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America's New War: Attorney General Ashcroft Testifies Before House on Expanded Powers for Law Enforcement

Aired September 24, 2001 - 14:09   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We want to move over to the Capital now, where the attorney general, John Ashcroft, is testifying about expanded powers he wants to have to carry out the investigation.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: They require that we provide law enforcement with the tools necessary to identify, dismantle, disrupt, and punish terrorist organizations before they strike again.

Terrorism is a clear and present danger to Americans today. Intelligence information available to the FBI indicates a potential for additional terrorist incidents. As a result, the FBI has requested through the national threat warning system that all law enforcement agencies nationwide be on heightened alert.

When we have threat information about a specific target, we share that information with appropriate state and local authorities. We have contacted several city and state officials over the last 13 days to alert them to potential threats. We also act on intelligence information to neutralize potential terrorist attacks using specific methods. Yesterday, the FBI issued nationwide alert based on information they received indicating the possibility of attacks using crop-dusting aircraft.

The FBI assesses the uses of this type of aircraft to distribute chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction as potential threats to Americans. We have no clear indication of the time or place of any such attack.

The FBI has confirmed that Mohamed Atta, one of the suspected hijackers, was acquiring knowledge of crop-dusting aircraft prior to September 11th. A search of computers, computer disks and personal baggage of another individual in custody revealed the significant amount of information downloaded from the Internet about aerial application of pesticides, or crop dusting.

At our request, the Federal Aviation Administration has grounded such aircraft until midnight tonight. In addition to its own preventative measures, the FBI has strongly recommended that state, local, and other federal law enforcement organizations take steps to identify crop-dusting aircraft in jurisdictions and ensure that they are secured. I also urge Americans to notify immediately the FBI of any suspicious circumstances that may come to their attention regarding crop-dusting aircraft or any other possible terrorist threat. The FBI Web site is www.ifcc.fbi.org. That's www.ifcc.fbi.org. Our toll-free telephone number is 866-483-5147.

The highly coordinated attacks of September 11 make it clear that terrorism is the activity of expertly organized, highly coordinated and well-financed organizations and networks. These organizations operate across borders to advance their ideological agendas. They benefit from the shelter and protection of like-minded regimes. They are undeterred by the threat of criminal sanctions and willing to sacrifice the lives of their members in order to take the lives of innocent citizens of free nations.

This new terrorist threat to Americans on our soil is a turning point in American history. It's a new challenge for law enforcement. Our fight against terrorism is not merely or primarily a criminal justice endeavor. It is defense of our nation and its citizens. We cannot wait for terrorist to strike to begin investigations and to take action.

The death tolls are too high. The consequences too great. We must prevent first, we must prosecute second. The fight against terrorism is now the highest priority of the Department of Justice.

As we do in each and every law enforcement mission we undertake, we are conducting this effort with the total commitment to protect the rights and privacy of all Americans and the constitutional protections we hold dear.

In the past, when American law enforcement can fund challenges to our safety and security from espionage drug trafficking and organized crime, we have met those challenges in ways that preserve our fundamental freedoms and civil liberties.

Today, we seek to meet the challenge of terrorism within our borders and targeted that our friends and neighborhoods with the same careful regard for the constitutional right of Americans and respect for all human beings.

Just as American right and freedoms have been preserved throughout previous law enforcement campaigns, they must be preserved throughout this war on terrorism.

This Justice Department will never waiver in its defense of the Constitution, nor relent in our defense of civil rights. The American spirit that rose from the rubble in New York knows no prejudice, and defies division by race, ethnicity or religion. The spirit which binds us and the values that define us will light American's path from this darkness.

At the Department of Justice, we are charged with defending American's lives and liberties. We are asked to wage war against terrorism within our own borders. Today, we seek to enlist your assistance, for we seek new laws against America's enemies, foreign and domestic.

As the members of this committee understand, the deficiencies in our current laws on terrorism reflect two facts: First, our laws fail to make defeating terrorism a national priority. Indeed, we have tougher laws against organized crime and drug trafficking than terrorism. Second, technology has dramatically outpaced our statutes. Law enforcement tools created decades ago were crafted for rotary telephones, not e-mail, the Internet, mobile communications and voice mail.

