Associated Press WritersWASHINGTON (AP) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a sweeping new immigration crackdown Wednesday, designating 46 terrorist groups whose members and supporters will be banned from entering the country.
Ashcroft said the designation "will enable us to prevent aliens who are affiliated with them from entering the United States."
The attorney general also announced the creation of a new foreign terrorist tracking task force to "neutralize the threat of terrorist aliens."
Ashcroft said the task force will be charged with denying entry to the United States of members or representatives of terrorist organizations and aliens who are suspected of having engaged in terrorist activities or having provided support to terrorist activities.
"We will detain, prosecute, and deport terrorist aliens who are already inside the national border," Ashcroft said. "America will not allow terrorists to use our hospitality as a weapon against us."
Ashcroft said the task force will be headed by Steven C. McCraw, the deputy assistant director of the intelligence branch of the FBI's Investigative Services Division.
Immigration Commissioner James Ziglar said the task force will provide immigration officials with "real time access to information" that will enable them to keep suspected terrorists out of the country.
"We're not talking about immigration," he said. "We're talking about evil."
Ashcroft said the 46 groups include those linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, those whose assets have been frozen by presidential order, and others who U.S. authorities have determined have engaged in terrorist activities.
U.S. intelligence officials earlier said they're concerned that bin Laden's inner circle has issued new orders for attacks against Americans and that the terrorists might strike even if their contact is cut off from Afghanistan, officials say.
The terrorist alert the FBI issued for this week was based on intelligence that emerged over the weekend involving Afghanistan and known al-Qaida supporters elsewhere in the world, including Canada, the officials said Tuesday.
The officials, who described the information to The Associated Press only on condition of anonymity, said some of the intelligence suggested one of bin Laden's lieutenants in Afghanistan recently urged new attacks on Americans. They declined to be more specific.
U.S. officials long have suspected that bin Laden's top deputies, Ayman al-Zawahri and Mohammed Atef, were involved in the planning or support of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings that killed 5,000 people.
They cautioned, however, that U.S. intelligence officials also consider it possible that the terrorists are aware their communications are being monitored and may be spreading false information deliberately.
"My guess is the terrorist network is not going to avoid using the tool of disinformation," said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
The officials said other information that led to the warning from Ashcroft on Monday suggested known al-Qaida operatives in Canada, Asia and elsewhere were discussing new attacks.
Canadian Solicitor General Lawrence MacAuley, who oversees his nation's law enforcement and intelligence, said Tuesday that information his country provided to the United States was behind the warning.
Information provided to the FBI from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service "led Mr. Ashcroft to make the statement that he made yesterday," MacAuley said.
The information about the intelligence came as the FBI searched for clues on how a New York woman with no ties to the media or postal service became infected with the most lethal form of anthrax.
Agents were testing her workplace and home and retracing her steps to see how she might have inhaled the deadly anthrax spores and whether the bacteria was similar to the strains found in letters to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post.
An FBI official also acknowledged Tuesday that the agency had not yet tested quarantined mail on Capitol Hill for possible cross-contamination with anthrax from the Daschle letter. The testimony from Agent James Jarboe prompted a stern bipartisan letter from two congressmen to FBI Director Robert Mueller.
"This delay is very disturbing, as over two weeks have passed since the Daschle letter was opened," wrote Reps. Dan Burton, R-Ind., and Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge also fended off criticism Tuesday from other members of Congress that the administration was unnecessarily alarming the public by issuing terrorism alerts with only general information about the nature of the threats.
"You wonder what these warnings achieve, other than to create more fear," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said.
Ridge said the alert was based on information from "multiple sources and they were credible sources" and they suggested an attack was imminent "in the next week or so"
U.S. officials said they were concerned that bin Laden's al-Qaida network may become more decentralized in the midst of the U.S.-led bombing in Afghanistan.
The officials said there were some suspicions that terrorist cells already trained or financed by al-Qaida might be willing to act without a central order from Afghanistan.
Key members of Congress said such a decentralization was feared because it would make it more difficult to detect where the next attacks were coming from.
"If there are people who would do us harm we have to assume those people are probably trained to do things without a specific order," said Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
A senior U.S. official said American intelligence doesn't have sufficient evidence to determine whether this decentralization is already taking place, but that it is a matter of concern.