by Ana Radelat
Gannett News Service
Sept. 17, 2001
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WASHINGTON -- Attorney General John Ashcroft asked congressional leaders Sunday for swift passage of a bill that would allow federal agents greater flexibility to tap phone lines and close loopholes in immigration law that may have helped some of the hijackers involved in last week's terror attacks and their accomplices to enter the United States.
"It is clear to me that we need to upgrade and strengthen a number of laws in the United States," Ashcroft said.
Some of the changes in the law Ashcroft seeks would allow federal agents to wiretap an individual's telephones from coast-to-coast. Since wiretapping authority is now attached to phone lines, not individuals, current law requires federal agents to seek authority from a federal judge for each phone line they want to monitor.
Ashcroft, who met with congressional leaders at FBI headquarters, also wants penalties for those who harbor terrorists to be equal to those for serious federal crimes, such as espionage, wiretapping and drug trafficking. The current sentence for harboring a terrorist is five years.
Legislation that would expand police powers would also "tighten loopholes in immigration law," Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said.
New powers might be temporary
Tucker said that some of the expanded police powers sought by Ashcroft might be temporary.
But she said it is vital to give the FBI "the tools they need in the investigation," dubbed "Operation Penttbom," because federal agents believe that people who are possibly connected with last Tuesday's attacks on the World Trade Center twin towers and the Pentagon are still in the United States.
U.S. knew some suspects were dangerous
In the meantime, more information is emerging about some of the hijackers.
At the end of August, intelligence officials gave the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service information about two of the suspected hijackers so they could be placed on a special "watch list" that is used by Border Patrol agents and U.S. Customs officials at airports and border crossings. But the two men were already in the United States when the INS and FBI received the information, a Justice Department official said.
Tucker said there is likely to be a review of the incident.
"There are a lot of questions that people are going to have about the investigation... but our priority right now is keeping the investigation going forward," she said.
The FBI in New York City has arrested a second material witness in the attacks and is searching residences in New Jersey, San Antonio, Texas and Del Ray, Fla. At least 25 others have been detained by the INS and are being interrogated by the FBI. Among the detainees are two men detained at an Amtrak station in Fort Worth, Texas.
FBI agents are also questioning three men detained in Elizabeth City, N.J., carrying about $11,000 in cash and a one-way plane ticket to Syria. Elizabeth police identified the arrested men as Ahmad Kilfat, 45, Mohammad Mahmoud Al Raqqad, 37, and Nicholas Makrakis, 27. All three listed the same address in Passaic, N.J.
Tucker said she expected more warrants to be served and that they, and all other documents relating to the investigation, would be sought from a grand jury impaneled in Manhattan's U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
news: The FBI tracked down thousands of leads this week as Operation Penttbom grew, including reports that some of the hijackers may have received training at some of the nation's military bases.
Air Force spokesman Col. Ken McClellan said a man named Mohamed Atta -- which the FBI has identified as one of the five hijackers of American Airlines Flight 11 -- had once attended the International Officer's School at Maxwell/Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala.
In addition, a man having the same name as one of the suspected hijackers on the plane that crashed in western Pennsylvania, Saeed Alghamdi, attended California's Defense Language Institute in Presidio of Monterey, Calif. In addition, a man named Abdulaziz Alomari who attended Brooks Air Force Base Aerospace Medical School in San Antonio, Texas shared the same name as another person on the FBI's hijackers' list.
McClellan cautioned that in all three cases "there were discrepancies in the biographical data" -- mainly the birth dates -- of the individuals who attended the military schools and those believed to have seized the planes involved in the terrorist attacks.
That's also the case with two men named Saeed Alghamdi and Ahmed Alghamdi who are listed as living in housing for foreign military trainees at Florida's Pensacola Naval Air Station. Two of the suspected hijackers of the United Airlines Flight 175 that crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center have the same names.