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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Justice Dept. to Tighten Focus on Terrorism

Law: Identifying threats will take precedence over investigating previous crimes, Ashcroft says. U.S. also will listen to talks between lawyers, federal inmates.

November 09, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU and JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration on Thursday launched a sweeping "wartime reorganization" aimed at making counter-terrorism the dominant priority of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies--even at the expense of other traditional operations.

Ten percent of Justice Department headquarters staff members will be reassigned to "front-line" field offices nationwide; funding will be transferred from nonessential operations to counter-terrorism; and intelligence operations that had been under the Pentagon's control may be consolidated within the CIA, federal officials said.

The "blueprint for change" that Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft unveiled before 300 employees was as striking for what Ashcroft didn't say as for what he did. In assessing the Justice Department over the next five years, the attorney general didn't spell out how specific agencies would be affected and made virtually no mention of drug enforcement, civil rights, antitrust, organized crime, white-collar crime or other law enforcement concerns that for generations have been at the core of the department's mission.

"We cannot do everything we once did because lives now depend on us doing a few things very well," Ashcroft said. He called for "rebuilding and remaking the department" with one overriding goal in mind: "the preservation of American lives and liberty."

In addition, the Justice Department has expanded its authority to listen in on jailhouse conversations, without a court order, between lawyers and their clients in federal custody. This includes people who have been detained but not yet charged with a crime, if it is deemed necessary to prevent acts of terrorism.

The department's reorganization, as outlined by Ashcroft, emphasizes overall changes in priorities and staffing. Department officials did not address Thursday how specific agencies, such as the FBI, would be reorganized or how agencies within the department would coordinate their work.

Even before Sept. 11, Ashcroft's deputies had begun working to improve cooperation between the FBI and the Justice Department's criminal prosecutors. And in response to criticism since the terrorist attacks, bureau officials said in recent days that the FBI would work more closely with local and state law enforcement agencies.

Ashcroft's plan brought into sharper focus a message that the administration has been delivering with increasing urgency: After Sept. 11, the fight against domestic terrorism supersedes all else.

Even sacrosanct law enforcement priorities such as gathering evidence for criminal prosecutions will take a back seat, Ashcroft said. The Justice Department "must shift its primary focus from investigating and prosecuting past crimes to identifying threats of future terrorist attacks, preventing them from happening and punishing would-be perpetrators for their plans of terror," he wrote Thursday in a memo to department chiefs.

Toward that end, the Justice Department has arrested nearly 1,200 people since Sept. 11 in connection with its wide-ranging terrorism investigation, a roundup that has drawn fire from many civil rights groups.

The Justice Department's plan to listen to attorney-client conversations drew more fire.

"The reason why our entire judicial system is the envy of the world is that it is based on protecting the rights of the accused and particularly the rights of the guilty," said Constance Rice, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney. " . . . This would take a meat ax to that fundamental protection."

The rule, which was published last week in the Federal Register, furthers the ability of the government to eavesdrop on attorney-client conversations if the attorney general certifies "that reasonable suspicion exists to believe that an inmate may use communications with attorneys or their agents to facilitate acts of terrorism."

It expands the definition of "inmate" to cover anyone "held as witnesses, detainees or otherwise" by federal authorities, including the U.S. Marshals and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It would apply to about 100 people now in federal custody who are deemed a risk to national security, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"It's not only an outrageous invasion of privacy, it is also impractical," said Harland W. Braun, a noted Los Angeles criminal defense attorney. "How do you have a trial if the lawyer-client privilege has been violated? It may be unconstitutional, but worse, it's stupid, because it will not resolve anything specifically."

Ashcroft's Justice Department reorganization plan, which at least partly will require legislative approval, drew mixed reviews from Congress.

Some officials praised the department's exhaustive attention to counter-terrorism. Others questioned whether the pendulum might be swinging too far away from other law enforcement responsibilities.

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