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Justice Department Briefing

Aired October 4, 2001 - 12:18   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: We're expecting Attorney General to hold his afternoon briefing shortly. They are still fighting against -- excuse me -- the antiterrorism package on the Hill, on Capitol Hill. And we expect to hear from him, that is the attorney general, shortly, and perhaps the FBI director as well, Robert Mueller.

Why don't we listen in to what they have to say.


ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

As you can imagine, the FBI continues to work on many fronts to respond to the acts of September 11. To date, we have an unprecedented 260,000 potential leads and tips which have come to us in the course of this investigation. The American people continue to support our efforts in a truly impressive way. Nearly half of those leads have come through our telephone hot line and our Internet site. Just last week we had 24,000 tips come in through those two resources.

Our laboratory and forensics' experts have gathered and continue to examine roughly 3,000 pieces of evidence from the crash sites and from other searches. Many of these important pieces of evidence have been uncovered and one such piece I think you received last week and that was several letters that were found at a number of the sites.

We're also working with financial institutions and federal and international authorities to dry up the reservoir of funds that terrorist organizations draw upon to support their operations. The effort to seize such assets and to freeze those accounts is critical to sapping the strength of terrorism worldwide. We know from previous investigations that some terrorist attacks could have been much worse had they been better bank rolled. To date, $6 million in assets, both at home and abroad, have been frozen by the federal government.

We of course are proud of the work of the men and women of the FBI in this investigation. But I'm also particularly grateful for the support and partnerships of our colleagues in law enforcement.

Today, we are joined by a number of state and local law enforcement authorities. And through these representatives, I want to thank our state and local partners for their tireless efforts in this new war on terrorism. Their work continues to be outstanding. As we all realize, no one institution has enough resources or expertise to defeat terrorism. It must be a joint effort across agencies, across jurisdictions and even across borders.

I can tell you that the spirit of team work and cooperation in this investigation has been truly remarkable. State and local law enforcement are playing a critical role, collecting information, running down leads, and providing the kind of expertise critical to an effort of this magnitude and of this importance. Information sharing between us all is as important now as it ever has been. And anything and everything that helps facilitate that is truly welcome.

One area in which state and local enforcement has historically played a leading role is in the area of civil rights. And during these times of anxiety and frustration, that role has taken on increasing importance. Vigilante attacks against Arab-, Muslim , and Sikh Americans continue to escalate.

Yesterday alone, the FBI initiated 15 new investigations, possibly linked to the September 11 attacks, which brings to the total 120 investigations we've opened under the hate crimes statute.

Again, I want to finish by thanking our colleagues and state and local law enforcement for their guidance, their support and their expertise in protecting the American people and enforcing the nation's civil rights laws. Thank you.

And now, let me turn it over to the attorney general.

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Thank you very much, Director Mueller.

And it is an honor to be here with these representatives of law enforcement. I don't know of any American that hasn't been inspired with the understanding of the willingness of law enforcement to do whatever is necessary to secure the safety and the well-being of American citizens.

And it has never been more dramatically evident than it has been in these weeks that have followed the tragic assault on American liberty and upon civilization, and it has been an assault on civilization. Seventy eight, I believe, different countries, all the way from Argentina to Zimbabwe and when -- lost lives, and I could be wrong on the exact number of nations.

But our local law enforcement, our partners in law enforcement, state and local, federal law enforcement agencies, pursued with the kind of vigor and intensity the effort to secure and make safe as many of those people as possible without regard to their own safety. And I'm honored to stand with you.

I just want to thank you.

These weeks have underscored for all Americans the degree to which we look to law enforcement for our safety and security. And these weeks also underscore the extent to which they return our trust by enduring risks, by, in some cases, paying the ultimate price so that we and our fellow citizens live in freedom.

So it is really a pleasure -- and, again, I state the honor which I feel and express my profound gratitude to these individuals who represent these law enforcement agencies whose work has been so noble and has come at very substantial cost.

With me today are representatives of the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association, the National Sheriffs Association, the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Association of Police Organizations, the International Association of Police Officers, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Police Executives Research Forum.

I want to thank all of these groups for helping our officials in Washington, the lawmakers, the members of the Congress understand the needs of law enforcement in order to respond effectively to the terrorist threat. These groups here today have worked hard to communicate their concerns to Congress which are in substantial measure included in the legislative package recommended by the administration.

As attorney general, I want to thank all of you, both for what you've done in the past in those times of national emergency and what you are doing in terms of helping understand the nature of our opportunities and the need for tools.