Every day that passes with outdated statute and the old rules of engagement, each day that so passes is a day that terrorist have a competitive advantage. Until Congress makes these changes, we are fighting an unnecessarily uphill battle. Members of the committee, I regret to inform you that we are today sending troops into the modern field of battle with antique weapons. It is no a prescription for victory.

The anti-terrorism proposal that have been submitted by the administration represent careful, balanced long overdue improvement to our capacity to combat terrorism. It is not a wish list. It is modest set of proposals, essential proposals focusing on five broad objectives, which will I will briefly summarize. First, law enforcement need a strengthened and streamlined ability for our intelligence-gathering agencies to gather the information necessary to disrupt, weaken and eliminate the infrastructure of terrorist organizations.

Critically, we also need the authority for our law enforcement to share vital information with our national security agencies in order to prevent further terrorist and future terrorist attacks. Terrorist organizations have increasingly used technology to facilitate their criminal acts and hide their communications from law enforcement. Intelligence-gathering laws that were written for an era of land-line telephone communications are ill-adapted for use in communications over multiple cell phones and computer networks, communications that are also carried by multiple telecommunications providers, located in different jurisdictions.

Terrorist are trained to change cell phones frequently, to route e-mail through different Internet computers in order to defeat surveillance. Our proposal creates a more efficient technology neutral standard for intelligence gathering, ensuring that law enforcement's ability to trace terrorist over cell phone, computer networks and the new technologies that may develop in the years ahead.

These changes would streamline intelligence gathering procedures only. We do not seek changes in the underlying protections in the law for the privacy of law-abiding citizens. The information captured by the proposed neutral-standard would be limited to the kind of information you might find in a phone bill, such as the phone numbers dialed by a particular telephone. The content of these communications in this setting would remain off-limits to monitoring by intelligence authorities, except under the current legal standards, where content is available under the law which we now use. Our proposal would allow a federal court to issue a single order that would apply to all providers in the communications chain, including those outside the region where the court is located. We need speed in identifying and tracking down terrorists. Time is of the essence. The ability of law enforcement to trace communications into different jurisdictions without obtaining an additional court order can be the difference between life and death for American citizens.

We're not asking the law to expand, just to grow as technology grows. This information has historically been available when criminals used free digital technologies. This same information should be available to law enforcement officials today.

Second, we must make fighting terrorism a national priority in our criminal justice system.

In a speech to the Congress, President Bush said that Osama bin Laden's terrorist group al Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to organized crime. However, our current laws make easier to prosecute members of organized crime than to crack down on terrorists, who can kill thousands of Americans in a single day.

The same is true of drug traffickers and individuals involved in espionage. Our laws treat these criminals and those who aide and abet them more severely than our laws treat terrorists.

We would make harboring a terrorist a crime. Currently, for instance, harboring persons engaged in espionage is a specific criminal offense, but harboring terrorists is not. Given the wide terrorist networks suspected the of participating in the September 11 attacks both in the United States and in other countries, we must punish anyone who harbors a terrorist.

Terrorists can run, but they should have no place to hide. Our proposal also increases the penalties for conspiracy to commit terrorist acts to a serious level, as we have done for many drug crimes.

Third, we seek to enhance the authority of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to detain or remove suspected alien terrorists from within our borders. The ability of alien terrorists to move freely across our borders and operate within the United States is critical to their capacity to inflict damage on our citizens and facilities. Under current law, the existing grounds for removal of aliens for terrorism are limited to direct material support of an individual terrorist. We propose to expand these grounds for removal to include material support to terrorist organizations. We propose that any alien who provides material support to an organization that he or she knows or should know is a terrorist organization should be subject to removal from the United States.

Fourth, law enforcement must be able to follow the money, in order to identify and neutralize terrorist networks. Sophisticated terrorist operations require substantial financial resources. On Sunday evening, President Bush signed a new executive order, under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, IEEPA, blocking the assets and the transaction of individuals and organizations with terrorist organizations and other businesses organization that support terrorism.

President Bush's new executive order will allow intelligence, law enforcement and financial regulatory agencies to follow the money trail to the terrorist and to freeze the money, to disrupt their actions. This executive order means that the United States banks that have assets of these groups or individuals must freeze their accounts. And United States citizens or businesses are prohibited from doing businesses with those accounts.

At present, the president's powers are limited to freezing assets and blocking transactions with terrorist organizations. We need the capacity for more than a freeze. We must be able to seize. Doing business with terrorist organizations must be a losing proposition. Terrorist financiers must pay a price for their support of terrorism which kills innocent Americans. Consistent with the president's action yesterday and his statements this morning, our proposal gives law enforcement the ability to seize the terrorists' assets.

