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John Ashcroft Hold Press Conference

Aired October 18, 2001 - 15:34   ET


JOIE CHEN, ANCHOR: We'll take you right up to Washington now. Attorney General John Ashcroft giving his afternoon briefing to reporters on the state of the investigation.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... and on the assistance we continue to need from Congress in the war from terrorism.

This afternoon I have several announcements on the steps the Justice Department has taken and on the assistance we continue to need from Congress in the war against terrorism.

In the war against terrorism, America won a battle today. A Manhattan federal court sentenced four terrorists to life in prison without the possibility of parole for their participation in the August 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Mohammad Saddiq Odeh, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed each received life sentences for the terrorist attacks in which hundreds of Kenyan, Tanzanian and American citizens were murdered. Odeh, al-'Owhali and Mohamed also received additional life sentences for their participation in several conspiracies to murder United States nationals and U.S. government employees, as well as conspiracies to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States property and against United States persons.

An additional terrorist, Wadih el Hage, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his conviction for participating in conspiracies to murder U.S. nationals and to destroy government property, as well as a conviction for perjury before a grand jury investigating the embassy bombings.

On May the 29th of this year, 2001, a jury found these four defendants guilty on all 302 counts against them for their involvement in a global plot, led by Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network al Qaeda, to kill United States nationals anywhere they could be found. Evidence presented at trial documented that al-'Owhali received terrorist training in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Mohamed and Odeh, who has been a sworn member of al Qaeda since 1992, also received terrorist training in Afghanistan.

In addition, the trial evidence showed that el Hage, despite being a United States citizen, was a central facilitator in the bombing plot, serving as a leader of the al Qaeda cell in Nairobi, Kenya, and at one time as a personal assistant to bin Laden.

Al Qaeda stands charged, tried, convicted and sentenced for terrorism.

To date, the total number of persons charged in connection with the U.S. embassy bombings is 22, six of whom are in custody in the United States; three of whom are in custody in the United Kingdom. There is a reward of up to $5 million each for information leading to the apprehension and prosecution and conviction of any of the remaining 13 fugitives, which include Osama bin Laden, all of whom have been named to the 22 most wanted terrorist list.

While the fight against terrorism demands that American justice focus on the prevention of future terrorist acts in addition to the prosecution of past acts, today's sentence sends a message. The United States will hunt terrorists down and will make them pay the price for their evil acts of terrorism.

I want to congratulate U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White and her team for these successful prosecution. I also want to commend the FBI for their excellent work in this case. Most of the evidence was international, difficult to assemble. As a result of the exemplary work of prosecutors and investigators, Americans have four fewer combatants to face in the global war against terrorism.

The second issue that I would like to cover is the antiterrorism legislation requested by this administration that is currently working its way through the United States Congress. I'm extremely gratified by the expeditious, bipartisan, bicameral attention that this anti- terrorism legislation has received.

Over the last month, the administration and Congress have worked together to update and strengthen our laws to combat terrorism. By overwhelming bipartisan majorities, both the House and the Senate have acted to make terrorism the priority in our laws that it must now be. And they have acted to update our antiquated statutes to take into account the new technologies that terrorists today employ.

Yesterday, the leadership of the House and Senate, in addition to the Judiciary Committee chairman and ranking members came to a final agreement on the anti-terrorism legislation. And I am gratified that I can state unequivocally that this legislation, once passed and signed into law, will immediately increase our capacity to detect, to disrupt and to prevent acts of terrorism. The Department of Justice is already working to ensure the immediate implementation of these measures. I understand that it is likely that Congress would pass the legislation upon its return to Washington next Tuesday.

Let me identify just a few of the specific tools for intelligence gathering that we've requested and that Congress has agreed to. First, better anti-terrorism coordination: The legislation will allow Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act wiretaps, a crucial investigative technique in terrorism cases, when the gathering of foreign intelligence is a significant purpose of the investigation, rather than permitting them only when gathering foreign intelligence is the primary purpose. This makes the utilization of wiretaps against terrorists much more workable and will facilitate greater coordination between law enforcement and the intelligence side of our investigative resources. Such coordination is at the heart of our ability to prevent future attacks.

Second, airtight surveillance of terrorists: The legislation permits multi-point wiretaps in FISA cases, that's the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act cases, as we currently have in criminal cases.

