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Attorney General John Ashcroft Addresses U.S. Conference of Mayors

Aired October 25, 2001 - 11:22   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Talking now in Washington, the attorney general to the Conference of Mayors, John Ashcroft.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Agents found 563 game birds in his freezer -- a mere 539 birds over the limit.


There are obvious differences, of course, between the network of organized crime America faced in 1961 and the network of terror that we faced today.

Today many more innocent lives have been lost. Many more innocent lives continue to be threatened. But these differences only serve to call us more urgently to action.

The American people face a serious, immediate and ongoing threat from terrorism. At this moment American service men and women are risking their lives to battle the enemy overseas. It falls to the men and women of the Justice community, and of law enforcement to engage terrorism at home. History judgment's will be harsh, and the people's judgment will be sure, if we fail to use every available resource to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Robert Kennedy's Justice Department, it is said, would arrest mobsters for spitting on the sidewalk if it would help in the battle against organized crime. It has been said that that was an effective policy, and I believe it was.

It will be the policy of this Department of Justice to use the same aggressive arrest and detention tactics in the war against terror. Let the terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visas even by one day, we will arrest you; if you violate a local law, we will hope that you will, and work to make sure that you are put in jail and be kept in custody as long as possible. We will use every available statute. We will seek every prosecutorial advantage. We will use all our weapons within the law and under the Constitution to protect life and enhance security for America.

(APPLAUSE) In the war on terror, our Department of Justice will arrest and detain any suspected terrorist who has violated the law. Our single objective is to prevent terrorist attacks by taking suspected terrorists off the streets. If suspects are found not to have links to terrorism, or they have not violated the law, they're released. But terrorists who are in violation of the law will be convicted, and in some cases deported, and in all cases prevented from doing further harm to Americans.

Within days of the September 11 attacks, we launched this anti- terrorism offensive to prevent new attacks on our homeland. To date, our anti-terrorism offensive has arrested or detained nearly 1,000 individuals as a part of the September 11 terrorism investigation. Those who violated the law remain in custody. Taking suspected terrorists in violation of the law off the streets and keeping them locked up is our clear strategy to prevent terrorism within our borders.

Today, the Department of Justice is positioned to launch a new offensive against terrorism. Due to extraordinary bipartisan and bicameral cooperation in the Congress, law enforcement will have new weapons in the war against terrorism.

Yesterday, by an overwhelming margin, the House passed the Anti- Terrorism Act. Hours from now, the Senate is poised to follow suit. The president is expected to sign this legislation on Friday.

The hour that it becomes law, I will issue guidance to each of the 94 United States Attorneys' Offices and the 56 FBI field offices directing them to begin immediately implementing this sweeping legislation. I will issue directives requiring law enforcement to make use of new powers in intelligence gathering, criminal procedure and immigration violations. A new era in America's fight against terrorism, made tragically necessary by the attacks of September 11, is about to begin.

The legislation embodies two over-arching principles. The first principle is air-tight surveillance of terrorists. Upon the president's signature, I will direct investigators and prosecutors to begin immediately seeking court orders to intercept communications related to an expanded list of crimes under the legislation. Communications regarding terrorist offenses such as the use of biological or chemical agents, financing acts of terrorism or materially supporting terrorism will be subject to interception by law enforcement.

Agents will be directed to take advantage of new technologically neutral standards for intelligence gathering. So-called roving wiretaps that allow taps of multiple phones a suspect may use are being added as important weapons in our war against terror.

Investigators will be directed to pursue aggressively terrorists on the Internet. New authority in the legislation permits the use of devices that capture senders' and receivers' addresses associated with communications on the Internet. Law enforcement will begin immediately to seek search warrants to obtain unopened voice mail stored on a computer, just as they have traditionally been able to use search warrant to obtain unopened e- mail. They will also begin to use new subpoena power to obtain payment information, such as credit card or bank account numbers of suspected terrorists on the Internet.

The second principle enshrined in the legislation is speed in tracking down and intercepting terrorists. As soon as possible, law enforcement will begin to employ new tools that ease administrative burdens and delays in apprehending terrorists. Investigators are now able to use a single court order to trace a communication when it travels outside the judicial district in which the order was issued. The scope of search warrants for unopened e-mail and other evidence is now also nationwide rather than limited to a judicial district.

The new tools for law enforcement in the war against terrorism are the products of hundreds of hours of consultation and careful consideration by the administration, by members of Congress, and by state and local officials. They are careful. They are balanced. They are long overdue improvements in our capacity to prevent terrorism.

The federal government cannot fight this reign of terror, the threat of terror alone. Every American must defend our nation against this enemy. Every state, every county, every municipality must join together to form a common defense against terrorism.

Through the establishment of our anti-terrorism task forces the Department of Justice is working to establish an ongoing system to forge this cooperative fight against terrorism. We need the help of every city hall, of every court house, of every state house, of every citizen. It is not a fight which we can win alone. It is a fight which we cannot lose together. And we will work together.


The law enforcement campaign that will commence in earnest upon the signing of the legislation into law will be a campaign that will last for many years.

Some will ask whether a civilized nation, a nation of law and not of men, can use the law to defend itself from barbarians and remain civilized. Our answer unequivocally is yes. Yes, we will defend civilization and, yes, we will preserve the rule of law, because it is that which makes us civilized.