Further, criminal liability is imposed on those who knowingly engage in financial transactions -- money laundering -- involving the proceeds of terrorist acts.

Finally, we seek the ability for the president of the United States and the Department of Justice to provide swift emergency relief to the victims of terrorisms and their families.

Mr. Chairman, I want you to know that the investigation into the acts of September 11 is ongoing, moving aggressively forward. To date, the FBI and INS have arrested or detained 352 individuals. There are other individuals -- 392 -- who remain at large and we think they have information that could be helpful to the investigation.

The investigative process has yielded 324 searches, 103 court orders, 3,410 subpoenas, and the potential tips are still coming in to the Web site and the 1-800 hot line. The Web site has received almost 80,000 potential tips, the hot line almost 15,000.

Now it falls to us in the name of freedom and those who cherish it to ensure our nation's capacity to defend ourselves from terrorists. Today I urge the Congress -- I call upon the Congress -- to act to strengthen our ability to fight this evil wherever it exist, and to ensure the line between the civil and the savage, so brightly drawn on September 11, is never crossed again.

Thank you very much, Mr. Attorney General.

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER (D), WISCONSIN: At this point, without objection, all members' written statements on that of the attorney general will be included in the record.

There are 35 minutes left before you have to leave. That being 17.5 minutes available on each side.

And I recognize the gentleman from Michigan.

REP. JOHN CONYERS (D-MI), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I thank you, Mr. Chairman. You're recognizing me for the purpose of making an introductory statement, as you did -- is that not correct?

SENSENBRENNER: You can use your 17.5 minutes however you want.

CONYERS: That's not exactly the question, sir.

In this committee, a process that started even before you arrived, the ranking member of the chairman customarily have five minutes each, and I do not want my five minutes coming out of the time for 16 members of this committee to divide 17 minutes. And we ought to get that straight right now.

SENSENBRENNER: OK, the gentleman is recognized for five minutes, but the attorney general has to leave at 3:00, so that will reduce the time on each side to 15 minutes.

CONYERS: It may, or it may not.

I want to just welcome the attorney general, Mr. John Ashcroft, and the deputy attorney general, Mr. Larry Thompson. Mr. Shurtof (ph) and Mr. Din (ph), we welcome you to these committee proceedings.

And notwithstanding the opening comments that I have made, I want to report to you that myself and the chairman of this committee, Mr. Jim Sensenbrenner, have been working very closely together. As a matter of fact, different members on both sides of this committee, Democrats and Republicans, have been working over the weekend, as our staffs have, and as we know you have, as well.

ASHCROFT: We are -- pardon me. We are grateful for that, and we are aware of the time that our staff has spent with yours, and we appreciate the cooperative relationship.

CONYERS: I thank you very much.

And I just want you to know that there is not a member of this committee that is not pressed and committed to urgently produce the kinds of additional legislation that are needed for this country, and particularly for the Office of the Attorney General, to prosecute the tremendously important mission that is confronting you at this moment.

We're coming to grips with the tragic events that have occurred since September 11. The country appears more unified than ever to confront the problem that we're presented here in the United States in the year 2001. But today, we are here to review the attorney general's emergency request for new authorities to combat terrorism. I am gratified to report that the minority leader of this House, Mr. Richard Gephardt -- who is working, incidentally, very closely with the speaker, Mr. Hastert, and we have been reporting to him the progress and the activities going on in the Judiciary Committee, which has such a large responsibility in the legislative request that you have made. And it's to these points that I would like to bring to your attention how we are going to proceed -- or how I hope we will proceed.

First of all, there has been a great deal of consensus forming around a number of the provisions that you presented to us recently. As a matter of fact, I can state that we on this side of the aisle, 16 of us in number, have agreed to, ironically, 16 of the provisions within your proposal -- 16 of them. They're before our drafting committee, being put into a bill as we speak.

Now, we're working hard, we're willing to burn the midnight oil, but it's hard for me to understand how if the proposal offered by our friend, the chairman from this committee, Mr. Sensenbrenner, how we will be able to employ a 10:00 a.m. markup on a proposal that had never been explained before the members. These -- and talked with among ourselves.

