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Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller Hold Briefing

Aired October 16, 2001 - 12:41   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Go over to the attorney general's briefing to see if we can get more specific information on the anthrax investigation.

John Ashcroft:


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... the American people have been asked to balance a difficult set of realities. We've asked Americans to go about their lives with a new sense of awareness of the danger that terrorism brings to us, a danger which continues to darken America. We have encouraged Americans to be active, but vigilant; calm, but alert. We're extremely gratified with the response that we've seen from the people. Overwhelmingly, Americans have responded to the reality of terrorism with both understanding and responsibility.

A few isolated individuals, however, have seen fit to compound the concerns of America and of Americans by perpetrating false threats of anthrax attacks. These acts are serious violations of the law and grotesque transgressions of the public trust.

False terrorist threats tax the resources of an already overburden enforcement system and the public health system. They create illegitimate alarm in a time of legitimate concern. Terrorism hoaxes are not victimless crimes, but are the destructive acts of cowards.

The Department of Justice will prosecute and punish with the full force of our laws those who issue false anthrax threats or any other form of terrorist threat.

Yesterday, the United States attorney for the District of Connecticut charged Joseph Faryniarz of Coventry (ph), Connecticut with intentionally making false statements to a federal agent in connection with an anthrax hoax. On October the 11th, an employee of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection found a powdery substance on a sheet of paper with the misspelled word "anthrax" next to his work station. The complaint charges that Faryniarz knew the incident was a hoax but reportedly stood by silent as 800 employees were evacuated and 12 employees were forced to disrobe and be washed down with a decontamination solution. The complaint further charges that Faryniarz lied to FBI agents repeatedly and attempted falsely to implicate two of his coworkers before confessing to knowledge of the hoax. As this case demonstrates, false threats of anthrax and other terrorists attacks carry high costs for consumers and taxpayers. Officials of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection report that the two-day evacuation of their facilities necessitated by this hoax may cost taxpayers up to $1.5 million.

The government has not yet calculated the expense involved in the response by state and local and law enforcement officers. Now, if Faryniarz is convicted for the crimes for which and with which he has been charged, he could face a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to twice the gross loss to the victims, in this case, potentially up to $3 million.

We are currently working with state and local officials in other parts of the country to prosecute additional anthrax hoax cases. It should be painfully obvious to every American today that the threat of bioterrorism is no joking matter. For the victims and emergency personnel who are called on to respond, every threat of terrorism is real. The perpetrators of terrorist hoaxes should know that the penalties for their crimes are real as well.

Like the American people, the Department of Justice takes these offenses seriously. We will find the perpetrators of anthrax hoaxes. We will prosecute the offenders, and we will punish the guilty for their crimes.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: Good afternoon. This afternoon, I want to spend a few moments at the outset talking about the anthrax issue.

As most of you know, the FBI is investigating anthrax exposures and suspected anthrax exposures in Florida, in New York, here in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere around the country where such exposures have been reported.

Every threat is taken seriously. Every threat receives a full response. We have no choice but to assume that each reported instance is an actual biothreat. And while organized terrorism has not been ruled out, so far we have found no direct link to organized terrorism.

There are, however, certain similarities between letters sent to NBC in New York and to Senator Daschle's office here in Washington.

We're now testing, analyzing and comparing powders from these letters to each other and to what we know from Florida. And I should point out that the tests are being done under the auspices of the Center for Disease Control, CDC.

Since October 1, the FBI has received more than 2,300 incidents or suspected incidents involving anthrax or other dangerous agents. And as all of you know, an overwhelming majority of these incidents have been false alarms or practical jokes, and the (inaudible) the FBI will devote whatever resources are necessary to investigate each of these situations.

However, I want to reiterate the comments of the attorney general: Hoaxes, pranks and threats involving chemical or biological agents are serious crimes and warrant a serious response. They will be investigated thoroughly and vigorously by special agents of the FBI, by the postal authorities, by local authorities and by other law enforcement.

As the indictment, discussed today, makes clear individuals who attempt to prey on people's or persons' fears or even to pull a prank will pay a price. In addition to the price that they are paying, they should know that they are squandering millions of dollars in public health and law enforcement resources, resources that could be better spent in responding to actual terrorist acts. More importantly, they are taking manpower and time away from individuals who could be ensuring that there are no future terrorist acts.

As incidents arise, we are working closely with the Centers for Disease Control, with city and state public health officials and with a host of federal, state and local law enforcement authorities. We greatly appreciate the help and expertise.

FBI investigators and specially trained scientist, public safety officers and hazardous materials response experts are being called upon as needed, whether they be at the federal government level or the state or the local level. We are making a concerted and coordinated effort to keep state and local law enforcement authorities informed and involved. Quite obviously, their skills and expertise are top notch, and we need their help.

