Ashcroft orders an overhaul at Justice

Fight against terror to be its new mission

War On Terrorism

The Nation

November 09, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a fundamental restructuring of the Justice Department yesterday, saying the new mission of federal law enforcement would be to defend the United States against terrorist attacks.

Under a five-year "wartime reorganization" plan, roughly $2.5 billion would be redirected to counterterrorism and a number of Washington-based lawyers and agents redeployed to front-line field offices. The plan also would overhaul two troubled agencies, the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The new focus is expected to overshadow more traditional federal prosecutions, such as probes of political corruption and white-collar crimes, as well as plans Ashcroft announced early this year to crack down on gun crimes and street violence - an issue that has received considerable attention in Baltimore.

"When terrorism threatens our future, we cannot afford to live in the past," Ashcroft told department employees yesterday. "We cannot do everything we once did, because lives now depend on us doing a few things very well."

Justice officials said it was too soon to say what kinds of investigations might be turned over to other federal agencies or to state prosecutors in order to free up resources to fight terrorism.

Officials said they do not know how many people might be sent to work in field offices or for U.S. attorneys outside Washington. Ashcroft set as a goal 10 percent of the employees now based at headquarters.

A summary of the overhaul plan was sent to congressional lawmakers, who might have to approve some of the changes. However, some key lawmakers already had been calling for restructuring at the FBI and INS.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, wrote in a letter last month to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III that the bureau "should focus on investigating federal terrorism crimes and either end, or scale back, its involvement in a wide array of crimes."

Several independent reviews of the bureau were under way before Sept. 11, prompted by a series of recent blunders that included its handling of the espionage investigation of nuclear scientist Dr. Wen Ho Lee and the conviction this summer of former FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen on federal spy charges. A detailed restructuring plan is expected early next year.

A proposal to reorganize the INS could emerge within weeks. The agency has long struggled to effectively achieve its dual mission of patrolling the nation's borders against illegal aliens and helping immigrants who are in the country legally or seeking citizenship.

Richard M. Stana, who oversees Justice issues at the General Accounting Office, cautioned lawmakers last month that chronic management problems at the agency could "impede INS' capacity to effectively participate in the government-wide efforts to combat terrorism."

Ashcroft said the INS restructuring plan would likely separate "the service function of the INS from its border protection and law enforcement responsibilities."

The sweeping reorganization of Justice includes plans to streamline duties as part of an effort to save 10 percent from currently budgeted items and redirect the money to counterterrorism - about $2.5 billion from the department's $25 billion budget.

The plan is likely to meet opposition as details emerge and various constituents object to decreased emphasis or reduced funding for specific objectives.

Disagreement could come, for instance, over federal emphasis on gun-crime prosecutions. Ashcroft made gun crimes one of his early priorities, bringing to the national stage a debate that has been repeatedly thrashed out in Baltimore over what role the federal government should play in prosecuting street-level crimes.

In his remarks yesterday, however, the attorney general appeared to have pushed all other priorities aside to focus on counterterrorism. He said the United States had won the "opening battle in the war against terrorism," but that the legal system had to be prepared for many others.

Ashcroft said the nation had grown stronger in its response to warnings about possible new attacks, including two nationwide alerts that he indicated for the first time had passed without incident.

"We cannot know with certainty what acts of terrorism our efforts have thwarted or prevented," Ashcroft said. "We know this: We have not suffered another major terrorist attack; the terrorists have not made good on their threats."

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