The men and women of Justice and law enforcement have been asked to shoulder a great burden for the safety and security of the American people. We will, as in the past, never waver in our faith and loyalty to the Constitution. And we will never tire in our defense of the rights that are enshrined in the Constitution.

Years after he left office, Attorney General Robert Kennedy was chronicled by an author who observed that Kennedy brought specific assets to the campaign against organized crime. And these were the assets the author listed: a constructive anger, an intimate knowledge of the subject, a talented team of prosecutors, and finally a partner in the White House.

Today, as we embark on this campaign against terrorism we are blessed with a similar set of assets and advantages. Our anger too is constructive, and our knowledge is growing. And our team is talented. And our leadership in the White House is unparalleled. George W. Bush has done more -- much more than to declare war on terrorism. George W. Bush is fighting a war on terrorism. Under his leadership, we have pledged ourselves to victory.

Terrorists live in the shadows under the cover of darkness. We will shine the light of justice on them. Americans alive today and yet to be born, and freedom-loving people everywhere, will have new reason to hope, because our enemies now have new reason to fear.

Thank you. We look forward to working together with you.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Attorney General, before you leave...

HEMMER: It was in the early days after September 11 when John Ashcroft, one of the first to go to Capitol Hill seeking those broader powers to enable his teams across the U.S. to have greater authority in cracking down in the terrorist network.

And, again, John Ashcroft reiterated the passage yesterday in the House of that anti-terrorism measure, clearly a boost for his team. He expects the Senate to follow suit, in his words, later today. Then possibly tomorrow, by Friday, it will be signed into law at the White House by President Bush.

At the White House, Major Garrett listening as well -- Major, hello.


The president, in fact, will sign that legislation on Friday. There is no doubt about that: Senate passage assured today -- and a crucial new tool in the hands of the attorney general -- and, as you said, the 94 U.S. attorneys and the 54 FBI field offices now empowered as never before to confront terrorism in the United States and terrorist threats coming from elsewhere.

New powers that the FBI possess is similar to those already in possession to deal with organized crime. And it was that parallel that the attorney general kept referring to, even invoking the name of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, brother of President John F. Kennedy, who waged a very aggressive, in many ways successful campaign against organized crime.

Now with the same tools -- or many of the same tools -- Attorney General Ashcroft intends to wage a similarly successful campaign against terror -- among those tools: the ability to wiretap and chase phones. Oftentimes in a terrorism investigation, you can only tap one phone. Now multiple phones will be allowed to be tapped. Also, the jurisdiction for warrants -- search warrants of e-mail, voice mail and other things -- will now not just be limited to a certain district, but can be nationwide. That is an important tool the attorney general also talked about -- intelligence-gathering tools, sharing of information between grand juries.

For example, dealing on a criminal case in which a terrorism suspect is interviewed, that information can now be shared with intelligence-gathering agencies. That was not allowed before -- so significant tools the attorney general pointing to and saying that, just like Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the United States has a constructive anger, a good solid team of investigators, a growing knowledge about terrorism, and a president who is willing to carry out the campaign on all fronts -- Bill.

HEMMER: Clearly a strong message, Major -- many references back to the 1960s and the Kennedy administration in the days and years after that.

Also, though, at the White House today, they are talking more about the anthrax situation. What more have we learned, Major?

GARRETT: Well, CNN has learned, Bill, that during a meeting, a high-level meeting here at the White House late last night -- it broke up shortly before 10:00 at night -- a meeting involving the secretary of health and human services, Tommy Thompson, the president of the United States, the attorney general, other significant members of the administration -- a good deal of conversation about the ability and sharing of information rapidly and specifically as it relates to anthrax cases, and most particularly as it related to the anthrax case on Capitol Hill, that one involving the letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

The upshot of that meeting, I am told by administration officials, is that there was great concern that information obtained about the potency of the anthrax in that letter sent to Tom Daschle was not shared as rapidly as it could have been. And one of the reasons is because that letter was dealt with in an investigative means different than others have been.

What happened to it? Well, Congress sent it to a lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland. The lab analyzed it. It discovered its high level of potency. Senator Daschle, others talked about that very soon after the letter arrived. But that information did not get communicated as quickly nor as authoritatively to the FBI or to the Department of Health and Human Services as both those departments had wished.

The person I talked to said this meeting was not about enraged finger-pointing, but there was a sense of urgency about agencies breaking down all barriers to information, talking to each other as rapidly as possible, making sure everyone understands there is no bureaucratic turf anymore. There cannot be, because these issues are clearly, as we have learned about the letter sent to Tom Daschle, matters of life and death. The discussions were described as frank. But the underlying message that came out of that meeting, I'm told, is the president and those present said: We cannot degenerate into interagency or governmental finger-pointing, because, as this one person told me, that's exactly what the terrorists want us to do: divide ourselves, turn against each other instead of learning to get stronger, be more confident in our dealings with this, and more coordinated in our approach of anthrax or any other threat of bio or chemical terrorism -- Bill.

HEMMER: Clearly a massive job ahead -- Major, thank you.

A couple of facts we want to pass along just in the last half hour: We heard the attorney general, John Ashcroft, mention that up to a thousand people have been either arrested or detained lately, this for questioning and other matters. And before that, we heard the president talk about his plea once again to American children to write letters to the children of Afghanistan.

Earlier today, Tom Ridge, the homeland security director there, indicated that, at this point, 225,000 letters have been forwarded to the White House by American children across the country. And clearly, there is an effort to encourage more of the young people here in the U.S.




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