And I want to thank you for what you will do in the months ahead to ensure our safety and safeguard our freedom.

I'm pleased and heartened to hear that progress is being made in the House and Senate toward finalization of legislation that responds to the needs of law enforcement for the right tools to fight terrorism.

The process took a very important step forward last night when both the House and Senate agreed upon legislation that will now move the process in both houses of Congress. I want to thank my former colleagues in the Senate and the members of the House who have worked so hard and have exhibited such extraordinary commitment to the cause of our nation's security. I'm gratified for the progress that has been made. And I believe that there are a number of areas in which we can continue to work cooperatively together to strengthen this legislation and bring it to final passage.

First, the legislation passed by the House Judiciary Committee sunsets important law enforcement intelligence gathering tools on December 31, 2003. No one can guarantee that terrorism will sunset in two years. Our president has wisely counseled us as Americans that this is a long struggle. He has cautioned us to understand that we must be perseverant and that we must in fact be expecting to stay after this objective until we complete our responsibility and tasks.

Our laws need to reflect the new war, a kind of responsibility and effort that we must wage. It must provide us with tools on a continuing basis to do so. Second, the House bill also would exclude relevant evidence from being offered in terrorist trials. I look forward to working with both the House and Senate to ensure that our law enforcement tools are as effective as they can be. It would be a tragedy indeed to retreat from a capacity of law enforcement to use evidence in the process of seeking to strengthen the arm of law enforcement in the effort against terrorism.

From the beginning, our talks with Congress have been guided by two principles: First, our laws governing terrorism should reflect the priority that the American people give to the fight against terrorism. And the American people expect us to give this fight the highest priority.

Second, we will propose no change in the law that damages constitutional rights and protections that Americans hold dear. Just as we have provided law enforcement with the tools they need to fight drug trafficking and organized crime without violating the rights and the freedoms of Americans, we are committed to meeting the challenge of terrorism with the same careful respect for the Constitution of the United States and the protections that that Constitution accords to America's citizens.

We are gratified with the progress in the House and Senate, progress that they are making toward providing law enforcement with necessary additional tools to fight, to fight terrorism. And we will continue to work with them as they consider this legislation finally.

Please now to respond to questions.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) we're told -- can you tell us whether any of those people have been arrested and are directly related to the September 11 attacks and have they been charged?

ASHCROFT: There are about three categories of the ways in which people have been detained. People have been detained to have violated state or local law enforcement provisions, laws. Many of those groups represented here today have been a part of that.

People have been arrested because they are in possession of information which we feel is valuable in this inquiry, and the courts have provided for their arrest and detention on what are known as material witness warrants.

And then other individuals basically have been arrested either in conjunction with activities here or as a result of their association with individuals involved here and their having violated their immigration status, and I believe those define the categories of individuals that have been arrested. And, at this time, that's the nature of the comment that we would make on them.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: With respect to one of those categories, actually it was President Bush today who said 150 terrorist associated with the Al Qaeda organization specifically are in custody, and it sounded like many of those may well be overseas. Do either of you have any account, either domestically or overseas, in terms of people who may have this particular connection?

ASHCROFT: I'm not prepared at the moment to say a specific number for domestic detentions versus detentions overseas.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: The British government says at least three of the 19 hijackers have been positively identified as associates of Al Qaeda and that one has been identified as playing key roles in the East African embassy attack and the USS Cole attack. Are both of those facts true, sir?

ASHCROFT: I'm not in a position to verify or deny allegations like that.


QUESTION: General, with respect to the antiterrorism proposals, one of the sticking points with the Senate had to do with the sharing of intelligence agencies grand jury information, and everything nearly came unglued because the administration decided it could not live with the idea of post-judicial scrutiny. Why is it that the FBI and the CIA object so much to having a judge just be notified in the aftermath of turning over grand jury information and in an emergency situation?

ASHCROFT: We believe that those issues have been resolved and that the climate for exchanging information that'll be created by the bill, which will take down some of the walls, will provide a basis for facilitating that exchange of information.

ASHCROFT: That's what we were pursuing. We need to have a circumstance where if there aren't questions -- if someone on a grand jury describes a situation that could threaten the safety and security of our citizens, there aren't questions about whether or not that can quickly be shifted from the Grand Jury setting, either to the Department of Defense or to other law enforcement agencies or to the intelligence area, so that we can coordinate that information with other information. That's our objective. We believe that the bill now will provide a basis for that kind of facilitation of information- sharing.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) notification afterwards then?

