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FBI starts check on truckers carrying hazardous materials

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI is starting a massive nationwide records check on all truck drivers licensed to carry hazardous materials.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said Tuesday several individuals who may have links to the hijackers implicated in this month's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington had sought or held licenses to transport hazardous materials.

A source close to the investigation told CNN the FBI is compiling a list of companies licensed by the Department of Transportation to handle hazardous chemicals and other such cargo, then will plan to search each company's records to check out employees licensed to drive those tankers and trucks.

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Law enforcement sources have cited only one man involved in the investigation who had a license to carry hazardous materials. Nabil Al-Marabh, 34, was taken into custody outside Chicago, Illinois, last week. A former Boston, Massachusetts, cabdriver, Al-Marabh has been named in news reports as a possible suspected operative for al Qaeda, the network of accused master terrorist Osama bin Laden.

"Today, I can report to you that our investigation has uncovered several individuals, including individuals who may have links to the hijackers, who fraudulently have obtained or attempted to obtain hazardous material transportation licenses," Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Ashcroft urged anyone with knowledge of "suspicious circumstances" regarding hazardous materials or crop-dusting aircraft to contact the FBI.

On the international front, Interpol, the international police organization, said Tuesday it has posted a "red notice" for an Egyptian physician suspected of being the No. 2 man in al Qaeda.

The all-points bulletin posted for Aiman al Zawahri calls on 179 countries to trace his whereabouts.

"Dr. Zawahri, a trained physician, is considered to have masterminded several terrorist operations in Egypt," reads the Interpol press release.

In Washington, Ashcroft also cited the U.S. border with Canada as a "transit point" for suspected terrorists and said the administration will beef up its surveillance there. Some of the 19 hijackers named in the September 11 attacks are believed to have entered the United States through Canada.

"We have taken for granted our northern border, with excellent friends we have in Canada," Ashcroft said, noting that there are "fewer than 500 people basically supervising enforcement along the northern border," compared to 9,000 along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, chairman of the committee, agreed that more surveillance and monitoring of that border is needed. "We don't want this to be an area of vulnerability," he said.

For the second day in a row, Ashcroft traveled to Capitol Hill, urging lawmakers quickly to approve a legislative package that he said would bring laws regarding surveillance and terrorism investigations up-to-date with advances in technology.

The package crafted by the Justice Department would do numerous things, including allowing the Immigration and Naturalization Service to hold aliens suspected of terrorist activities indefinitely and streamlining the process for wiretaps. Ashcroft said the law should be changed so that a court would grant a wiretap directed at a individual, not one phone or piece of equipment.

"Every day that passes with outdated statutes and the old rules of engagement is a day that a terrorist has a competitive advantage," he said.

Some lawmakers, civil liberties groups and conservative organizations have raised concerns about some of the proposed changes, saying the definition of terrorism might be too broad and individuals might be held even with little evidence of wrongdoing.

But Ashcroft said he is not seeking new powers and insisted that the same legal standards would apply.

"Until Congress makes these changes, we are fighting an unnecessarily uphill battle," he said, offering as an example the fact that harboring a suspected terrorist is not a federal crime under current law, unlike harboring someone involved in espionage.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, vice chairman of the committee, agreed, calling the initiatives "measured" and "long overdue."

In other developments:

-- Several of the hijacking suspects sent money and a mysterious package to overseas contacts before the terrorist attacks, according to law enforcement sources close to the investigation

-- To date, federal authorities have detained or arrested 352 people in connection with the investigation. None have been charged with a crime directly related to the hijackings. A hunt is on for another 392 individuals who may have information about the terrorist attacks, Ashcroft said.

-- The investigation has resulted in 324 searches, 103 court orders and 3,410 subpoenas, Ashcroft said.

-- CNN Correspondents Kelli Arena, Eileen O'Connor and Susan Candiotti contributed to this report


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