Ashcroft eyes wider power, files charge in terror case

Va. man said to help hijackers get fake IDs

September 25, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - More than 350 people have been detained by federal agents investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday. While no one has been charged directly in the catastrophic events that killed thousands, federal authorities have filed the first public charges linking someone to the hijackers.

The Justice Department said yesterday that a Virginia man was charged with helping hijackers fraudulently obtain identification cards last month. Herbert Villalobos, and another man whose name was not released because he is a cooperating witness, signed fake identity and residency papers for at least two suspected hijackers in exchange for $80, according to an FBI affidavit signed Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Va.

The papers allowed the men to obtain photo identification cards. The affidavit did not explain how the IDs might have been used, though photo ID cards are needed to board a commercial airliner. Federal authorities are uncertain of some of the hijackers identities and are investigating whether some of the men used false or stolen identification papers.

The two suspected hijackers who obtained identification cards were Abdulaziz al Omari, who was aboard American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center; and Ahmed al Ghamdi, who was on United Flight 175, which hit the other tower, the affidavit said.

The case against Villalobos offered a rare glimpse of the investigation into the attacks as well as into continuing terrorist threats.

Ashcroft said yesterday that 352 people have been detained, including 98 held on suspected immigrations violations. Little information about those detained, including why they are being held, has been made public. Some have been released. Ashcroft said 392 others are wanted for questioning, and that investigators have conducted 324 searches and obtained more than 3,400 subpoenas across the country.

Guarding against new attacks, U.S. officials ordered crop-dusters grounded for a second day yesterday after the FBI warned that the aircraft could be used in a chemical or biological attack. The order to suspend crop-dusting was to expire at midnight last night.

Ashcroft told the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI had uncovered information that one of the suspected hijackers, Mohamed Atta, had shown interest in crop-dusters and that another person now in custody had collected information about the planes.

"There is no clear indication of the time or place of these attacks," Ashcroft told the House panel.

Pressing lawmakers to quickly enact an emergency package of anti-terrorism legislation that would give investigators broader powers and stiffen penalties for terrorist crimes, Ashcroft said investigators have uncovered threats against specific American cities and have taken steps to warn local officials. He did not elaborate.

"We cannot wait for terrorists to strike to begin investigations and make arrests," Ashcroft said. "The death tolls are too high, the consequences too great. We must prevent first, prosecute second."

Lawmakers appear inclined to support many of the provisions the Justice Department is seeking, including the ability to conduct roving wiretaps on suspected terrorists who communicate via e-mail and cell phones.

But members of both parties have acknowledged potential civil rights violations raised by broader powers for federal law enforcement. Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, raised questions yesterday about a change in immigration rules sought by Ashcroft that could allow the government to detain suspected illegal aliens indefinitely.

"We've got to get these guys, but indefinite detention has not been allowed by the courts up to now," Conyers said. "Some have said it's unconstitutional on its face. Let me be more polite about it - we are deeply, deeply troubled."

Federal authorities, meanwhile, took further steps to tighten airport security. The Federal Aviation Administration announced that it is considering requiring all airport workers with access to planes to face new background checks, including criminal checks. Such an order could affect tens of thousands of airport workers, including baggage handlers, food service workers and mechanics.

An FAA spokeswoman said the agency wanted all airport identification badges checked to ensure that they are legitimate and properly assigned.

In the Virginia case, court records suggest that as many as five of the suspected hijackers may have obtained fraudulent identification cards. When shown photographs of the suspected hijackers, Villalobos said he recognized three as having been with al Omari and al Ghamdi at a Department of Motor Vehicles office in Arlington, Va., on Aug. 2, according to the FBI affidavit.

The three men were suspected hijackers on the American Airlines flight that hit the Pentagon. The affidavit said each of them tried to obtain identification cards at the Arlington office the same day.

The investigation widened overseas yesterday as well. The Associated Press reported that police in Italy had arrested five Afghans near the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican. Banking authorities in Venezuela are investigating whether 11 suspected members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network hold accounts there. In Switzerland, officials approved a U.S. request for help in the investigation into the terrorist attacks.

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