Thank you. And, I believe, that the attorney general and I will be happy to take some questions.

QUESTION: What are the similarities that were found in the two letters?

MUELLER: There are similarities of handwriting at this point, but the letters are being analyzed still. And to draw a final conclusion would be -- it would premature to draw a final conclusion.

QUESTION: Sir, I heard that there was a similar postmark of origin.

QUESTION: As director and the AG, can you say so far, "We haven't found any link to organized terror," what you're saying is, So far you haven't found any link to the lead perpetrators of the September 11 attack.

ASHCROFT: Let me see if I can clarify my understanding here. Anytime someone sends anthrax through the mail, it's an act of terror. It's terrorism, and we treat it as an act of terror and terrorism.

While we have not ruled out linkage to the terrorist attack of September 11 or the perpetrators of that attack, we do not have conclusive that would provide a basis for our conclusion that it is a part of that terrorist endeavor. But make no mistake about it, when people send anthrax through the mail to hurt people and to invoke terror, it's a terrorist act.

QUESTION: Have you identified any of the strains of anthrax in any of these cases, and are there any similarities or are they same or different?

MUELLER: The CDC is in the process of evaluating the samples that were taken from New York and from D.C., Senator Daschle's office, as well as from Florida. And to discuss, at this point, any similarities would be premature because those tests have not been concluded.

QUESTION: We've been hearing signs of tension in New York between the city officials and the FBI. Are you confident that the FBI's response in New York has been all it could be?

MUELLER: I think there were missteps at the outset. I do not think that, in any way, that affected the investigation. We did not, as quickly as we would have liked, analyzed an initial specimen from a letter that turned out to be negative and not positive for anthrax.

And in the wake of that, we have given direction to each office that, regardless of what we may think the threat should be or may be, to move quickly to make certain that some authority, whether it be state, local or federal authority, analyze it.

I do not believe that that initial misstep, in any way, adversely effected the investigation. Other than that, I can think of no other area where there is tension between ourselves and the state and local authorities in New York.

ASHCROFT: May I just add a comment there?

I want to commend the director for the constructive way in which he has addressed this situation. There was a situation where an early letter with an early suspicious substance wasn't communicated to the lab as quickly as it might have been, in part because the person responsible was at ground zero of the terrorist situation. And this information was developed, the director indicated to the New York office they should share this information with the media, share it openly and indicate that we're learning as we go forward.

Great organizations are organizations that know how to learn in the process of their activities to improve. And I commend the bureau and the director.

I am in contact regularly with individuals in the New York community, and I believe our working relationship is very strong. And I appreciate that fact and am grateful for the kind of communication that we have.

MUELLER: Let me just finish up with one thing on that. It was reported that it sat for a period of time, it was not tested for three days. Three days was too long. And this occurred before we had the incident in Florida, so it was treated as an ordinary what prior to the incident occurring in Florida, where we found positive anthrax, it had been unfortunately treated as yet another one that we've had over a number of years. So that's just to put that in context.

QUESTION: Has the threat diminished at all since your warning from last week?

MUELLER: Since the warning of last week, the threats have not diminished. However, when we issued the warning last week, it was with a specific time parameter. We are still within that time parameter, although as I think you all know now, it was without any specificity as to target or mechanism whereby a terrorist attack would be carried out.

But because it was specific with regard to time, it was our belief that federal, state and local law enforcement should be on a higher state of alert and we remain on a higher state of alert. Obviously, the incidents of anthrax exposures in the last couple of days warrants such a continued state of alert.

QUESTION: Some people have said that because of the public health implications here, that this is not like other investigations, criminal investigations; because there is such an important preventive aspect of this that the government's information flow needs to be faster to give more assurance to the public. Are you satisfied with the way that the government has provided information? And could it, on the investigative front, be a little swifter and more complete in order to give more assurance to the public?

ASHCROFT: Well, let me first confirm the fact that prevention sometimes requires a different conduct on the part of an agency than prosecution does. And we've had to reorient ourselves in the context of terrorism to understand that prevention is our top priority. And I believe we're doing that well. We have, as the director mentioned, we've been doing a couple hundred cases a year on anthrax for quite some time.

But in this context, we are sharing information, but it is very important that we share accurate information and that we don't misinterpret sometimes preliminary indications or leap to conclusions that are inappropriate.

But for prevention purposes, we have to get information to law enforcement agencies and to prevention responsible institutions at the earliest possible time. And in that event, we err on the side of sharing information.

