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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Ashcroft and German Interior Minister Hold Press Conference

Aired October 23, 2001 - 11:55   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: John Ashcroft and the German interior minister, Otto Shily at the podium in Washington.

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: Good morning.

I'm most pleased and honored to be joined here today by the Interior Minister of Germany, Mr. Otto Schily. I want to thank Minister Schily both for the meeting that we have had here and for the extraordinary cooperation from German officials throughout this investigation.

From the first hours following the September 11 attacks, we've been working in full cooperation with Minister Schily and other German officials to track the trail of terrorists. Our friends in Germany understand that the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is not merely an assault on America, but an assault on the entirety of the civilized world.

The United States is profoundly grateful for the unprecedented assistance and cooperation that we've received from Germany in rising to defend the ideals that both of our nations share. The United States and German officials are working side by side in both of our countries to investigate and track terrorists and their activities in Germany and in the United States leading up to the September 11 tragedy.

In addition to the personnel normally assigned to the legal attache offices in Berlin and Frankfurt, 12 FBI agents are assigned to various locations in Germany on a temporary duty status. We have determined that three of the hijackers were students and roommates in Hamburg, Germany:

Mohamed Atta, a hijacker on American Airline's flight number 11, first entered Germany in approximately 1992 and attended the Technical University in Hamburg from 1992 to 1999. Atta continued to use his German bank accounts after entering the United States on June 3, 2000.

Marwan Al-Shehhi, a hijacker on United Airline's flight 175, entered Germany in approximately 1996 and attended both the University at Bonn and the Technical University from 1997 to 1998.

He left Germany and entered the United States in May of the year 2000. Ziad Jarrah, a hijacker on United Airlines flight number 93, first entered Germany in approximately 1996 and attended Fauch (ph) Hochschule in Hamburg from 1996 to the year 2000. At that location, he studied flight training and aeronautics. He left Germany for the United States in June of the year 2000.

The Germans have issued arrest warrants for several individuals associated with these terrorists in Germany. Said Bahaji, Ramzi Binalshibh and Zakariya Essabar are all wanted for membership in a terrorist organization that has existed since at least 1999 in both Germany and the United States. Bahaji, Binalshibh and Essabar are sought for planning and carrying out the attacks of September the 11th, 2001.

Their connections to the hijackers are extensive. Binalshibh is a Yemeni citizen who lived with Atta, Bahaji and Essabar in Hamburg. Hijacker Jarrah attempted to enroll Binalshibh in flight school in Venice, Florida. Binalshibh left Germany on September the 5th of this year, 2001, and is an international fugitive.

Bahaji, a German citizen, also attended the technical university in Hamburg, and together with Atta petitioned the university for a Muslim prayer room. He left Germany on September 3, 2001. We are also hunting for this international fugitive.

Essabar, a Moroccan citizen, made arrangements to travel to Florida in February of 2001, when Atta and Al-Shehhi were in Florida. Essabar appears on Bahaji's wedding video with Jarrah, Al-Shehhi and Bahaji. Essabar was last known to be in Germany on September 6 of this year, 2001.

The Germans have conducted an intensive investigation in connection with these associates of the hijackers, the hijackers who perpetrated their terrorist acts on September 11. The German government has dedicated hundreds of investigators and executed dozens of searches to hunt down the terrorists. It is clear that Hamburg served as a central base of operations for these six individuals and their part in the planning of the September 11 attacks.

Terrorism is a threat that faces every country in the world, not merely the United States of America, and the network of terrorists is worldwide. The United States and Germany share the goal of tracking down, arresting, prosecuting and punishing those who are responsible for terrorism. More importantly, we share a propound desire to see that no more lives are lost to terrorists.

Up to 100 German citizens were among the over 5,000 souls lost to us on September 11. I know I speak for President Bush and for all Americans when I pledge our continued hard work and dedication to seeing that those responsible for the death of these innocent people will face justice.

It's my pleasure now to call upon the interior minister of Germany, Otto Schily, to make remarks.

Minister Schily? OTTO SCHILY, GERMAN INTERIOR MINISTER: Thank you.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am very grateful that I have received a very friendly reception by the attorney general, Mr. John Ashcroft, and we have had very constructive and good talks yesterday and today.

