
Citing the war against organized crime under then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Ashcroft said the current Justice Department has adopted the same tactics against terrorism.
"Let the terrorists among us be warned," Ashcroft said. "If you overstay your visa, even by one day, we will arrest you. If you violate a local law, you will be put in jail and kept in custody as long as possible. We will use every available statute. We will seek every prosecutorial advantage. We will use all our weapons within the law and under the Constitution to protect life and enhance security for America."
Ashcroft suggested that the Justice Department, which has charged no one directly in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, believes some of those arrested on relatively minor charges since then may be terrorist suspects.
"To date, our antiterrorism offensive has arrested or detained nearly 1,000 individuals as part of the Sept. 11 terrorism investigation," Ashcroft said. "Those who violated the law remain in custody. Taking suspected terrorists in violation of the law off the streets and keeping them locked up is our clear strategy to prevent terrorism within our borders."
Senior department officials later explained that 952 people have been arrested or detained since Sept. 11. The group consists of about 160 who have been held on immigration charges, a smaller group being held as "material witnesses" in the Sept. 11 attacks and a much larger group being held on minor offenses.
Some of the 952 have been released, but the "vast majority" remains in custody.
One department official explained that even if some of those being held on other charges are considered terrorist suspects, they are not necessarily tied to the events of Sept. 11.
Thursday, Ashcroft told the U.S. mayors that under the legislation headed for Bush's desk, "a new era in America's fight against terrorism, made tragically necessary by the attacks of Sept. 11, is about to begin."
The attorney general said he would seek court-ordered wiretaps on communications "related to an expanded list of crimes under the legislation. Communications regarding terrorist offenses such as the use of biological or chemical agents, financing acts of terrorism or materially supporting terrorism will be subject to interception by law enforcement."
Ashcroft said the department will immediately begin seeking "roving" wiretaps of suspected terrorists. Previously, federal judges could authorize wiretaps on a particular telephone number in a particular jurisdiction. Under the new legislation, judges can order wiretaps against an individual, and the FBI can conduct surveillance on that individual in any jurisidiction.
"Investigators will be directed to pursue aggressively terrorists on the Internet," Ashcroft said. "New authority in the legislation permits the use of devices that capture senders' and receivers' addresses associated with communications on the Internet. Law enforcement will begin immediately to seek search warrants to obtain unopened voice mail stored on a computer, just as they traditionally have used search warrants to obtain unopened e-mail. They will also begin to use new subpoena power to obtain payment information, such as credit card or bank account numbers, of suspected terrorists on the Internet."
One important change in the new law not addressed by the attorney general deals with the threat of bioterrorsim. Under current law, a biological agent "must be used as a weapon" before a violation occurs. Under the new law, a sufficient quantity in someone's possession would be enough to prove the agent has been "weaponized."
The new law would ban possession of such agents by aliens from countries listed as terrorist states, such as Libya.
In his speech to the mayors Thursday, Ashcroft appeared to be anticipating challenges from civil libertarians against some provisions of the new legislation, but said the provisions are necessary.
"Some will ask whether a civilized nation, a nation of law and not of men, can use the law to defend itself from barbarians and remain civilized," Ashcroft said. "Our answer, unequivocally, is 'Yes.' Yes, we will defend civilization, and yes, we will preserve the rule of law because it makes us civilized."