Dispatches > The Buzz

Flashtraffic: Ashcroft bulks up anti-terror forces

When Attorney General John Ashcroft heads to Capitol Hill this week for budget talks, it will be his first time in public since the Iraq war began. What's he been up to?

Issue: "Army of compassion," April 5, 2003

When Attorney General John Ashcroft heads to Capitol Hill this week for budget talks, it will be his first time in public since the Iraq war began. What's he been up to? March 25 was a typical day in his routine:

The AG was up before dawn and in his Justice Department office by 6:30 a.m. Half an hour later, he received his daily top-secret intelligence briefing by FBI Director Robert Mueller, then headed for the White House. At 8, Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller briefed President Bush in the Oval Office for 20 minutes. So far, the news is good: no acts of terrorism at home to report. But the United States remains on high alert-threat level orange-and senior administration officials say it's a "near certainty" terrorists will strike soon.

It's Mr. Ashcroft's job to stop them, and aides say he's working 12- to 14-hour days to get it right. But he needs more resources, so his priority is to secure $500 million more for terrorism prevention and response-part of the president's $74.7 billion war-time supplemental budget request.

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By mid-afternoon, Mr. Ashcroft arrived at the nerve center of the war on terrorism: the Strategic Information and Operations Center at FBI headquarters in Washington, known as "SIOC." Created last spring and activated on March 20, SIOC is the FBI's new high-tech, 24/7 command post where senior FBI and Justice officials track the latest intelligence, analyze new threats, communicate with their field offices, and monitor developments on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan. Top-secret clearance is required. No press is allowed. The FBI won't even allow an official photo to be released to the media. Mr. Ashcroft's briefing from SIOC watch officers lasts 45 minutes.

Central to the attorney general's strategy is the doctrine of "preemption," getting the gun before it smokes. The number of "human intelligence operatives" on the FBI payroll has doubled since 9/11. Counter-terrorism investigations have doubled. Nearly 1,000 new agents work for the FBI. Nearly 250 new assistant U.S. attorneys have been hired to work on terrorism cases. Federal agents have interviewed more than 5,000 Iraqi nationals who might have information about possible terrorist plots by Saddam Hussein. More than 130,000 Iraqis have come to the United States since the 1991 Gulf War.

Aides say Mr. Ashcroft's aggressive efforts are paying off. Seventy new investigations into financing terrorist activity have led to 25 convictions or guilty pleas (compared to only a handful of such convictions in the 1990s).

On Feb. 20, federal agents arrested former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian and three others for allegedly providing money and material support to Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of two Americans and more than 100 Israelis. Also, three of six Yemeni nationals arrested in Buffalo as part of a sleeper terrorist cell have pleaded guilty. One admitted to being at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden spoke to some 50 men heading out on a suicide mission. Mr. Ashcroft says the pleas send "a strong message."

Overseeing Mr. Ashcroft's work-and making sure it all passes constitutional muster-is U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olsen, whose wife, Barbara, was killed by al-Qaeda terrorists on 9/11 when the plane she was on hit the Pentagon. "It's poetic," Barbara Comstock, a senior Ashcroft aide, tells WORLD. "Ted is overseeing the capture and arrest and lawful conviction of scores of terrorists. Barbara would be extremely proud."

Joel C. Rosenberg
Joel C. Rosenberg

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