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America's New War: Attorney General John Ashcroft Testifies Before Senate Judiciary Committee

Aired September 25, 2001 - 11:18   ET


JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We're going to drop now from this House subcommittee hearing on airline security. Obviously a very important issue in the wake of the terrorist strikes to go across the capital to the Senate Judiciary committee.

The Attorney General John Ashcroft testifying there on new law enforcement measures the administration wants.

This the chairman of the committee, Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: ... ask questions at our next meeting will be the ones who begin either ahead of Senator Hatch or myself.

JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Mr. Chairman, Chairman Leahy, thank you. And Senator Hatch, thank you.

I must express my deep appreciation for the fact that we've been collaborating on the way to do two important tasks from the moments after this tragic criminal act of war was perpetrated against the United States and you've been to the Justice Department and I've been to the Hill and we've been back and forth and we've seen each other night and day. And, frankly, Chairman Leahy and Senator Hatch, I want to thank you for that level of collaboration. It's very important.

It was addressed to Congress and to the nation and to the world last Thursday, President Bush declared war on terrorism. As attorney general, it's my duty to respond to this call to action by ensuring the capacity of the United States law enforcement community to perform two related critical tasks: the first task is to prevent more terrorism; the second is to bring terrorists to justice.

The American people do not have the luxury of unlimited time in erecting the necessary defenses to future or further terrorist attacks. The danger that has darkened the United States of America and the civilized world on September 11 did not pass with the atrocities committed that day. Terrorism is a clear and present danger to Americans today.

Intelligence information available to the FBI indicates a potential for additional terrorist incidents, and I testified at the House Judiciary Committee yesterday regarding the possibility of attacks using crop-dusting aircraft. 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.

Given the current threat environment, the FBI has advised all law enforcement agencies to remain alert to these threats. And I urge Americans to notify immediately the FBI of any suspicious circumstances that may come to your attention regarding hazardous materials, crop-dusting aircraft or any possible terrorist threat. The FBI web site -- -- and we do have a toll free incoming line for individuals, 866-483-5137.

The new terrorist threat to America is on our soil and that makes it a turning point in history. It's a new challenge to law enforcement. Our fight against terrorism is not merely primarily a criminal justice endeavor, it has to be a defensive and prevention endeavor. We cannot wait for terrorists to strike to begin investigations. The death tolls are too high; the consequences are too great. We must prevent first; prosecute second.

I can assure the committee and the American people we are conducting this effort with a total commitment to protect the rights, the constitutional rights and the privacy of all Americans. We will respect, we will safeguard the constitutional protections which we hold dear.

In the past when American law enforcement confronted challenges to our safety and security from espionage, from drug trafficking, from organized crime, this Congress and law enforcers met those challenges in ways that preserved our fundamental freedoms and our civil liberties and today we seek to meet the challenge of terrorism with the same meticulous, careful regard for the constitutional rights of Americans and respect for all human beings. Just as American rights and freedoms have been preserved throughout previous law enforcement campaigns, they must be preserved throughout this war on terrorism. The Justice Department will not waver in our defense of the Constitution nor will we relent in our defense of civil rights. 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 we do against terrorism. Second, technology has dramatically out paced our statutes. As the chairman mentioned, law enforcement tools created decades ago were crafted for rotary telephones, not e-mail or the Internet or mobile communications and voicemail.

Every day that passes -- every day that passes without dated statutes and the old rules of engagement is a day that terrorists have a competitive advantage. Until Congress makes these changes, we are fighting an unnecessarily uphill battle. So members of the committee, I regret to inform you that we are today sending our troops into the modern field of battle with antique weapons, but that need not be our condition long. The antiterrorism proposals that have been submitted by the administration and, very frankly, informed by and shaped by collaboration with members of this committee and other members of the Congress, represent careful, balanced, in many cases, long overdue improvements to our capacity to combat terrorism. It is not a wish list. It is a set of essential proposals focusing on five broad objectives which I will briefly summarize.

