WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department wants Congress to expand a law that makes it a crime to provide ''material support," such as financing or technical expertise, to terrorist organizations.
The law, under which 58 people have been prosecuted since the Sept. 11 attacks, has helped prevent further attacks by taking would-be terrorists off the streets before a plot unfolds, Justice Department officials said.
''We cannot, and will not, limit our role to simply picking up the pieces after a terrorist attack," said Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray, chief of the Justice Department's criminal division.
''The material-support statute allows us to strike earlier and earlier," Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday.
But the law, which was broadened by the antiterrorism Patriot Act in October 2001, still contains loopholes that could bar successful prosecution of some terrorists, said Daniel Bryant, assistant attorney general for legal policy.
Bryant said Congress should change the definition of ''material support or resources" to include virtually any ''tangible or intangible" money, property, or service except medicine or religious materials. The current law includes a finite list of actions that could be criminal, ranging from financial services to provision of safehouses to making false identification.
The Justice Department also wants lawmakers to expand the scope of terrorism acts covered by the law to include virtually any act of violence or destruction linked to terrorists.
Critics charge that the law already is murky and say it could invite prosecutors to go after people who innocently make a donation or provide a service to a group they did not know had terrorist ties. Two federal court rulings in California have found as impermissibly vague the law's definitions of ''expert advice and assistance," ''personnel," and ''training."
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said similar questions surround cases such as that of Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, a University of Idaho computer science graduate student on trial for allegedly using his skills to create websites to recruit terrorists and to draw financing.
''Could you go after a repairman who comes by to fix the computers?" Leahy asked.
Wray responded that the law would apply only in circumstances where a terrorist sympathizer used his expertise to repair a device he knew was being used for terrorist purposes.
As the Justice Department appeals the court rulings, Bryant said, Congress should tighten the definitions that were challenged. He also said that new provisions should be added to clarify that the material-support law cannot be used to prosecute actions protected by the First Amendment.
Several senators said Congress will consider the material-support law as it decides whether to revise the Patriot Act, parts of which expire at the end of 2005. President Bush has been pushing Congress to reauthorize the act and expand its powers. Opponents say the law should be changed to better protect privacy and civil liberties.