This allows the court to authorize wiretaps of any phones which the suspect may use when it is shown that the suspect is changing phones to thwart surveillance efforts. This authority will allow us to be more effective in surveilling terrorists and their associates, and will increase our chance of learning ahead of time about plans.

Third, better intelligence about terrorist activities: The legislation also permits foreign intelligence information obtained through a federal grand jury to be shared with other federal law enforcement or intelligence agencies and with national defense and national security officials. This will allow, for the first time, information that might be relevant to preventing a terrorist attack to be shared with those officials in a position to take the prevention action or the action designed to curtail the activity.

Tearing down the wall between intelligence and criminal information is one of the most important steps we will make, or we will be able to take.

Finally, I would like to reiterate, for those who may doubt our resolve, the seriousness with which the Department of Justice regards terrorist hoaxes such as false anthrax threats. Making a terrorist threat is a federal offense, even if the person making the threat does not intend or have the ability to carry out the threat.

Individuals who threaten the use of biological toxin can receive up to life in prison as a sentence. The law provides for up to five years in prison for mailing communications that contain any threat to injure the addressee or any other person. Those who lie to law enforcement officials about terrorist hoaxes can also receive up to five years in prison.

Already a number of individuals have been charged with serious crimes in connection with terrorist hoaxes. Fred Forcellina of Fairfield County, Connecticut, faces up to life imprisonment for threatening the use of weapons of mass destruction. Fred Forcellina is charged with dialing 911 to threaten that courthouses, schools and railroad stations would be, quote, "dusted," close quote.

Joseph Faryniarz, of Coventry, Connecticut, faces up to five years in prison and serious fines for making false statements to federal agents in connection with a terrorist hoax that shut down the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection for two days, which may have cost Connecticut taxpayers about $1.5 million. Terry Olson (ph), of Price, Utah, faces up to five years and fines for making false statements to the FBI about his knowledge of an anthrax hoax.

And William Silvia, of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, could receive five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for mailing a letter purported to contain anthrax.

The Department of Justice is working with state and local officials to prosecute additional cases of false terrorist threats and anthrax hoaxes. In the meantime, the serious charges and substantial penalties faced by these four individuals should eliminate any remaining doubt in the minds of those who would perpetrate terrorist hoaxes. You will be caught, you will be prosecuted and you will pay a high price for your crimes.

Thank you very much. And I'd be pleased to respond to questions.

QUESTION: I was wondering if all these new hoax cases, plus all the business that's been going on with the anthrax investigation, has it in any way made it more difficult to go after the original suspects or people connected to the Pentbomb case?

ASHCROFT: We are still devoting the resources which we think are appropriate. When we respond, though, we respond with a full sense of the seriousness to a case which we cannot determine is a hoax until after investigation has been made. And it is resource-consumptive, not only of law enforcement resources, but public health resources, and not only of federal resources, but state and local resources.

And, I guess, I should add that in a number of local jurisdictions hoax perpetrators are being prosecuted, as well. I know of cases, I believe, in the Midwest and also in the Southwest where those cases are being undertaken and pursued vigorously and aggressively by local prosecutors.

QUESTION: Attorney General, did the sentencing in New York trigger any new threats? Were there any additional precautions taken? And are you worried that the sentencings could trigger additional attacks?

ASHCROFT: We think these sentencings are very important, because they indicate that America will not tolerate terrorism. We believe that the court has acted properly, and are grateful for this conviction of Al Qaeda and the sentencing, which really represents a conclusion that is clear, that Al Qaeda is involved in terrorism.

We think that we have a threat environment which is substantial -- let me take that word back. The last time I used a word like that it was misinterpreted. We still believe that we have a threat environment in the United States which should cause American citizens to be alert, and that we should be alert to take whatever steps we can to minimize risks, and those are risks which we are largely associated with because of the good job you've been doing with public information.

QUESTION: Is there anything you can tell us about the anthrax cases, in terms of the bacteria itself that was delivered?

QUESTION: Because there have been a lot of statements in the last couple of days about it being a professional grade and indication that the form in which it was, highly milled, could only have been produced by an organization with a lot of resources.

