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U.S. Indicts 14 for Khobar Towers Bombing

Aired June 21, 2001 - 13:31   ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Kelli Arena now, our justice correspondent, is going to give us a little preview of what we're expecting to get live now at the Justice Department -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Lou, there were 14 indictments brought today against those suspects involved in the Khobar Tower bombing. Those 14 indictments include 13 Saudis, one John Doe described as a Lebanese male whom intelligence sources say was the chemist who allegedly helped build the bomb.

The -- all 14, the government claims, are members of the Hezbollah Party. The government also contends that Hezbollah is supported and directed by elements of the Iranian government. But there are absolutely no references, no naming of any Iranian suspects, and there is no specific connection made to the Iranian government in this indictment.

The reason that is important is because intelligence sources have told CNN all along that there was evidence pointing to involvement by the Iranian government. We were also told that this decision to indict was not only a law enforcement decision, but was also a foreign policy decision and that the interests of the U.S. keeping a good relation with the Iranian government did come into play here.

Again, 14 indictments expected. This is almost five years to the day since the Khobar Towers, which was a U.S. military housing facility in Saudi Arabia, was bombed. There were 19 U.S. servicemen killed; more than 500 others that were injured.

We do expect to hear today from FBI Director Louis Freeh, who has been on the record countless times saying that this was something that he intended to wrap up before he finished his directorship. Today, we are told, happens to be Freeh's last day in that role.

We also expect to hear from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who will join the press conference, and from the U.S. attorney from the northern district of Virginia. That's where the indictments were returned today. We're expecting them to detail, perhaps, why there were no Iranians included.

But some law enforcement sources have told CNN that there were also evidentiary problems, that there were some problems finding firsthand witnesses to concretely connect Iranian government officials. So there are a variety of reasons why Iran does not come into play here.

I spoke last night, Lou, with a family member, a mother of one of those young men who was killed back in 1996, talked to her about the possibility that no Iranians would be named. She expressed great dismay, as have some other family members, at that prospect. Saying that, in that case, justice will not have been done for her son, despite Director Freeh's commitment -- or what she qualified as commitment to this case -- Lou.

WATERS: Kelli, will we be privy to any of this so-called evidence that intelligence sources have been telling us about all along that may or may not implicate Iran in this?

ARENA: We don't know what we will hear today from the U.S. officials. But I can tell you that there were 46 counts that were listed in this indictment. Those included conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, conspiracy to kill U.S. employees, conspiracy (sic) to -- conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. nationals. Those are among the 46 counts in this 29-page indictment that we will be getting more details from.

The problem, Lou, all along, has been on the evidence front. Intelligence sources have told CNN that, while the Saudi government was cooperative, they were cooperative to a point. That there was much more that could have been done to help them come up with more concrete evidence and more suspect names; that they could have completed this task, perhaps, a little earlier. After all, it did take five years to come to this point.

And Lou, I must point out indictments do not equal arrests, do not equal having people in custody. It is merely a formal charge against suspects that are allegedly involved in a crime, Lou.

WATERS: So we're going to get a list of names today. What's subsequent to this? Is there going to be some kind of push to have countries overseas help the United States in making those arrests?

ARENA: Well, obviously, prosecutors are always hopeful for cooperation on extradition, for cooperation on arrests.

Of course, that is very complicated when you're dealing with another government. Very complicated, I am told, when it comes to dealing with Middle Eastern governments.

So we will see. This is a significant first step, but it is very much a very beginning stage in this whole process -- Lou.

WATERS: Is -- are these indictments that might also be associated with the death penalty upon conviction, and how might that complicate the arrest and extradition process?

ARENA: Well, Lou, I'm not sure if any of those counts, for sure, come under the terrorist death penalty provision. If that is the case, as you know, the United States has run into some trouble, most notably recently with France, in the extradition of James Kopp, who killed the doctor who performed abortions. There was an extradition deal that needed to be made in that instance to get James Kopp back to the United States to face charges.

So I am not sure right now. I have not seen, physically, the indictment yet. Hoping to hear on that front from Director Freeh and Attorney General Ashcroft.

WATERS: And they are expecting out momentarily?

ARENA: That's right. We were told at 1:30; things are running a little bit late, as you can see. We're standing by. I do know that they wanted to make sure that everyone was included and on board to be able to answer any and all questions regarding this indictment -- that this is something that journalists have been waiting a long time to hear about.

WATERS: Yes, usually the trains run on time in the Bush administration. A slight delay. Let's take a quick break. As soon as it happens, we'll get to it live.


WATERS: All right, we're going to go to the Justice Department now. We're expecting, as we've just been telling you, to hear from the attorney general and the FBI chief. Here's Louis Freeh now on these indictments in the Khobar -- in the connection with the Khobar Tower bombings in Saudi Arabia.


LOUIS FREEH, FBI DIRECTOR: ... is the assistant director in charge of our counterterrorism division; Ken Melson, the acting U.S. Attorney from the Eastern District of Virginia; the attorney general, of course; General Mike Ryan, the chief of staff of the Air Force; Jim Comey and John Davis, who are assistant U.S. Attorneys in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Mr. Attorney General?

JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Thank you, Director Freeh.

Today a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia returned an indictment charging 14 individuals with murder, attempted murder of federal employees, conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction related to the June 25, 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers dormitory complex in Saudi Arabia.

As a result of this terrorist act, 19 United States airmen were killed and 372 American citizens were wounded. Named as defendants are the leader of the Saudi Hezbollah terrorist organization, as well as several prominent members, including the head of Saudi Hezbollah's military wing, along with members of terrorist cells in Saudi Arabia who planned and carried out the Khobar attack.

