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Attorney General Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller Give an Investigation Update

Aired September 28, 2001 - 15:47   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Now, we have the attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft.

JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Sorry to keep you waiting.

The investigation continues to make progress. As of today, the FBI web site has received 97,996 tips. The FBI incoming toll-free hotline has received 17,532 tips. There have been a total of over 480 people arrested or detained.

I wanted to take this opportunity to provide some details and context to reports of a letter that was found belonging to three of the hijackers. Copies of this letter in its original language will be provided.

A four-page handwritten letter was found in the suitcase of Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers on American Airlines Flight 11. You may recall that there was a suitcase that did not make it to the plane and was recovered by the FBI in Boston.

A second copy of the letter was also found at Dulles Airport in a vehicle that was used by Nawaf Alhazmi, one of the hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77. Additionally, a third copy of the letter was found at the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.

These three documents -- this letter is clear evidence linking the hijackers on the three separate flights on September 11. The letter is written in Arabic and contains instructions to the hijackers, as well as Islamic prayers. It is a disturbing and shocking view into the mindset of these terrorists. The letter provides instructions to the terrorists to be carried out both prior and during their terrorist attacks.

Let me make clear that while this letter contains a number of religious references, I do not believe it to be representative of Muslims or the Islamic faith. The letter is a stark reminder of how these hijackers grossly perverted the Islamic faith to justify their terrorist acts.

I want to express my appreciation for the efforts of American Muslim leaders to educate the public about their faith, and to stress that the Muslim faith is peaceful and in no way condones these acts of violence. And I remind all Americans that law-abiding Muslim Americans are patriotic citizens who deserve dignity and respect.

You'll be getting copies of the letter that will be made available to you -- letters that were found in the three separate locations relating to the three separate flights.

If you have questions...

QUESTION: Attorney General? A representative of the European Union told us yesterday that its members will not extradite suspects to the United States unless the United States guarantees they won't face the prospect of execution. Is this your understanding, and if it is, then how do you deal with it?

ASHCROFT: We have not sought extradition of any individuals in regard to this particular attack on the United States to date. And obviously, I believe, that the law, which is clear in relation to capital punishment in the United States when certain factual conditions are met, is a law that we ought to be able to enforce.

QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, you and the director made very clear about how you're not targeting any person because of his or her ethnicity or religion, but there are a lot of people who've been interviewed by the FBI agents who are seeing they're being queried as to their political beliefs, and as to their feelings about the attacks. How is that justified?

ASHCROFT: Well, Bob may want to make some comments, but let me first say this was an attack on the United States for people who would have a clear motive if, in fact, that is the -- it was a clear motive, I think, on the individuals who made this attack on the United States, that their feelings about the United States are related.

And when we're trying to talk to individuals who may or may not have been associated or who may have information regarding this, the way they feel about the United States may be related.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: In our questioning, we are delving into any relationships that the individuals may have had with any of the hijackers or, indeed, associates of the hijackers.

Inevitably, that may cross over into relationships that may have sprung out of attendance at, for instance, religious meetings. But there is no effort to delve into either the political or the religious beliefs of individuals or in no way tied to questioning related to whether or not they were associated in any way with one of more of the hijackers or helped or assisted in any way one of more of the hijackers.

QUESTION: How close are you to indicted someone who's directly involved in the planning or the attacks? And has the FBI identified anyone other than bin Laden who may be a mastermind of this plot?

ASHCROFT: When we are prepared to talk about indictments, we will. And we are continuing with the investigation, we're making progress in the investigation, but aren't ready to make announcements in that respect.

QUESTION: Mr. Mueller spoke yesterday briefly about focusing on prevention. If I could get some sense of what have been the most successful measures on prevention have been since September 11. And there are some reports out there that there were a couple of incidents averted since then; is that true?

ASHCROFT: Well, let me just say this. We are focused on prevention. We think the prevention of additional acts of violence against the United States by those whose agenda is to impair our ability to exist as a free nation -- that agenda must be disrupted and interrupted.

And to take steps to do that, there have been a wide range of things done, including very substantial additional security in a variety of settings. You all are aware of them -- everything from the grounding of crop dusters, and then developing new ways of dealing with those tools of agriculture which could be perhaps perverted to other nefarious ends, to the different standards around airports, and to a heightened state of alert for a variety of other infrastructural assets of the country. And we hope that our effort to curtail any additional successful acts of terror will indeed be fruitful.

