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WASHINGTON (AP) -- New terrorism indictments and a key al-Qaida capture show the United States gaining ground in the global war on terrorism, three top Bush administration officials told Congress on Tuesday.
Facing a Senate Judiciary Committee that includes prominent administration critics, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller highlighted recent successes and stressed prevention efforts.
Lawmakers applauded the victories -- but many questioned the government's tactics and the need to expand anti-terrorism laws that already raise constitutional questions.
Ashcroft said the weekend capture in Pakistan of al-Qaida operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was "a severe blow" that could "destabilize their terrorist network worldwide" by providing a trove of intelligence that will prevent new attacks.
He also announced that a Yemeni cleric and an assistant were charged in New York with helping finance al-Qaida. The cleric, Sheikh Mohammed Ali Hasan Al-Moayad, personally handed Osama bin Laden $20 million to finance the terrorist group, Ashcroft said.
To date, more than 200 criminal terrorism charges have been brought since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, Ashcroft said, with 108 convictions or guilty pleas. FBI Director Robert Mueller added that "well in excess of 100" terrorism plots have been thwarted worldwide.
The recent successes muted growing criticism on Capitol Hill about the slow progress of the war on terrorism. The concerns reached a high point last month when a new bin Laden audiotape surfaced and the nation was put on high alert for a possibly imminent terrorist attack.
The Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, noted that the hearing came at "an auspicious time" because of the arrest of Mohammed, described as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Added Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.: "This is the kind of success that makes us all feel better."
Ashcroft said some of the successes were the result of anti-terrorism laws passed by Congress soon after Sept. 11 that expanded the powers of the Justice Department and FBI to spy on terror suspects and use intelligence information to bring criminal cases.
Some lawmakers say the current powers threaten civil liberties and have sharply criticized a leaked Justice Department draft proposal to augment the law. They are especially upset since there has been no consultation with Congress about possible changes.
Leahy accused an unidentified Ashcroft aide of lying to his staff about whether such a bill was in the works. "I think it shows a secretive process in developing this," Leahy said.
Ashcroft denied any deception and said no decisions have been made on whether to propose changes to the anti-terror laws. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., urged the attorney general to keep Congress in the loop in developing legislation that raises so many constitutional questions.
"I'm keenly aware that the administration cannot pass legislation," said Ashcroft, formerly a U.S. senator from Missouri. "Only members of Congress can pass legislation. It would be the height of absurdity for me to have a secret matter I hope to make a law without telling Congress."
The FBI also came in for some criticism, with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., repeatedly telling Mueller the FBI has not learned from past mistakes in failing to adequately investigate suspects such as Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in the Sept. 11 attacks.
If the mistakes are not corrected, Specter said, more people could die at the hands of terrorists. Mueller responded that he is "accountable" for improving the FBI's performance.
"Every night I go to bed, senator, understanding that every day in that job I deal with life and death," Mueller said.
Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., questioned the color-coded terror alert system, suggesting that the alerts be made regional because the entire country was unlikely to be targeted. Ridge said there are already ways of alerting certain industries and regions, such as last year's warnings about attacks on the financial system.
Ashcroft said that the national alerts are valuable in raising awareness across the country, noting that the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers took flight lessons in various states and some started their flights that day in Maine.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)