In other words, we're at close agreement Mr. Ashcroft, but we've got to see the writing, and we've made some small changes, but I think that there are members on both sides of this committee, Democrats and Republican alike, who are prepared to move on 16 of these proposals incorporated in the draft of ideas that you have presented with us. And I hope that we'll be able to do that. It would expedite everything that we're doing quite rapidly.

But I think that you must also take into cognizances that there are a number of provisions in your measure that give us constitutional trouble. Our lawyers, our witnesses that will follow you today from the American Civil Liberty Union and several other university organizations are very deeply concerned and troubled about the fact that the court has already, for example, told us that indefinite detention is unconstitutional.

We've got to get these guys, but indefinite detention has not been allowed by the courts up until now. So we know without too much other discussion that we may have some problems here on this issue.

And feel free to address any of the comments that I'm making as soon as I conclude.

Permitting information for illegal wiretaps performed abroad against United States citizens to be used in the federal courts as the administration proposes is -- well, some have said it's unconstitutional on its face. Let me be more polite. We are deeply trouble. We are deeply trouble by it.

And there are at least a half dozen other sections that I don't even know how I'm going to go on them until I have discussed it with the distinguished members of this committee and witnesses that we will be calling forward.

So what I want to assure you is that at the same time that we want to rearm you with the tools that you need and know at the same time you are conducting the fight already, you can't wait for this legislation, I want to assure you that this committee is doing everything that it can possibly do to expedite that happening.

Now, know that the United States Senate has already indicated that they may be weeks away from a resolution. I'm not trying too slow you down, but there's no point in us trying to mark up a measure that we agree on tomorrow morning if it hasn't come from the printer, and we already know that the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee under the esteemed Chairman Leahy has already indicated that they're talking about weeks.

So this is a discussion between friends of how we get all this together and move forward in the manner that you've described to us. And I thank you for your kind attention.

SENSENBRENNER: Mr. Attorney General, the floor is yours.

Do you wish to respond?

ASHCROFT: Well, frankly, I don't know that I -- it might be better allow different members to ask specific questions.

I do want to recognize the fact that over the course of the last maybe 10 days I've been working with individuals from the minority leader of the House to the committee chairman in the Senate. We've had lots of time together, ranking member and I spent time together, the chairman and I have spent time together. We invited the leadership of committees of both houses to confer with us about this measure.

And we believe that this is a measure that should -- that is the result of collaborative effort and work. And so there is a reason for us to have substantial agreements.

In regard to the areas where there are disagreements, I must say that we are confident that we have carefully considered those, that they are merited not only by the circumstances, but that they pass constitutional muster and that they will serve America well.

I would just indicate that in regard to the pace of things, I think this is time for leadership. I think we would be ill-advised to find a reason that someone else might be slowing down and indicate that we didn't understand the urgency that was appropriate to the ability to protect the American people. It's our position at the Justice Department and the position of this administration that we need to unleash every possible tool in the fight against terrorism, and to do so promptly, because our awareness indicates that we are vulnerable and that our vulnerability is elevated as long as we don't have the tools we need to have.

SENSENBRENNER: Mr. Attorney General, let me say that I am very strongly opposed to breaking this bill apart into several pieces. There are some easy provisions in your submission, and there's some difficult provision. I think when we get the information we should make a decision on the difficult provisions and let the committee procedure and the House of Representative work its will.

Let me also state that I have never been guided by how fast or how slow the Senate wants to work. I know that you are an alumnus of that esteemed body, but sometimes they have much more difficulty making up their mind than we do. The gentleman from Pennsylvania, Mr. Gekas.

REP. GEORGE GEKAS, (R) PENNSYLVANIA: I thank the chair.

We welcome you, of course, General.

ASHCROFT: Thank you.

GEKAS: Now you stated as part of your presentation that pursuant to an executive order issued by the president the other night that certain actions are being taken to freeze assets, etcetera.

Today, the president announced a separate executive order, I believe, that is aimed towards charitable organizations, or front organizations that could be funneling monies to terrorist organizations.

I'm wondering -- I think this aimed towards ostensibly a charitable organization, and the president wants that money blocked, and I agree with him. I think most of us do. The question is: If the donor believes that it truly is going for a hospital, but another arm of this organization is dealing with dynamite and terrorist activities, that that person should be absolved from any complacent in it.

My position is that every dollar that is given to a so-called charity frees up monies that could be used for terrorist activities. I am wondering how you feel about this particular executive order and in context of what we're trying to prepare here?