Number 1; law enforcement needs a strengthened and streamlined ability for our intelligence-gathering agencies to gather information necessary to disrupt, weaken and eliminate the infrastructure of terrorist organizations. Critically, we need the authority for law enforcement to share vital information with our national security agencies in order to prevent future terrorist attacks. Terrorist organizations have increasingly used technology to facilitate their criminal acts and hide their communications. Intelligence-gathering laws that were written for the era of land line telephone communications need changing.

Our proposal creates a more efficient, yet technology-neutral standard for intelligence gathering, ensuring law enforcement's ability to trace the communications of terrorists over cell phones, computer networks and new technologies in the same way we've been able to trace communications of individuals over the analogue technologies of the past.

ASHCROFT: 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 technology-neutral standards would be limited to the kind of information that is now capturable in analog settings, the kind of information you might find in a phone bill, the content of the communications would remain off limits to monitoring by intelligence authorities, except when current legal standards are met.

Our proposal would allow a federal court to issue a single order that would apply to all providers in a communication chain, including those outside the region where the court is located, and the chairman has already discussed this, the need for multipoint. Basically, we don't a court order that is specific to equipment, so that we monitor a piece of equipment. We want a court order that is specific to a person, so we monitor the communications of a person.

Second: We must make fighting terrorism a national priority in our criminal justice system. We must make that priority a reflection of our laws. Our laws treat certain criminals and certain individuals in the society more toughly now than they treat terrorists. We would, for example, make harboring a terrorist a crime. Currently, for instance, harboring persons engaged in espionage is a specific criminal offense, but not harboring a terrorists.

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 terrorists to move freely across our borders and to operate within the United States is critical to their capacity to inflict damage on citizens and facilities in the United States. And I'm pleased that the committee is concerned about the rather porous nature of our borders.

Under current law, the existing grounds for removal of aliens for terrorism are limited to direct material support for individual terrorists. We propose to expand these grounds for removal to include materials support for terrorist organizations.

Fourth: Law enforcement must be able to follow the money. And just to compress that, we not only need to be able to freeze the assets of terrorists, but we need to be able to seize those assets, just like we have for those individuals involved in drug trafficking.

Finally, we need the ability for the president and the Department of Justice to provide swift emergency relief to the families of the victims of terrorism and to the victims themselves -- surviving victims. Mr. Chairman, I also want to report to you one other thing on the status of the Department of Justice's activities regarding the civil rights of Americans. Since September the 11th, the Civil Rights division working closely with United States attorneys across the country and the FBI has opened over 60 investigations into acts involving force or threats of force committed in retaliation for the events of September the 11th. All of these acts include killings, assaults, the destruction or attempted destruction of businesses, attacks on mosques and worshipers, and death threats. The Department of Justice is firmly committed to pursuing these misguided wrong-doers vigorously.

The Civil Rights Division and FBI have met with the leaders of Arab-American, Muslim and Sikh communities, and we have established in the Civil Rights Division an initiative to combat post-terrorism discrimination to ensure that all allegations of violence or discrimination are addressed promptly and effectively. Let there be no mistake, the Department of Justice will not tolerate acts of violence or discrimination against people in this country based on their race, national origin or religion.

We have all witnessed this savage attack that would seek to destroy America. The challenge falls on us, in the name of freedom, those of us who cherish freedom, to ensure our nation's capacity to defend ourselves.

Today, I call upon this committee and the Congress to strengthen our ability to fight this evil wherever it exists and to ensure that the line between the civil and the savage is so brightly drawn that it will not be crossed as it was on September 11.

LEAHY: Attorney General, thank you very much.

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Attorney General John Ashcroft testifying there before the Senate Judiciary Committee. This just one of the many congressional hearings we will see in the days, and weeks and months ahead as the Congress and administration debate changes in federal law, changes in airport security, other major developments in the wake of the tragic events of September 11th. On the other side of capital this morning, testimony about proposed changes for airline security. We will keep you updated throughout the day on both of those developments and other developments here in Washington.



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