September 17, 2001
New Powers Sought for Surveillance
By Walter Pincus and Dan Eggen
Bush administration officials said yesterday that they are considering lifting a 25-year-old ban on U.S. involvement in foreign assassinations and loosening restrictions on FBI surveillance, part of an escalating war on terrorism in the wake of Tuesday's attacks on Washington and New York.
The Justice Department plans to send a wide-ranging set of proposals to Capitol Hill this week that would include more power to conduct wiretaps, detain foreigners and track money-laundering cases, administration officials said.
"There are areas of our laws and procedures which give us better tools against organized crime, against illegal gambling, for example, than we have against terrorists," said Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who briefed top lawmakers yesterday on the proposals. "We need to make sure that we provide the maximum capacity against terrorists in the United States."
Vice President Cheney said yesterday that CIA field officers may be allowed to recruit and pay overseas agents linked to terrorist groups and human rights abuses, saying it was necessary to infiltrate suspected terrorist cells.
"If you're only going to work with officially approved, certified good guys, you are not going to find out what the bad guys are doing," Cheney said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena."
In addition, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he would introduce a counterterrorism package next week that would create a counterterrorism czar inside the White House, establish authority for the CIA to recruit unsavory agents and expand the intelligence community's ability to translate intercepted messages in Arabic, Farsi and other languages used within suspected terrorist circles.
The flurry of proposals marks a dramatic expansion of the Bush administration's efforts to track down those who helped plot Tuesday's deadly assaults, in which more than 5,000 were believed killed after hijacked jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside. But the proposals could also significantly weaken protections of privacy and civil liberties, advocates of civil liberties said yesterday.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the administration was reviewing an executive order issued by President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 that bans U.S. personnel from engaging in, or conspiring to engage in, assassinations. Some intelligence and terrorism experts have advocated assassinating Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi millionaire who lives in hiding in Afghanistan and has been named the prime suspect in last week's attacks.
Powell said on CNN that "we are examining everything: how the CIA does its work, how the FBI and Justice Department does its work, are there laws that need to be changed and new laws brought into effect to give us more ability to deal with this kind of threat. . . . Everything is under review."
Ashcroft said one of the Justice Department's proposals would allow the department to seek authority to eavesdrop on any phone used by a suspect in a foreign intelligence case, rather than getting wiretap orders for each individual telephone number. In an era of cell phones, Ashcroft said, "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."
The proposals provoked immediate criticism yesterday from civil liberties advocates, who accused the administration of using Tuesday's tragedy to erode constitutional protections.
David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University, said there is no evidence that legal restrictions on the FBI, CIA or other federal agencies helped the hijackers evade detection. Two of the hijackers were on an FBI "watch list" for two weeks before the attacks, and most of the 19 men reportedly purchased their tickets in their own names through the Internet.
"The reality is that the FBI already has tremendous power," Cole said. "We have to be careful about giving the FBI or INS or anyone else greater powers unless they can show they really need those powers."
Several lawmakers vowed to be measured in their response. "We will give the government the tools it needs to deal with the guilty," said House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.). "But we will also always . . . preserve the rights of the innocent, and that will be as paramount as can be."
The executive order barring assassinations, which Bush can change without legislative action, dates to 1976, when Ford banned involvement in "political" killings in the wake of extensive hearings in the 1970s exposing CIA assassination plots. The prohibition was expanded by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to bar any U.S. employee or agent from engaging or conspiring in assassinations. But administration officials and some lawmakers said the ban is unrealistic in an age of terrorism.
If dealing with terrorists, Graham said, "means that we have to have the authority to assassinate people before they can assassinate us, yes, we should free that stricture."
Graham's bill creating a White House counterterrorism czar imitates what was established for the war on drugs, providing budget authority and oversight to an individual who would be named by the president and approved by the Senate. "We need to have someone who has the ability to establish a national program, allocate resources and be held accountable for our response against terrorism," Graham said.
Another section of Graham's bill would deal with critics of the CIA's lack of advance warning of the Sept. 11 attacks because of an agency regulation that required prior approval before case officers could recruit agents with unsavory backgrounds.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking member of the intelligence panel and a sharp critic of CIA Director George J. Tenet, said the 1995 agency regulation tied the hands of agents. "Are they people you wouldn't want invite to your home? Absolutely. But we have to deal with these people to get at the bottom of a lot of information we want like terrorist cells," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2001, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.
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