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Ashcroft Press Conference

Aired January 15, 2002 - 15:37   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: In Washington, as we said here, you've been hearing reports about John Walker, the American who fought for the Taliban. We are getting word from the Justice Department that there has been a decision made on what he is going to be charged with and who is going to be handling that.

There's been lots of talk in the weeks about who was going to have jurisdiction over his case. We understand stand now the Justice Department has released word -- our John King at the White House has uncovered word that they have decided they are going to charge him with four charges, none of which actually ends up or can result in the death penalty.

We're going to get some more information. Any moment now, we are expecting Attorney General John Ashcroft to enter the room in the Justice Department. You see there we have the scene up for you. He should be coming out to the podium.

And there he is now. Let's listen in.

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good afternoon. Particularly, before I begin, I'd like to thank Michael Chertoff for being with me, the head of the Criminal Division, and Larry Thompson, whose duties have him in other settings today, for their outstanding work in regard to the announcement that I'll be making.

Today I'm announcing the filing of criminal charges against John Walker Lindh, an American citizen who was captured in Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban.

In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia -- and you all will get a copy of this complaint, I think, available to you today at the close of this particular meeting -- the United States is charging Walker with the following crimes.

One, conspiracy to kill nationals of the United States of America overseas; namely, U.S. nationals engaged in the conflict in Afghanistan.

Two, providing material support and resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda.

And three, engaging in prohibited transactions with the Taliban. If convicted of these charges, Walker could receive life imprisonment.

The United States does not casually or capriciously charge one of its own citizens with providing support to terrorists. We are compelled to do so today by the inescapable fact of September the 11th, a day that reminded us in no uncertain terms that we have enemies in the world and that these enemies seek to destroy us. We learned on September 11 that our way of life is not immune from attack, and even from destruction.

We have not overlooked attacks on America when they were made by foreign nationals. We cannot overlook attacks on America when they come from United States citizens.

As set forth in the complaint, the charges filed against Walker are based on voluntary statements made by Walker himself. The complaint alleges Walker knowingly and purposely allied himself with certain terrorist organizations with terror; that he chose to embrace fanatics; and his allegiance to those fanatics and terrorists never faltered, not even with the knowledge that they had murdered thousands of his countrymen, not with the knowledge that they were engaged in a war with the United States, and not, finally, in the prison uprising that took the life of CIA agent Johnny Spann.

ASHCROFT: Walker is in the process from being transferred from the custody of the United States military, where by his own account he was treated well and received adequate food and medical treatment, to the custody of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

As the complaint states, prior to being interviewed by the FBI, Walker was informed of his Miranda rights, including the right to speak to consul. He acknowledged that he understood each of his rights, and he choose to waive them both verbally and in a signed document.

The Department of Justice complaint, based on Walker statements in interviews, states that on or about May 2001, Walker joined a paramilitary training camp run by the terrorist group Harakat al- Mujahadeen. After his training was completed, he was given a choice to fight with the Harakat al-Mujahadeen in Kashmir or join the Taliban to fight in Afghanistan. Walker chose to join the Taliban.

He went to Afghanistan and presented himself to a Taliban recruitment center telling the individuals there that, and I'm quoting, quote, "he was Muslim who wanted to go to the front lines to fight."

The complaint further states that because Walker's language skills were deemed insufficient by Taliban recruiters, he was referred to another group which he was told was Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. When Al Qaeda members told Walker he needed more military training to join the terrorist group, the complaint set forth Walker's admission that he spent seven weeks in an Al Qaeda camp, training in weapons, explosives and battlefield combat. Walker reported that Osama bin Laden visited the camp on three to five occasions. On one of these occasions, Walker met personally with bin Laden who, quote, according to Walker, "thanked him for taking part in jihad."

According to the complaint, when his Al Qaeda training was completed, Walker, again by his own admission, chose to go to the front lines of the battle in Afghanistan. Armed with an AKM rifle, he was sent to Kabul and eventually made it to the front line of the battle with the Northern Alliance in Takar (ph).

Walker told U.S. officials that he was aware of the attacks of September 11 and that Osama bin Laden had ordered the attacks.

ASHCROFT: But even after September the 11th, with full knowledge of the thousands dead in the United States and Al Qaeda's responsibility for those deaths, the complaint states that Walker continued to fight for the Taliban against American interests.

After he was taken prisoner in Mazar-i-Sharif in November, Walker refused to cooperate with U.S. officials and lied about his citizenship.

The criminal complaint filed today describes a series of crossroads John Walker Lindh encountered on his way to joining not just one but two terrorist organizations.

At each crossroad, Walker faced a choice, and with each choice, he chose to ally himself with terrorists. Drawn to South Asia, Walker chose to train with terrorists. Trained as a terrorist, Walker chose more advanced instructions from Al Qaeda. Schooled by Al Qaeda, Walker chose to fight on the front lines with America's enemies.

