WASHINGTON – Dire terror threats aside, Attorney General John Ashcroft says the United States is making "monumental progress" against terrorism, pointing to the arrests of seven suspected terrorists through new border security measures and the convictions of 104 people of terror-related charges.
"Some of the things that have happened should be a source of comfort to Americans," Ashcroft said in an interview Wednesday.
Successful prosecutions have led to cooperation from defendants, providing information that has "disrupted groups of individuals who were working together to assist in terrorism or perhaps commit acts of terrorism," Ashcroft said.
"Prevention is our number one priority. It is more important than prosecution," he said. "But very frequently these priorities do not compete, they complement. In many instances prosecution has been a real aid to our prevention effort by helping generate valuable intelligence."
Yet, as Ashcroft spoke in his office at Justice Department headquarters, the United States remained on high alert for potential terrorism, with FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet raising concerns about a possibly imminent large-scale attack.
Ashcroft did not say what information prompted the alert status to be increased last week, seeking instead to provide assurances that law enforcement is better prepared to head off an attack than it was before Sept. 11, 2001. Vastly improved border security, better legal options and an FBI committed to preventing further attacks are among the changes.
"We have made monumental progress," he said.
The seven suspected terrorists were apprehended in the past six months through a program that tightened scrutiny at U.S. borders and ports of entry, and required the fingerprinting and photographing of thousands of men from countries at risk for terrorism.
Justice Department officials, citing national security concerns, declined to provide details but said the seven were caught in a variety of ways, some through intelligence tips and others through fingerprint matches. The officials also would not provide details about whether the seven may have been plotting imminent attacks when captured.
The 104 terror-related convictions range from such high-profile cases as would-be jetliner bomber Richard Reid to more mundane document fraud cases. Ashcroft said "several hundred" more people have been charged with terror-related offenses since Sept. 11, including members of suspected al-Qaida cells in Lackawanna, N.Y., and Portland, Ore.
Still, the Justice Department is encountering difficulties in some terrorism cases, including that of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. If convicted, he could get the death penalty.
The department is appealing a judge's ruling that Moussaoui should have access to suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Ramzi Binalshibh, who was captured in Pakistan and is being interrogated at an undisclosed location. The government opposes that access because Binalshibh is valuable as an intelligence source.
In a recent nonterrorism case, Ashcroft overruled a decision by federal prosecutors to seek a life sentence -- rather than execution -- for a drug suspect in exchange for information about others in the ring. Ashcroft said that unusual move was intended to ensure that death penalty laws are applied equally nationwide.
Ashcroft also said there are gaps in U.S. laws that were not addressed by the USA Patriot Act passed by Congress in response to the 2001 attacks. The law gave the Justice Department greater power to investigate and eavesdrop on terror suspects, but senior department officials are discussing proposals to bridge the gaps.
"The terrorists have an interest in very serious weapons of chemistry, evil biology and even radiological consequences," Ashcroft said. "We cannot sit still and think that all of the laws we had to prevent previous threats will work."
For example, Ashcroft noted that in major drug cases, defendants are kept in jail until trial unless they can convince a judge to release them on bail, a provision that does not apply in terrorism cases where prosecutors have to prove why a defendant should not be released.
Appeals courts, meanwhile, are conflicted on whether "material support" of terrorism means visiting a terror training camp -- as some members of the alleged Lackawanna al-Qaida cell did -- or requires that a suspect have donated money or supplies.
"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that a person who provides personal assistance is providing material assistance," Ashcroft said.
Although no final decisions have been made on these proposals, some congressional Democrats and government watchdog groups contend they would erode citizens' rights, limit judicial review and restrict access to important information. Ashcroft rejected that characterization.
"Every day I tell the staff at the Justice Department: `Think anew. The world is changing. What are the ways we can safeguard the American people against attack?"' Ashcroft said. "I say, 'Think outside the box,' but I always say, 'Think inside the Constitution."'