- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2001

The FBI's hunt for terrorist Osama bin Laden's accomplices received a boost yesterday from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who wants sweeping revisions in federal law to help track down those who aided the 19 hijackers involved in last week's terrorist attacks.
Mr. Ashcroft said during a briefing at Camp David that FBI agents who are part of "the largest single investigation in the history of the United States" have less authority while searching for members of bin Laden's shadowy terrorist group, al Qaeda, than while seeking organized crime figures, drug dealers, spies and gamblers.
The attorney general, who began talking with congressional leaders yesterday by phone and in person, said the FBI needs additional authority to detain foreigners suspected of plotting attacks against the United States, increased ability to operate wiretaps on any telephone used by those under surveillance, and new tools to track money launderers who finance terrorist operations.
"We do believe that people involved in the terrorist attack, with connections to terrorist groups, may be present in the United States," said Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker. "We believe that that is a significant enough threat to warrant quick action on Congress' part."
Meanwhile, the Justice Department acknowledged yesterday that the FBI and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had vigorously sought two of last week's suspected hijackers — Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi — after being told by the CIA on Aug. 23 that they were in the United States.
The two had been placed on the government's "watchlist" of suspected terrorists.
Al-Midhar was observed in a surveillance tape in January 2000 meeting with suspected terrorists in Kuala Lumpur, Indonesia; he later traveled with Alhamzi to the United States. Authorities said the two men left this country before the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.
FBI agents, working on a tip that the two men were staying at a Marriott Hotel in New York, checked all 10 Marriott hotels in the city but could not find them there. Dozens of other hotels and sites also were checked, authorities said. The two have since been identified as being among the five hijackers who commandeered the jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon.
In the ongoing probe, two persons remain under arrest as material witnesses. They are among 25 persons being held in the investigation on immigration violations. None has been charged in connection with the attacks, although Ms. Tucker said several were cooperating with authorities.
In seeking new legislation, Mr. Ashcroft said there are "areas of our laws and procedures" that give authorities better tools against organized crime figures and drug dealers than against terrorists and even specify lesser punishment for terrorists.
"We need to make sure we provide the maximum capacity against terrorists in the United States," including increased penalties for those who "would harbor or assist terrorists to at least the same level as the penalties for those who would harbor or assist those who have been involved in espionage," he said.
Mr. Ashcroft said telephone wiretaps have historically been limited to specific telephones, rather than to people, meaning that when a suspect "ceases using one telephone and begins to use another telephone, we have to go back to court to get new authority."
"We all understand that you can buy disposable telephones now, use them for a limited period of time and throw them away. It simply doesn't make sense to have the surveillance authority associated with the hardware or with the phone instead of with the person or the terrorist," Mr. Ashcroft said.
Ms. Tucker said the proposed legislation would go to Capitol Hill this week.
The FBI has assigned 4,000 agents to track down the accomplices, assisted by a support staff of more than 3,000 persons, including FBI lab personnel.
Ms. Tucker said that "hundreds of interviews" have been conducted by FBI agents across the country and that many more were expected.
The first arrest in the case occurred Friday when FBI agents took into custody a man in New York as a material witness. The FBI declined to identify him or elaborate on what role, if any, he had in the attacks. Authorities said he was among 10 persons detained Thursday at John F. Kennedy International Airport after he showed what they said was a pilot's license issued to his brother.
A second man, also named as a material witness, was arrested Saturday.
The second man also has not been identified.
Canadian authorities yesterday also turned over a man to the FBI who had been detained at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. The unidentified man had been in the custody of Canadian immigration officials since Tuesday.
Among the 25 detainees are two men who were seized from an Amtrak train in Texas. Ayub Ali Khan, 51, and Mohammed Jaweed Azmath, 47, were detained at an Amtrak station in Fort Worth.
Both men were questioned in Texas and later flown to New York for additional interviews by the Joint Terrorism Task Force. They were detained after Fort Worth police said they found box cutters, hair dye and $5,000 to $10,000 in cash during a routine drug search.
Some of the 19 hijackers who commandeered the three jets that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and a fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, had knives and box cutters.
The FBI is seeking about 100 persons it believes may have information on Tuesday's attacks.

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