WASHINGTON - Warning that cohorts of last week's suicide hijackers may be a continuing domestic threat, Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday that he is asking Congress to pass by week's end an emergency package of anti-terrorism legislation to make it easier to track suspected terrorists and to stiffen penalties for those convicted.
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.
The attorney general also wants Congress to eliminate the statute of limitations on terrorist crimes, increase penalties for people convicted of aiding or harboring terrorists and allow the government to prosecute under money laundering laws people accused of giving financial aid to terrorist groups.
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."
But privacy advocates and civil rights groups urged caution. They said the government already has wide latitude to monitor telephone calls and Internet traffic and that it was unclear whether additional measures were needed.
"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.
Ashcroft's proposal would give federal agents the same power when investigating acts of terrorism.
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."
Justice officials refused to discuss in detail the caliber of threat that presence, if it exists, may pose to the country.
The proposals detailed by Ashcroft have been expected since last week's attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Many congressional leaders have talked openly about the need to expand the government's investigative powers, and polls show that most Americans believe some restrictions on civil liberties may be necessary to curb terrorism.
Civil liberties advocates acknowledge that there may be a need to give the government greater authority to monitor terrorism suspects. But many of those advocates expressed frustration yesterday with the haste with which the administration is moving.
They also were upset about the Senate's approval last Thursday of an 11th-hour amendment to a spending bill that would make it easier for the government to gain access to private e-mails. Ashcroft did not address online communications in outlining his proposal yesterday.
"There's a process we should follow when we deal with the hard balance between national security concerns and civil liberties," said Morton Halperin, a senior fellow at Council on Foreign Relations. "What we can't have is the attorney general just come out and say we badly need these things and then suggest that they have to be raced through the Congress."
David Carle, spokesman for Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, said Leahy was sensitive to such concerns.
"Senator Leahy has made this proposal the committee's top priority," Carle said. "But he believes it's a mistake to set artificial deadlines. Many members of the Senate will want to understand and have input on this, and that will take a few days."
Ashcroft's focus on wiretaps reflects how important electronic monitoring has become to law enforcement officials.
In 1999, state and federal authorities obtained 2,236 wiretap orders to investigate both domestic crimes and threats to national security.
That number was up from 1,309 orders in 1989 and 752 orders in 1979.
Wiretaps on cellular phones, electronic pagers, calling cards and even disposable phones have also become increasingly common. During 1999 and 2000, wiretaps on cell phones and pagers outnumbered taps on conventional phones, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
It was an intercepted cell phone conversation in 1999 that led Baltimore-area police to Philadelphia - and to the men who killed Baltimore County police Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero at a Pikesville jewelry store.
More recently, investigators from Maryland used cell phone and calling card technology last November to help capture Kofi Apea Orleans-Lindsay, charged with fatally shooting Cpl. Edward M. Toatley, an undercover Maryland state trooper.