More terrorist activity likely, Ashcroft says
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Citing a "clear and present danger" to Americans, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Sunday that terrorist activity against the United States may increase once this country responds to this month's attacks in New York and suburban Washington.
"We believe there are substantial risks of terrorism still in the United States of America," Ashcroft said on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer." "And as we as a nation respond to what's happened to us, those risks may in fact go up, so that we still have a serious situation."
Repeating a point he has made for weeks, Ashcroft said investigators believe there could still be terrorists at large. And he again called on Congress to pass an anti-terrorism package sought by the White House
"It's very unlikely that all of those associated with the attacks of September 11 are now detained or have been detected," Ashcroft said. "And that's why we need the kind of robust surveillance capacity that's provided for in the legislation. It's time for Congress to act."
He said lawmakers should pass the legislation -- which would broaden the government's wiretapping abilities, grant the Immigration and Naturalization Service more latitude in holding aliens suspected of terrorism and make it a crime to harbor suspected terrorists -- by October 5.
"I think there is a clear and present danger to Americans, not one that should keep from living our lives, but one that should make us alert," Ashcroft said.
The attorney general said that more than 500 people have been detained or arrested by federal authorities.
He said the individuals fall into three groups: people who have violated their immigration status, people held as material witnesses in the vast investigation and people who have violated state and local laws.
"And we seek to hold them as suspected terrorists," Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft suggested that some of the individuals arrested were planning additional attacks against the United States.
"It's clear to me that this conspiracy against the United States, which manifested itself in the attacks of September the 11, is international, it's well financed," he said on CBS' Face the Nation. "I don't have any reason to believe that the entirety of those involved perished in the situation. ... And that's why we've arrested individuals, detained individuals and frankly will do everything we can to make sure that we don't have a reoccurrence."
'Check and balance'
The attorney general, however, refused to say if any of the individuals are believed to have a direct role in the September 11 attacks. "We're not in a position to comment on any indictments or charges until they would actually be brought," he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he agreed with most of Ashcroft's objectives, including the need for a "roving" wiretap that would apply to individuals, not equipment, and discarding the statute of limitation on terrorist activities.
But the Vermont Democrat also said there needs to be a "check and balance" in any legislation, and he declined to say when the Senate might act on the package.
He also said new legislation would not help the FBI overcome what he suggested were intelligence flaws leading up to the September 11 attacks.
"No law is going to change the fact if you have information in your files that might have prevented some of these things and it was overlooked," he said. "We've got to do a far better job of that."
The United States has massed troops, warplanes and aircraft carriers within striking distance of Afghanistan and demanded its Taliban rulers avert a U.S. attack by surrendering Saudi-born suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and the leaders of his al Qaeda network.
The comments by Ashcroft, the top U.S. law officer, reflect widely held views in the United States.
Four out of every five Americans believe another attack on U.S. soil is either "very likely" or "somewhat likely" within a year, according to a Time/CNN poll released Friday.
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