It's my view that we have the same view as John Ashcroft takes. We are very close in constructive cooperation acting against terrorism, and I want to renew what our Chancellor Schroeder said that Germany stands shoulder by shoulder with the United States and assures the unrestricted solidarity with our closest friends.

We know very well what we owe the United States people -- the American people -- out of the past. We know that there were young American soldiers who sacrificed their lives for freeing us from Nazi terror. And it was the United States which supported Germany during the Cold War and taking risks, a lot of risks to do that. I lived a lot of time in Berlin, so we experienced this support in a very direct way. So it was the Americans who helped us to establish a democracy and a prospering economy, and the German people have not forgotten and will not forget.

And it is quite natural that under regarding confronting this, in front of these threats, the dangers of worldwide terrorism, we are at the side of the United States.

And as the attorney general already mentioned, if you look at the casualties in New York, the victims were from origin of more than 80 nations, among also Germans. And I think this shows it was not an attack only against the United States of America, but against the whole civilized world.

And in my view, New York is the most international city in the world, and this shows it also. And it is also you could say New York is the capital of the world because it's hosting the United Nations, and I think this is what has happened and we have to crack down.

At home, we do our best to promote investigations. It is true that some of the terrorists have been in Germany and have prepared these cruel attacks, and we must say we failed to see it before. But to be very open minded, we all together failed to see it -- what has happened, what has been prepared in the United States, what has happened in United Kingdom, in France and elsewhere.

So we have to reexamine our security system; that we are going to do in Germany. I am preparing a lot of new legislation to do so, to have better access for the police to certain data; to better cooperation between those authorities who give visas and the police; to have better control measures; to have better identification measures. It is a matter of fact, for example, Mr. Atta, who was one of the criminals who committed the crime in New York, was registered with three different identities in our aliens register and nobody discovered it. So we have to use modern methods of identification, and to implement in our identification cards and the passports.

It is necessary that we upgrade our international cooperation, including mainly also the European cooperation.

It was Germany who asked for an emergency session of the Conference of the Ministers of Interior and Justice in Europe. And we meet at the 20th of September, so nine days after the events of 11th of September. And we have taken actions to improve also in the framework of the European Union, the security measures so far.

So far, I, again, want to appreciate that I have the possibility to meet my colleague, John Ashcroft. And I'm sure that our common efforts in the long run will succeed and we will overcome this big threat for all over the world.

Thank you very much.

ASHCROFT: Yes?

QUESTION: On the anthrax investigation, have investigators discovered or are they looking for letters other than the ones that we already know of that might have been responsible for the pulmonary anthrax infections that we have just learned about recently?

ASHCROFT: Well, obviously, we're aggressively pursuing this investigation into terrorists acts. And because we would have an interest in any other such letters, today we'll be releasing copies of the terrorist letters sent to Tom Brokaw at NBC and the text and copy of the letter sent to Senator Daschle. We'll also release a copy of the envelope that was mailed to the New York Post. All of these are, we hope, will alert citizens and others to the kind of thing to look for and may provide us with indications about other items sent through the mail that would similarly have provided a basis for the risks and the problems we've endured.

Yes?

QUESTION: Have you checked the last residences of the different hijackers that were on the planes for anthrax? And also, do you -- right now do you see a link between the September 11 attacks and the anthrax?

ASHCROFT: Anytime someone sends anthrax through the mail, in my judgment, it's a terrorist act. You don't send anthrax through the mail without the kind of intent and conduct that's, I think, fairly labeled as terrorism. And so, we believe these to be terrorist acts.

We are not able to rule out an association with the terrorist acts of September the 11th, but neither are we able to draw a conclusive link at this time, in that respect. Yes?

QUESTION: Did you check their houses or their last residences for traces of anthrax?

ASHCROFT: I'm not prepared to comment on what we've done in terms of examining the residences of the various hijackers.

QUESTION: General Ashcroft, given the fact that a number of D.C. postal workers have contracted inhalation anthrax, what can you now tell us about the nature of the anthrax that, for example, Mr. Daschle got, in terms of how dangerous this material is?

ASHCROFT: Well, obviously, anthrax is dangerous. We've taken it very seriously. The decisions about specific dangers and specific settings are made by health authorities.

