Ashcroft said the new anti-terrorism measures would greatly expand the ability of federal agents to monitor suspected terrorists with so-called roving wiretaps, which would allow investigators to eavesdrop on someone using more than one phone anywhere in the country.
Ashcroft did not spell out his proposals in detail, saying that specific language was still being worked out. But he indicated that he would send a final package to Congress soon and that he hoped to have approval by the end of the week.
"I'm optimistic that we will be able to act quickly to provide law enforcement with the additional tools that are necessary to fight terrorism," he said.
Congressional leaders, several of whom have been briefed by Ashcroft in recent days, signaled a willingness to give the proposals immediate attention.
"Any legislation that the attorney general sends up we will look at very carefully and move as quickly as possible," said Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican. "I'm convinced that there would be an overwhelming level of support for responsible ways in which we can ensure that these terrorists are brought to justice."
"It's just far too early to fully understand what the problems were last week and to prescribe solutions," said David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "Part of what we're up against here is a desire to do something and do it quickly. And given the difficulty of pursuing various military options, that desire is taking the form of legislative proposals that might not be fully justified and needed."
The few details Ashcroft provided yesterday appear to closely mirror expanded wiretapping powers that Congress granted law enforcement agencies in 1998. Under the 1998 laws, federal agents investigating domestic crimes can obtain roving wiretaps when a suspect uses multiple phones.
It would also enable them to use a wiretap order from a single jurisdiction to monitor a suspect's communications across jurisdictional boundaries.
In laying out his proposals, Ashcroft said he was "mindful of our responsibility to protect the rights and privacy of Americans." But he said the proposed changes represent "a reasonable upgrade" in the tools available to federal agents investigating terrorist threats.
Ashcroft said he plans to pro-
pose changes to the immigration laws as well, but offered no details.
The attorney general said that he and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller discussed continuing terrorist threats Thursday with members of the House and Senate leadership.
During that briefing, he said, he relayed "our belief that associates of the hijackers that have ties to terrorist organizations may be a continuing presence in the United States."