Our complaint, based on Walker's own words, is very clear: Terrorists did not compel John Walker Lindh to join them. John Walker Lindh chose terrorists.

Walker was blessed to grow up in a country that cherishes freedom of speech, religious tolerance, political democracy and equality between men and women, and yet he chose to reject these values in favor of their antithesis, a regime that publicly and proudly advertised its mission to extinguish freedom, enslave women and deny education.

John Walker Lindh chose to fight with the Taliban, chose to train with Al Qaeda and to be led by Osama bin Laden.

We may never know why he turned his back on our country and our values, but we cannot ignore that he did. Youth is not absolution for treachery, and personal self-discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against one's country. Misdirected Americans cannot seek direction in murderous ideologies and expect to avoid the consequences.

Not all conduct against the United States by U.S. citizens is susceptible to the charge of treason. ASHCROFT: The Constitution imposes a high evidentiary burden to prove the charge of treason. Article 3, Section 3 of the Constitution requires that treason be proven only by a confession in open court or by the testimony of at least two witnesses to each alleged overt act. For now, we are confident in going forward with the charges we've filed today, and in the meantime, our investigation of Walker will continue. We have not ruled out filing additional charges against him.

We, in America, have a country respected for cherishing freedom and tolerating dissent. We have fought wars in defense of our freedom and our right to criticize our government. And when criticism turns to violence against these very values, we must, once again, defend our nation. The United States Department of Justice will defend the values reflected in our laws by prosecuting John Walker Lindh.

Thank you. Now I'll be happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, why aren't you charging him with a capital crime, given everything you've just outlined?

ASHCROFT: I think it's very clear from the outline that I've made the crimes for which we believe the evidence now provides a basis for making those charges, and that's the reason for which we are charging those crimes.

QUESTION: Attorney General, how much did you consult with President Bush about this? And can you talk a little bit about the process of consultation and so forth that went into this decision?

ASHCROFT: Well, very frankly, my consultations with the president are a matter private to him, and he would be the only individual eligible to comment on any consultations that I would have with the president, if any. Thank you.

QUESTION: Why isn't he a candidate for a military tribunal?

ASHCROFT: Well, Mr. John Walker Lindh is a U.S. citizen, and according to the military order issued by the president, it's for dealing with non-citizens of the United States.

QUESTION: You said other charges will be considered. Does that mean he may still be charged with treason and face the death penalty?

ASHCROFT: If additional evidence is developed that would provide a basis for other charges -- and I don't want to begin an inventory of those charges at this time, but there could be a variety of other things that might be developed -- then we would be free to bring other charges against him.

QUESTION: Mr. Ashcroft you said that he chose to go the front lines to fight against the Northern Alliance. Did he at any time -- is there evidence that he at any time actually fought against any American soldiers, service men?

ASHCROFT: I think it's pretty clear that the complaint, that you will receive a copy of if you haven't already, alleges that he had knowledge of American forces in the theater, that he was aware that he personally was among troops being bombed by American forces, and knew that the participants in the conflict were not limited to those individuals who we might normally consider members of the Northern Alliance.

QUESTION: Taken together with the decision to bring Mr. Moussaoui to the Eastern District of Virginia, can we now take this as a sign that all of those who are charged in connection with the Afghanistan campaign and the investigation of Pentbomb will be brought to Alexandria for trial? And might there be a trial with multiple defendants?

ASHCROFT: Let me just indicate that I think it's fair to say that we will view these cases individually, and measure the best interests in the United States, and consider the law regarding venue, which may provide a basis for different cases being brought in different settings. So I wouldn't draw any conclusions.

And you said might there be multiple defendants? I don't you should indicate or judge from this case -- draw any conclusions related from this eastern Virginia charge that there would be multiple defendants.

QUESTION: We all saw the newsreels of the interviews with John Walker Lindh, but it seems from the indictment that there were subsequent interviews with him in which he acknowledged some of these same things that he was interviewed about, about participating, or did most of the basis for the indictment come from those interviews?

ASHCROFT: The basis for the indictment is for statements made by John Walker Lindh to FBI investigators after he had both orally and in written form acknowledged his rights and indicated his understanding of those rights that had been provided to him by the FBI investigators.

QUESTION: Is there a formal process for transferring Mr. Walker from military custody to the FBI, or is it just a matter of handing him over?

ASHCROFT: I'm not going to be making comments about how the particular custody arrangements of this particular case will be undertaken or the particular time frame or locations in which they will be undertaken.

QUESTION: Did he provide any information to the FBI that was helpful to the investigation of Al Qaeda or the September 11 attacks?

ASHCROFT: I'm not going to comment on additional information that might have been developed. The complaint, which will be available to you, is significant, but it does not include an entire transcript of those items which were the subject of the inquiries.