We are the lead federal agency on investigating the crime here. But the health authorities are those who are capable of assessing the nature and toxicity and all the characteristics of the substance and coming to those conclusions.

QUESTION: If you feel like you're not able to make a conclusion about connecting the anthrax to the September 11 acts yet, do you feel like you're closer to making that conclusion or connection at this point?

ASHCROFT: We have more information today than we had last week. Whether that information ultimately will carry us to one conclusion or another remains to be seen. But we are developing additional information and understanding.

QUESTION: What would lead you to believe or theorize...

ASHCROFT: We're not capable yet of either ruling in or ruling out the kind of relationship.

QUESTION: On the three fugitives out of Germany, what is your best information as to where they might be now, where they could be headed?

ASHCROFT: I'm not in a position to say where they are. Their departure -- if we knew where they were, I think we'd go get them. Their departure was obviously in advance of the September 11th settings. And I think we would think that they would move toward some setting in which they felt a greater degree of security. They understand the capacity and the good faith of the German government. And I think it's an indication of their desire to avoid capture, which caused them to leave.

QUESTION: Those three men, do you think they're the only survivors who helped plan and carry out the attacks?

ASHCROFT: I don't think we have a basis to limit our assessment to three. These are three that were closely associated with these three from -- that were involved in Germany. But I think it would be very misleading for us to indicate that we thought there were only three.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: What I'm getting at, of course, is that some of your defenders have expressed reluctance about handing prisoners over to the United States because we have a death penalty.

ASHCROFT: We're pursuing now these individuals for their apprehension. Their apprehension is part, of course, of a strategy that we have to provide a basis for prevention. And our number one objective is to prevent further acts.

And as we've observed the Al Qaeda network, we found that individuals involved in one set of terrorists acts frequently move on to develop and to work on the perpetration of others. So we have not made determinations about what would be our objectives upon apprehension. We are very focused though on apprehending them.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Just along those lines, a question to both of you. Is there any evidence that these cells that existed in Hamburg, with Atta and any others, and the three fugitives that you're looking for now, is there any evidence that at any time they sought to carry out or to get their hands on biological weapons of mass destruction and might have planned something like the anthrax situation that we're seeing now?

SCHILY: No information in this direction.

ASHCROFT: Thank you all very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We've been listening to Attorney General John Ashcroft. He's meeting with his German counterpart, the German interior minister, Otto Schily. The news there at the end is Gen. Ashcroft saying that at this point, they have not been able to make a connection between the events of September 11 and the anthrax that has been appearing here in the United States -- they have not been able to make a connection or rule it out.

He also disclosed that today they will make available to the public the letters that were sent to Tom Brokaw, at NBC, and I believe he said Dan Rather, at CBS, and the letter that went to the "New York Post," he said just to alert people what to look for.

But earlier than that, this news conference was called to talk about the efforts under way in Germany and around the world to find three people that worked very closely with Mohamed Atta and two of the other hijackers on September 11.

Eileen O'Connor is our reporter covering the investigative end of this.

Eileen, these names are not new to us.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, they are not new to us, and German authorities had put out arrest warrants for these men, indicting them on 5,000 counts of murder -- at least two of these men on indictment like that.

In addition, the main news here from the attorney general is that they have not made a connection between the anthrax and the September 11 case, but they say they have not ruled in or out that it could be al Qaeda operatives. But again, they haven't made any definitive connections to anyone.

WOODRUFF: Right, but he did say at the end, I noted, we find that when these people are involved in one terrorist attack, the pattern has been to move on to another. So he went on to say we are very focused on finding these men.

O'CONNOR: Absolutely, but that's also indicative, Judy, of the fact that the United States government still says that they believe that they have information that there could be the possibility of further attacks. This is a modus operandi for al Qaeda.

But the fact that he also talks about not being able to connect them to these terrorist attacks -- you heard the junior prosecutor -- whether they had ever even tried to buy any kind of bioterrorism ingredients -- they have no indication.

So it could be still domestic terrorism; they have not ruled that out. They haven't ruled anything in or out.

WOODRUFF: I thought one interesting questions that was asked by the press was whether they checked the last residence of these people, to look for signs of anthrax, and he said I am not in a position to comment on that yet.

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