ASHCROFT: I believe that we've arrived at a place that will provide the basis for getting this done well and without recrimination.

I don't really understand the threat here. The threat is that law enforcement officials and others involved with the security of Americans would have information that help them do their job. To layer bureaucracy on that unnecessarily simply doesn't provide a benefit and it provides an encumbrance.

Yes? QUESTION: Can you tell us what is known at this point about the Russian plane explosion? There were earlier reports it was accidental. Do you have any concerns or fears that it might have been terrorist-related?

ASHCROFT: Well, obviously, I don't have -- maybe it's not obvious -- but I don't have information that would provide a basis for making any comment about that.

Obviously, any time a plane is destroyed in flight or otherwise, the victim of that kind of situation is a matter of great concern to us. But I don't have any facts which would lead me to draw conclusions about it.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Just to go back to the question about the numbers who've been arrested overseas. Can you share the White House's characterization if those 150 are indeed terrorists?

ASHCROFT: I am grateful for the cooperation of our partners and individual -- other nations. And a number of them have, obviously, been involved with us here at the Justice Department for the extent to which they have been willing to receive from us information and cooperate with us in detaining individuals who could be relevant, not only to these particular events of September the 11th, but to our overall objective of the disruption of the network of terrorism.

I'm not in a position to inventory either specific cases or numeric totals, but I am grateful for the cooperation which has been substantial and improving.

QUESTION: You or Director Mueller, have you found in this investigation any evidence that points to Iraq as a part or full sponsor of this September 11 attack?

ASHCROFT: I'm not going to be discussing evidence and trying to describe it as related to situations like that.

QUESTION: Dr. Mueller, could you comment on a request that the FBI received at headquarters here for a national security search of a computer of an individual who was detained in connection with this investigation?

MUELLER: Sure. Subsequent to an arrest and detention in Minnesota on charges, there was a request made for the possibility of doing some form of warrant. The request came back, was looked at by lawyers at the FBI. And the determination was made that there was insufficient probable cause at that time. Discussions were then held about how one could improve the basis, the probable cause, so that we had sufficient probable cause to go to a court and to obtain the particular order we needed to conduct that search.

QUESTION: Do you think that request should have been granted then? MUELLER: As I said, when it was looked at, there was insufficient probable cause, clear insufficient probable cause. And our efforts at that time were to go and find enough facts that would support the initial request so that we could go back to the court.

Thank you very much.


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: The FBI Director Robert Mueller and the Attorney General John Ashcroft recapping the state of the investigation.

That last question evidently about a man, Mr. Moussaoi, who was picked up for questioning in Minnesota. And a request was made to the Justice Department, that reached the Justice Department, for permission to look into the hard drive, I believe it was, of his computer, the request was turned down. As you heard Mr. Mueller say, insufficient evidence. Of course, a lot of second guessing about that now.

We want to go to our justice correspondent Kelli Arena joining us. Kelli, some interesting numbers there at the beginning. 3,000 pieces of evidence that they're looking at, forensic evidence, and $6 million in assets frozen. We are getting a clearer picture of what they are working with.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: We do. We know that -- and also, he also mentioned 260,000 potential leads. Imagine having to go through all of those and prioritize your assets that way.

We know that they are going through, obviously, documents, money transfers, computer information. We know that the National Infrastructure Protection Center, which is under the FBI, has been aggressively working, and actually had to borrow people to enhance its staff, to go through email and chat room information. Much of that though, Judy, as you know, gets wiped out very quickly.

So they are up against a clock here to try to find any evidence of any associates that would still be here in the United States. That really is the goal at this point, is finding those associates.

WOODRUFF: Quickly, it does sound from listening to the attorney general that they are making progress with the Congress in getting the additional legislative tools, or legal tools to do the kind of investigation they want.

ARENA: He did talk about the two areas that obviously Justice is still unhappy about. The first being that the House sunsets some of these tools in the year 2003, and as Attorney General John Ashcroft said, we can't be assured that terrorism will sunset in 2003. He had said that before in testimony before House members when he was asked as a possibility.

The other issue that Justice has remaining with the legislation as passed by the House, was that the House, they would -- investigators would have to exclude certain evidence that was extrapolated by using these new tools from criminal trial. And you heard Attorney General John Ashcroft saying well that is just not acceptable, and really doesn't give them the strength that they need in the courtroom, where it really counts, when you need to come up with a conviction.

So, those are two areas. This is still not a done deal, although progress has been made. Obviously Justice still has some concerns, Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right, thanks for clarifying that. Our justice correspondent Kelli Arena.




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