ASHCROFT: Well, thank you very much, Congressman Gekas.

Our measure does seek to remedy a problem here. And let me just speak of it in two ways. Front organizations, so-called NGOs, advertise themselves as charitable organizations, but frequently divert very substantial assets to the perpetration of terrorist acts or the maintenance of terrorist networks. We need to be able to curtail the resources of those organizations. The president has taken the step to do so.

The president's step is to freeze the assets of those organizations.

Now, when we encounter criminal organizations in the United States like drug trafficking, we don't just freeze assets, we siege assets. And we are in our legislation seeking to be able to seize the assets, not just to freeze them, not just to curtail activity, but to take those assets.

Number two, you mentioned if someone thinks they are giving to a charity. I think this is a serious question. But for individuals, in our proposal, who know or should know -- in other words, the evidence is clear, and there's reason to know that this is not really a clarity, this is a front organization -- then the responsibility would attach to such individuals. So we are concerned on two fronts, that what the president now has capacity do is to freeze the assets; we think that capacity should be elevated to the way law enforcement deals with the assets of drug dealers and the like, to seize the assets. Secondly, we think the standard should be actual knowledge or should have known -- that's a pretty high standard, but we don't want people to be responsible if they appropriately thought they were giving to a charity.

CONYERS: But if they did know or had reason to know, we...

ASHCROFT: We should act against them.

CONYERS: Deportability enters into the picture, sanctions.

ASHCROFT: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

SENSENBRENNER: We are operating under a yielding of time equally on each side until the attorney general departs.

Gentleman from Michigan, to whom you yield time?

CONYERS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I yield now to the senior member of the committee, the gentleman from Massachusetts, Mr. Barney Frank.

SENSENBRENNER: The gentleman is recognized.

REP. BARNEY FRANK (D-MA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: General, one on the procedural point. You submitted legislation last week which represented your best effort. No one's goodwill is in question here; we are all trying very hard to do jobs that, frankly, none of us feel fully adequate to do. This is a terrible task that none of us ever contemplated having to do when we got here -- and we're doing our best. I think it's a time when the collective wisdom is very likely to be better, by far, than what any one of us could do. I certainly benefited from that.

The only point I would make is this. You have agreed and the majority and minority have agreed to several changes that have, in my judgment, greatly improved the bill, left it a very effective law enforcement effort, while diminishing some of the concerns we would have had. We were able to do that by working together between Thursday and today. Another week would make it do even better. It's no criticism of your work product, and no one can excogitate the perfect bill. Working together helped.

We have already been able too make some improvements and enhance the area of agreement. I would ask urgency for another week to do more of that, rather than have us rush to a premature markup tomorrow.

Now we ask a couple of substantive questions. I think it is essential that we upgrade our law enforcement capacity. Technology changed, and we have a set of fiendishly skillful opponents -- sadly -- opponents, and we have to arm law enforcement. But we are aware of our own fallibility. I think every time we increase law enforcement's efficacy, as I want to do in many cases, we need to make sure the safeguards are there for those cases when we can make mistakes.

First, with regard to increased surveillance -- and I'm going to support significant increased surveillance to keep up with new electronic goals. But one of the problems we've seen historically is the inappropriate release of information garnered by surveillance, and one of the worst instances in history was the savage campaign of defamation waged by J. Edward Hoover as head of the FBI against Dr. Martin Luther King, taking information he gained from surveillance, having found nothing criminal, nothing subversive, nothing incriminating. He released inappropriate personal and intimate information.

I hope we will have, in this bill, a right for any individual about whom such information is released in a context other than the criminal or intelligence investigation the right to go into a federal court under the federal torts claims act before a federal judge and get damages from the federal government. We've got to built into this a bureaucratic departmental incentive to crack down on this kind of leaking. And I think if we are able to assure people we've done the maximum to prevent the inappropriate disclosure of this information, there's less concern about it being gathered.

Similarly, with regard to assets forfeiture. Yes, there will be times when we have got to get the assets. I hope we will have in this bill procedures that are as prompt in people whose assets were being taken having a chance to get them back, because we will never do it perfectly. You know we will take some assets we shouldn't, and as the former gentleman of this committee, the gentleman from Georgia, and the gentleman from Michigan, and I collaborated on a bill, dealing with assets forfeiture in general.

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