ASHCROFT: I believe those questions were answered this morning by the authorities at the briefing with Governor Ridge. And I think their statements on that constitute their professional judgment, and I don't do that kind of analysis. So I think I'd have to stay with that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) any information that would indicate that the strain found in Washington, in Senator Daschle's office is linked to the Florida or the New York strains?

ASHCROFT: No. No, I haven't.

QUESTION: You said the other day that you could find no evidence so far that this was linked to organized terrorism. Has anything come up since then to change that opinion? And do you think that this may be a case of domestic terrorism versus overseas links?

ASHCROFT: We have ruled out neither international terrorism nor domestic terrorism. And we think it may be ill-advised to think about the situation in terms of an either/or matrix. It might well be that we have opportunists in the United States or terrorists in the United States who are acting in ways that are unrelated. Given the several thousand scares that we've had, I think it's pretty clear that there are ill-advised individuals who are seeking to take advantage of a situation and we will do what we can to aggressively pursue those who do so.

QUESTION: Does the identification today of two particular mail facility employees in New Jersey who were exposed to this in any way narrow the focus of the investigation there -- eliminate some options and concentrate attention on others?

ASHCROFT: Well, I believe that the identification of those circumstances is helpful to us in the investigation.

QUESTION: There were some reports today about the contents of the letters that were sent to NBC and Senator Daschle. Can you talk a little bit about what the text of the letters may have been and, you know, whether there's any reason to believe that messages contained in the letters are to be given at face value?

ASHCROFT: No I can't. We've released the faces of the letters to help people be on guard, and also to have them be able to think if they had previously received such letters. And the FBI director indicated that we did not want to release the interior contents of the letter because we wanted to be able to protect that so that, if there were additional letters similarly situated, we'd be able to understand the relationship.

QUESTION: Follow-up on that: We had heard that there was additional testing -- not testing but analysis done on both letters to see if there was a link...

ASHCROFT: I don't have anything to report to you in that respect.

QUESTION: You hinted yesterday that there was perhaps some linkage between the hoaxes and delivery of real anthrax, and whether that was present in the overall plan.

ASHCROFT: We just said that could be a possibility. And we did not -- and I think that is possible that someone who wants to disrupt our culture would seek to, sort of, leverage...


ASHCROFT: We're not in a position to rule it out or to determine that was the case.

QUESTION: In response to a previous question, do you believe this anthrax threat originated in Trenton? What key role does that city play right now? You've got the mail workers, you've got the letters to NBC and elsewhere; what's going on there in Trenton, and do you believe that's where this came from?

ASHCROFT: We're not in a position to make a determination that's worthy of announcement in that respect.

QUESTION: Can your investigators and experts at this point offer any general characterization as to the level of sophistication that's involved by whoever perpetrated this? Are these people highly skilled individuals, or how would you characterize, or can you?

ASHCROFT: I think the characterization of the substances that was given at the briefing this morning is accurate. And for me to speak further about the substances would be inappropriate.

QUESTION: Can you say anything about the reports that there were anthrax-laced letters sent to Kenya?

ASHCROFT: I don't have any report to make on that.

QUESTION: How would you characterize the progress of the investigation? And are you any closer to making any arrests in the anthrax cases?

ASHCROFT: We have significantly more information than we started with. That's how I would characterize it.

And that's not enough of an answer to be the last question. This gentlemen behind had his hand up.

QUESTION: What about the arrest part of it?

ASHCROFT: You were supposed to get the next to the last question, let alone the last question.

QUESTION: Is Zacarias Moussaoui cooperating with authorities? And what role is he playing in the September 11 investigation?

ASHCROFT: I'm not prepared to -- I guess, you did get the last question. I'm sorry.

Thank you all very much.

CHEN: Attorney General John Ashcroft.

You heard him there speaking with reporters, giving his update -- today, the attorney general making clear the administration's belief that the country is clamping down and getting tough on terrorism on three fronts. In particular, the attorney general outlined the sentencing today of the four men convicted in the 1998 U.S. bombings in Africa. Life in prison terms were given to all four of those men, with no possibility of parole. And that was given on a number of charges.

He also noted the high hopes he had for the antiterrorism legislation now working its way through Congress. And he offered a warning to those who might be trying to make terror threats that the government regards those terrorist threats, even if they are hoaxes, them as being no joke at all. The attorney general today saying that the efforts will be made to prosecute those -- even those that make hoaxes out of their terror threats.




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