And we've asked the citizens of the country to participate in that. I talked yesterday, asking for their assistance in what I termed, in effect, a national neighborhood watch. Everyone can be a part of making sure that we avoid additional acts that are so costly.

QUESTION: There was an arrest today in London of a man, last name Raissi, and British prosecutors said in open court that he provides a direct link to the hijackers. Can you tell us how important -- can you confirm that, and tell us how important to either of you this is to the case and why?

ASHCROFT: I am not familiar with exactly what the British prosecutor said, so I'm not in a position to confirm it and I'm not in a position to comment on Mr. Raissi.

I don't know whether, Bob, if you want to -- Bob says he's going to give you the same answer.

Now, I cut somebody off in order not to answer your question.

QUESTION: Do you think bin Laden was the only mastermind behind the attack, sir?

ASHCROFT: We believe -- well, let me just put it this way: We have not ruled out the participation of other individuals and other organizations in this attack.

Bob, did you want to answer that?

MUELLER: The only thing I would say is that I think the focus of the questions in the past and the answers we've given is that there's not just bin Laden but there's an Al Qaeda network that has been written about and much talked about. And I think it is -- one should not focus on one individual, but focus one's attention on a series of networks across the world which is, frankly, the focus of, generally, our counterterrorism efforts, but also in the course of this investigation, we quite obviously want to identify the ties not to just one individual, but any individual which may or who may share responsibility for what happened on September 11.

QUESTION: Have you been able to trace any of the 19 hijackers back to Afghanistan?

ASHCROFT: I don't think I'm capable of answering that question. I'm trying to inventory -- we know where they've been at a lot of times and places, but I'm not -- Mr. Director, if you may have...

MUELLER: Well, I just -- it's something that we can't get into. It's part of the investigation. And part of our investigation, quite obviously, is trying to determine the past histories of each of the hijackers, trace their time in the United States, but also attempt to identify where they were prior to their coming to the United States and track their movements through any number of countries overseas.

And we are in the process of doing it. And we've had, I will say, substantial cooperation from a number of countries that have enabled us to start to put together the picture, but the picture is nowhere as near as fully painted.

ASHCROFT: Thank you all very much.

WOODRUFF: All right. We've been listening to the Attorney General John Ashcroft, backed up there by the FBI director, bringing us up to date in the investigation. Most interesting was the statement at the beginning that they are releasing to the news media a letter that was found in the belongings of three of the suspected hijackers, one of them Mohamed Atta. It was in his suitcase, the suitcase that did not make it onto the flight from Boston that plowed into the World Trade Center.

Second copy in belonging -- in a car of one of the hijackers found, I guess, at Logan Airport in Boston. And finally, a letter found at the crash site in Pennsylvania, and according to the attorney general this letter, these three copies, he says provides clear evidence linking these hijackers together, and he described it as being written in a disturbing and shocking language.

Kelli Arena, our justice correspondent is with us. Now, Kelli, this is the first confirmation we've had, is that not right, that they have three separate copies of a very similar if not identical piece of paper?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Sources had told us earlier that there were other documents that were around, not in this specificity, that showed that they were all sort of working off of some sort of working document. But now we know that this was document that was shared at least connecting three of the planes, three out of the four planes. So, that is something that law enforcement has been really looking for, to really make a solid, concrete connection between all of those flights that took off and crashed that day.

And as Attorney General Ashcroft said, that this provides sort of a view into what those hijackers were thinking and doing, not only before the flight, but he said during the flight. So there may be some instructions in this document about exactly how to...

WOODRUFF: How to carry out...

ARENA: How to carry out the attack. Now, we do know that there was that one line that sources had told us before, about "making sure you hit an enemy, you know, above the shoulders."

WOODRUFF: And we know that throats were slit.

ARENA: Right. So, we will see how much detail it gets into.

WOODRUFF: And just quickly, Kelli, now, as soon as we have possession of this letter, we are going to try to make it available. Of course, we know that it is written in Arabic.

Quickly, Kelli, I noticed that the attorney general updated the number of people arrested or detained, 480. My question is, how many of those people, according to the folks you are talking to, are of Arab descent or Middle Eastern descent?

ARENA: I bet you all of them. I mean, I cannot say that for 100 percent certain, but I would bet all of them. They are looking for associates of these men, and they are looking for people who may have information, and that is very likely to come from the Arab-American community.

WOODRUFF: All right. Kelli Arena, our justice correspondent.

Our coverage of "America's New War" continues.




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