For prosecution purposes, there are different standards that are used. And this is an important understanding that we have had to bring into our culture, which we really previously haven't felt, and that's the necessity for the priority of prevention, which requires sharing information aggressively. We make sure the information is good. There is nothing that would destabilize or otherwise erode our capacity to serve well like information that was unreliable. So we try to make sure we develop the highest possible reliability.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) on the investigation, the number of people currently under arrest. And can you tell us whether anyone currently under arrest has any -- if there is any evidence directly linking them to bin Laden or the Al Qaeda?

MUELLER: Well, I can't tell you the exact number of individuals under detention for a variety of reasons. As we have said before, in the course of the investigation individuals have been detained where they have been interviewed and found to be out of status with the Immigration Service, which warrants detention. They're here out of status, and deportation procedures will have been started.

There are a handful of individuals who have been detained on material witness warrants. And I'll make the point again that, where an individual is detained on a material witness warrant, that material witness warrant has been issued by a judge and the proceedings go forward under the authority of the judge. And the individual is accorded counsel.

The last category where there have been arrests within the United States or where an individual who we sought in the investigation has found to have been in violation of either local, state or federal laws and has been arrested on those outstanding charges. Now, around the world, there have also been detentions and arrests by a number of countries with whom we are working. And, of course, I don't have the exact numbers there.

QUESTION: My second question is, are there any links to the people arrested in this country or detained, links to al Qaeda or to bin Laden?

MUELLER: I think it is not appropriate at this point to discuss what we have come across in the investigation with regard to that which may be considered evidence.

QUESTION: Attorney General Ashcroft, you're meeting later today with Arab American leaders. Can you tell us, along those lines, how you plan to address and answer concerns about treatment of some of the 700 who are in custody about access to lawyers, about adequate facilities and time for prayer, concerns that now come up in the last few days?

ASHCROFT: Well, we have, first of all, detained only individuals who are in violation of the law, are illegally in the country or are being detained as a result of a court-ordered material-witness warrant.

Secondly, each person detained has been accorded a right to counsel, so that those who are have been detained are being given rights and those rights are accorded.

Thirdly, I would be happy to hear from individuals, if there are any alleged abuses of individuals, because that is not the way we do business.

We are aggressive in detaining those who have violated the law and those who are illegally in this country and are associated with or have been involved with terrorist groups or are sympathetic to terrorist groups.

But we will respect the constitutional rights and we will respect the dignity of individuals.

I might just add that I am pleased to meet with a group of both Sikh Americans and Arab Americans and Muslim Americans to assure them that it is the policy of the Justice Department to enforce laws that would guarantee that Americans regardless of their national origin are to be respected and their rights are to be safeguarded.

Together with the FBI -- I'm pleased always to work with the director -- we are in the process of working on about 170 cases where there has been discrimination alleged in one way or another that relates to members of these communities. We are pursuing these cases aggressively, as we have indicated in other opportunities we have had to speak with you and discuss these cases.

And I will be pleased to have their suggestions for other ways in which we can help provide a basis for the public's understanding that all Americans are to be respected and accorded the kind of dignity and integrity of their persons and that any who infringe that undermine and erode a clear policy of this administration.

Last, and not least, of course, I would commend the president of the United States for his strong encouragement of these values being reflected in what we do and thank the director for his clear statements and his aggressive prioritizing of the rights of Americans in this respect, and I'm pleased to have joined them in that regard.

Thank you all very much.

BROWN: The attorney general and the FBI director concluding their briefing -- and that took place just after White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was working through his. He hadn't quite completed it.

A couple of things that jumped out at us quickly here: At one point, the attorney general said -- he was talking about hoaxes -- and he said that our public health system is overtaxed. That's the first time we've heard anyone in the administration suggest that. We will be talking with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson later today. And we will ask more there.

And the attorney general also did not shy away from using the word terrorist when talking about the anthrax threat. He said any time anyone sends anthrax through the mail, it is an act of terrorism. Whether it is linked to September 11 is something still to be determined. As we said at the outset of the hour, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer did not yesterday use that term, and again today begged off saying that what is happening in the country where anthrax is concerned is bioterrorism.

He is applying, apparently, a different definition than the attorney general on this. Mr. Fleischer says, for it to be terrorism, a foreign country would have to be involved -- or a foreign entity, perhaps, would have to be involved. That is clearly not the standard that the attorney general is using. The attorney general also now announced that someone, a Connecticut man, has been charged with perpetrating a hoax.

And the FBI director briefly said there are 2,300 reported cases -- let me get this right here. There are 2,300 requests for investigation of anthrax. That is calls that have come into police agencies or the FBI, suspicions of anthrax that have been tested or are being tested so far.

And the reason we want to get that right is because Mr. Fleischer gently admonished reporters to be careful on the numbers here. So here are the number of anthrax cases: one person has died from it. Three are infected, nine in the country exposed, 13 total. That is the best information we have.

We'll update the rest of the developments and much more.




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