QUESTION: Sir, even though he was Mirandized, his family has complained several times that they haven't the chance to get his lawyer in to talk to him yet. Do you know how soon his lawyer will have access to him now that these charges have been filed?

ASHCROFT: Well, I think it's important to understand that the subject here is entitled to chose his own lawyer and, to our knowledge, has not chosen a lawyer at this time.

And as such, when he is brought into the Eastern District for the process which is beginning today he'll have every right to counsel.

QUESTION: You said that Osama bin Laden had asked him, and actually thanked him for participating in the jihad. Could you comment on whether that was before 9/11 or after 9/11?

ASHCROFT: The complaint quotes Mr. John Walker Lindh as having met with Osama bin Laden and saying that Osama bin Laden thanked him for participating in jihad. I'm not confident now that I could say at which particular junction that that was undertaken.

QUESTION: Could you comment on the tone of his remarks to the FBI, his statements? Was he remorseful at all, or does he remain pretty defiant about his involvement with Al Qaeda?

ASHCROFT: I can't comment on that. And I probably wouldn't, but I can't.

QUESTION: One more question?

ASHCROFT: Yes, ma'am?

QUESTION: When do you expect him to be arraigned?

ASHCROFT: We're going to act promptly in this matter, but I think it's impossible at this time to be able to strike clear and definitive time lines.

Thank you very much.

HARRIS: Attorney General John Ashcroft wrapping up his remarks there.

Our John King actually broke this story for us moments ago -- John.


The attorney general, because of the sensitivity of this operation, not saying exactly when John Walker would be turned over from the military to law enforcement authorities, but we are told by senior administration officials that is imminent and that John Walker will be back in the United States, in the words of one of the officials, relatively soon. Another said quite soon. So look for that in the days ahead -- also, the attorney general saying these are the charges for now against John Walker.

They carry a penalty of up to life imprisonment -- the attorney general not ruling out additional charges -- and, significantly, the attorney general and the complaint filed now in court disclosing that John Walker, on or about the 9th or 10th of December, waived his Miranda rights, both orally and signed a piece of paper waiving his Miranda rights and was interviewed by the FBI. That is the basis for these charges.

And we are told, by way of process, that it was 10 days ago that President Bush received a recommendation from the attorney general and Don Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, saying they believe this was the right way to go: to turn him over from the military to the law enforcement authorities here in the United States. The president signed off on it then. These charges have been formulated in the meantime.

And, as the president was flying back here to Washington today from New Orleans, Attorney General Ashcroft called Air Force One, told the White House chief of staff, Andy Card, he was prepared to proceed. And we are told the president said, "Go ahead" -- so the president involved in this from the get-go. Now the next big question is: When will John Walker be brought to the United States to face arraignment in the federal courts in Northern Virginia?


HARRIS: John, listen, you have got a copy there of the complaint. I was trying to write down those charges as the attorney general was reading them. He says there were four charges. I was only able to write down three of them. Why don't you read the four charges that you have right there on the complaint for us.

KING: I believe the key distinction there is that are two terrorist organizations listed.

He is charged, No. 1, with engaging in a conspiracy while outside the United States to kill nationals of the United States outside, namely those troops and other support people from the United, CIA agents and the like, in Afghanistan; No. 2, providing, attempting to provide and conspiracy to provide material support and resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations, namely al Qaeda and a group called Harakat ul Mujahedeen in violation of federal statutes; and, thirdly, for engaging in prohibitive transactions with the Taliban.

We are told four counts. So there are two terrorists organizations listed there. That would be the fourth count. He is charged with that offense twice. And, again, these charges carry up to life imprisonment. The attorney general himself discussed the debate within the administration as to whether John Walker should be charged with treason. That, if he were convicted, would carry the death penalty if the jury recommended as much -- the attorney general saying the bar for evidence is so high in such cases, he thought it was better to proceed with what he believes is a much more credible case in the federal court system.

But, again, he did not rule out additional charges if, as the investigation continues, the Justice Department decides that is the way to go -- Leon. HARRIS: Exactly. That was one of the first things that jumped out at me, was the fact that none of these charges does carry the death penalty.

He says -- or you said here that President Bush did sign off on this. Do we know when signed off on this?

KING: Ten days ago. This has been debated by the National Security Council. The recommendation came to the president 10 days ago. He immediately said he accepted the recommendation. And, again, he received final word that the Justice Department was ready to go with this announcement today as he flew back on Air Force One. And his words to his chief of staff was, "Go ahead."

HARRIS: John King, very nice job. On the White House lawn there, John King breaking the news for us about John Walker Lindh, the American who fought with the Taliban facing four charges now. And he is on his way -- he will be on his way sometime imminently back to the United States to face those charges.




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