The indictment explains that the terrorist activities leading to the 1996 Khobar blast began as early as 1993, when members of Hezbollah began extensive surveillance to find American targets in Saudi Arabia. ASHCROFT: In 1995, according to the indictment, the terrorists focused on Khobar Towers which housed U.S. Air Force personnel assigned to the Gulf region. After amassing large amounts of plastic explosives, the terrorists, assisted by and as yet, an unidentified member of Lebanese Hezbollah, referred to in the indictment as John Doe, these terrorists converted a tanker truck into a huge bomb. They denoted that bomb near the north face of the building number 131 at Khobar Towers shortly before 10 p.m. on June 25, 1996.

The indictment explains that elements of the Iranian government inspired, supported and supervised members of Saudi Hezbollah. In particular, the indictment alleges that the charged defendants reported their surveillance activities to Iranian officials and were supported and directed in those activities by Iranian officials. This indictment does not name as defendants individual members of the Iranian government.

Let me add, however, as always at this point, that every decision in this case has been made under the normal standards we apply to every criminal case. The only limitation on this case, as with any criminal case, is what we believe we can prove in a court of law. Federal district court rules prohibit commenting on the evidence available to us at the present time. But I can say that this investigation is continuing. And we will continue to bring additional charges as appropriate.

Today's indictment is, however, an important milestone in this ongoing investigation. For five years, the Department of Justice and the FBI, have worked to develop the evidence necessary to bring these charges for this terrible crime. This indictment comes at a time of both legal and personal significance in this case.

As a legal matter, important charges arising out of the Khobar attack if not filed promptly might be lost under our statute of limitations on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, which is next Monday. Of course, as a personal matter, for the victims and for their families, the indictment filed today means that next week's five-year anniversary of this tragedy will come with some assurance to victim family members and to the wounded that they are not and will not be forgotten.

I know that all of America joins me in offering, again, our condolences for the terrible losses endured by the families of those injured in this tragedy. For America, it has also been an important reminder of the tremendous sacrifices made by those who bravely serve to protect our nation and its freedom.

This indictment serves to underscore the commitment of the Bush administration and the Department of Justice to bring terrorists to account. Americans are a high priority target for terrorists and our nation will vigorously fight to preserve justice for our citizens, both here at home, as well as abroad.

I would like to thank the Saudi government for its assistance throughout this investigation. Today's charges would not have been possible without their help, and we look forward to working with them as the investigation continues.

I would also like to thank the prosecution team and the women and men of the FBI whose hard work on this investigation has been indispensable.

Finally, I want to thank FBI Director Freeh. Since the horrific attack on Khobar Towers five years ago, the director has not wavered in his pursuit of this investigation.

His personal involvement and tireless commitment are a substantial reason why we stand here today.

He's also reached out to the victims and their families, he's met with them personally to listen to their concerns, to share information with them, to answer questions from them and to pledge his continuing support.

This investigation exemplifies the leadership, the integrity and the compassion that Louis Freeh has delivered for America during the past eight years of his service as director of the FBI.

Together with his colleagues, he has moved this institution forward into the 21st century, building law enforcement cooperation and investigative capacities that are respected across the nation and around the world...

WATERS: The attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft, announcing the 13 indictments against Saudis and a Lebanese chemist who allegedly built the bomb that took out the U.S. Air Force personnel barracks in Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia on June 25, 1996. The charges against these men are conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. nationals, conspiracy to destroy property of the United States, conspiracy to attack national defense premises, bombing resulting in death, and use of weapons of mass destruction against United States nationals.

Now, those indicted including leaders of a group identified as Saudi Hezbollah. We have our national security correspondent David Ensor with us.

David, can you tell us anything about this group?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Hezbollah groups in various parts of the Middle East have always been closely associated with Iran. They tend to be Shiite Muslims. Of course, the Hezbollah group in Lebanon is largely financed by, and was very much initiated by the Iranians many years ago. So Saudi Hezbollah is presumably the same sort of a group, with close ties to Iran.

Notable there, that the attorney general specifically said there are no indictments of Iranian officials. But he said repeatedly that Iranian official had inspired and supervised the group that was involved in these bombings. And he promised that there may be further indictments yet to come. He said, also, you noted that the only restriction on who they would indict was the question of where they had enough legal evidence to stand up in a court of law. He was, in effect, saying that reports that there might be political consideration -- that there might have been others in the Bush administration who opposed indicting Iranian officials for political reasons were incorrect.

Nonetheless, I know there has been considerable debate among officials, certainly on whether the evidence was strong enough or not. And there have been officials within the government who argued that it was strong enough, at least for an indictment. But, for the moment at least, no indictments of Iranians. That will be good news in Tehran, certainly, although the fact that the Iranians have been described as having supervised and overseeing this in many ways will not be such good news -- Lou.

WATERS: So that debate hasn't been won yet? We may or we may not see indictments of particular individuals in Iran?

ENSOR: The feeling was that there wasn't enough evidence to stand up in a U.S. court of law that is available now. A lot depended on Saudi cooperation which, as the attorney general said, was good in many ways, and not so good in others. They, in fact, arrested some people and have not allowed all of them to be accessible to American investigators.

So, it is possible this thing might go further at some point, but there is a statute of limitations on some of the charges. In any case, what they are doing, is they are holding out the possibility that there could still be Iranian indictments -- Lou.

WATERS: All right, David Ensor in Washington. Fourteen indicted for the Khobar bombing by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia. CNN LIVE TODAY will take a break.



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