Washington Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft told senators Thursday that he had scrapped plans to include a centralized database as part of a controversial program enlisting millions of Americans as anti-terrorist tipsters.
But Ashcroft defended the Operation TIPS initiative as a valuable way for truck drivers, ship captains and others to identify potential terrorist activities.
"It builds on existing programs that industry groups have," Ashcroft said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "You have the ability of people who have a regular perception, who understand what's out of order here, what's different here, and maybe something needs to be looked into."
Ashcroft also warned that "the entire United States of America is a target for terrorist activities."
"I believe that there are substantial numbers of individuals in this country who endorse the al-Qaida agenda," Ashcroft said. "As I observed the events of Sept. 11, and as we reconstruct it, we found that there was a presence across America of individuals, whether it be from San Diego or Phoenix, or Oklahoma City or Minneapolis or any number of locations, that might not appear to those of us who would say, 'Now, where would you find a terrorist?'"
The attorney general, who has come under fire from Democrats and some Republicans in recent months, also staunchly defended the Justice Department's anti-terrorism tactics as effective and constitutional.
Ashcroft also disagreed with findings by congressional investigators that plans to quickly destroy gun-purchase records would result in more illegal weapons on the streets.
Operation TIPS, for Terrorism Information and Prevention System, is under development by the Justice Department as part of President Bush's Citizen Corps initiative, which aims to get citizens involved in homeland security issues.
The program has been criticized by some lawmakers and civil-liberties groups, who argue that Operation TIPS would encourage citizens to spy on each other and bears uncomfortable similarities to surveillance programs during World War II and other conflicts.