New prosecutor wants to get tough on terrorists

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

CHICAGO -- When it comes to waging war on terrorism, Chicago's new federal prosecutor has some strong views -- and a bit of experience.

Patrick Fitzgerald -- who successfully prosecuted a number of mobsters and terrorists, including bin Laden associates, as a federal prosecutor in New York -- said Monday that a tough congressional anti-terrorism package is needed.

"There's no secret that Osama bin Laden has stated that he's at war with Americans, so there is no way that you can underestimate their resolve to bring attacks against Americans," said Fitzgerald, 40, newly confirmed U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

Fitzgerald said that on Sept. 11, he was driving from New York to Chicago to take up his new post when a friend paged him and told him that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. But he didn't learn the full details of the attack until he reached the federal courthouse.

"I was coming into work and turned on the TV and saw the towers fall," said Fitzgerald, who grew up in Brooklyn. "All I can say is that I felt like there was a sledgehammer into your stomach. I think that's the way everyone felt. It was just awful."

The minute he saw the destruction he thought of bin Laden, Fitzgerald said. And as one of the nation's most knowledgeable prosecutors on matters concerning the mastermind of the Al-Qaeda terror network, he was soon in demand.

Almost as soon as he arrived in Chicago he was gone again to confer with Justice Department officials on how best to combat terrorism. Weeks later, they are still tapping his expertise.

Newly minted anti-terrorism legislation has been criticized by civil liberties advocates for the sweeping new powers it grants law enforcement to obtain search warrants and install wiretaps. Fitzgerald brushed aside such qualms, saying the bill will help fight terrorism.

He also said some of the features are already in use. For example, the so-called "sneak and peek" feature that would allow officers to search a house and not tell the occupants that they had done so for 10 days or longer already was legal in New York, and can be a crucial investigative tool, he said.

"You may want to conduct an investigation and let it play out longer so you can make sure you can find all the people who are involved," he said. " ... And yet you have a legitimate concern that you might lose evidence or might have a dangerous device in the building. So you might have to go in and look."

He acknowledged that some of the new powers are broad but expressed hope that "the record a few years from now will show that we used them intelligently."

Now Fitzgerald has a fresh challenge. As Chicago's new U.S. attorney, he has authority over an office with 250 employees including 137 assistant U.S. attorneys, and will make key decisions on cases ranging from mob prosecutions to the state's bribes-for-licenses scandal.

A Harvard law school graduate whose father arrived from Ireland at age 31 and became an apartment house doorman in New York, Fitzgerald has an affable and outgoing style that belies his reputation as a hard-nosed crime buster and glutton for hard work.

He praised the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago for a successful track record in rooting out political corruption and promised no letup.

"There were maybe 10 mayors charged with crimes nationwide last year and two were convicted in Chicago in one week last summer," he said, referring to former mayors Robert Natale of Stone Park, who pleaded guilty to obstructing a gambling investigation, and Jerry Genova of Calumet City, convicted of accepting kickbacks and other offenses.

The war on terrorism won't drain away so much prosecutorial power that other crimes are neglected, he said.

"I think narcotics will remain an important focus, organized crime clearly will be an important focus, corruption will be and white-collar crime as well," Fitzgerald said.

He sidestepped a question about how the war on drugs is progressing but made it clear it's still on the front burner.

"Any time there's crime and it continues, it discourages you, but you can't surrender," he said. "You can't suddenly say, 'fine, sell everywhere you want in Chicago, we're going to pack up and go home.' "

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