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Ashcroft's man on a mission

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Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff is the Dick Cheney of the Justice Department. Brainy, intense and well connected, the former federal prosecutor can usually be found at Attorney General John Ashcroft's elbow as the department's top counterterrorism tactician. And last week Chertoff vanished to an undisclosed location.

With no deputies along and no publicity, Chertoff was on a stealthy swing through France, Belgium and the Netherlands. His mission: sell Western European governments on a new Bush Administration plan to post U.S. Justice Department prosecutors overseas in unprecedented numbers. "The sinews that hold a terrorist network together are money, communications and transportation," Chertoff told TIME before his trip. To help sever those sinews, Chertoff wants to have American prosecutors stationed in key capitals, where they can work behind the scenes with their counterparts to overcome the legal and cultural obstacles to shipping evidence to the U.S. for use in court.

But such an arrangement won't ease the tensions developing over the prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, the French Moroccan due to go on trial in October for conspiracy in the Sept. 11 attacks. Ashcroft's expected decision to seek the death penalty in the case has inflamed European opponents of capital punishment and could hinder the efforts to obtain more evidence about Moussaoui's association with Muslim radicals in Europe.

"If public outcry forces the politicians to take a militant stance," says a French antiterrorism official, "we could find information being blocked in the administrative pipes between the two nations." Another unknown is whether the German government, also queasy about the death penalty, will turn over evidence supporting the charge that Moussaoui received money transfers from an alleged al-Qaeda paymaster in Hamburg.

One crucial potential witness against Moussaoui is a Malaysian Islamic extremist in jail north of Kuala Lumpur on unrelated terrorism charges. FBI Director Bob Mueller traveled to Malaysia two weeks ago and offered local security officials FBI training and other incentives in exchange for access to the man. But the officials, upset because the Western press had described Malaysia as a staging base for the Sept. 11 attacks, rebuffed the FBI chief. Sources say Mueller is still optimistic that the Malaysians will come around and send the prisoner to the U.S. to testify against Moussaoui.


Cover Date: April 1, 2002


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