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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

John Ashcroft Details Powers Under PATRIOT Act

Aired November 18, 2002 - 14:12   ET

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

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: A federal court has given a big win to the Justice Department.
Let's go now to a news conference by U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft as he outlines what is going to be a lot of (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... intelligence.

Today's ruling is an affirmation of the will of Congress, a vindication of the agents and prosecutors of the Department of Justice and a victory for liberty, safety and the security of the American people.

The Court of Review accepted in full Department of Justice procedures developed pursuant to the USA PATRIOT Act and issued last March the 6th, 2002.

When implemented, the measures will facilitate cooperation and coordination between law enforcement and intelligence officials in the war on terror.

The Court of Review found, and I quote now, quote "simply no basis for the FISA court's reliance on FISA to limit criminal prosecutors' abilities to advise intelligence officials," close quote. The court also found that the government may use FISA when it has a, quote, "measurable foreign intelligence purpose other than just criminal prosecution," close quote. Further the court ruled that, "so long as the government entertains a realistic option of dealing with the FISA target other than through criminal prosecution, it satisfies the significant purpose test."

In summary, the court held, and I'm quoting again now, quote, "the government's purpose, as set forth in a certification, is to be judged by the national security officials articulation, and not by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Authority court inquiry into the origins of an investigation, nor examination of the personnel involved." The Court of Review reaffirmed that, and I'm quoting again, "all Justice Department officers, including those in the FBI, are under the control of the attorney general. If he wishes a particular investigation to be run by an officer of any division, that is his prerogative," close quote.

The Court of Review's action revolutionizes our ability to investigate terrorists and prosecute terrorist acts. The decision allows the Department of Justice to free immediately our agents and prosecutors in the field to work together more closely and cooperatively in achieving our core mission, the mission of preventing terrorist attacks.

Today I'm directing a series of actions to be taken in light of the court's decision affirming our interpretation.

First, we will continue to make operational improvements to streamline the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act approval process. The department is implementing a secure computerized system that would permit agents in the field to draft FISA, or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, applications, and to transmit them in real time to FBI headquarters and the Department of Justice for approval.

The Office of Intelligence Policy and Review, known as OIPR, will notify me when it rejects a request for a FISA application so that the director of the FBI and I can bring our judgment to that particular decision.

Second, we are assigning new attorneys to facilitate the FISA process. The department has assigned OIPR attorneys to the field to work directly with prosecutors and agents in offices across America.

The FBI will double the number of attorneys working in its National Security Law Unit to handle FISA applications more effectively and expeditiously.

In addition, earlier today Director Mueller created a new FISA unit within the FBI's General Counsel Office.

Third, we will train prosecutors and agents in the FISA process -- Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process, so that these powerful tools of foreign intelligence surveillance are utilized fully, appropriately and in keeping with the Constitution.

Today, I am directing that each U.S. attorney's office designate at least one prosecutor to be a point of contact for purposes of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This designated attorney will receive at least five full days of training regarding Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The FBI will implement regular mandatory training for all agents on national security and counterterrorism matters, including FISA, or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, issues. This additional training will be on top of the already significant foreign counter intelligence training that all new FBI agents receive.

Since the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the Department of Justice has worked to create an improved capacity to prevent terrorist attacks. It's a capacity nurtured by cooperation, built on coordination and rooted in our constitutional liberties.

Congress took the first crucial step to enhance cooperation and coordination in our anti-terrorism efforts when it passed the USA PATRIOT Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. The PATRIOT Act repealed earlier FISA restrictions that hampered efforts of prosecutors and intelligence agents to work together.

A coordinated, integrated and coherent response to terrorism was created in the FISA arena when the PATRIOT Act was passed.

It is this coordinated, integrated and coherent anti-terrorism strategy that the court has affirmed today. It is part of a long series of reforms implemented by the Department of Justice in pursuit of terrorism prevention.

Now, in addition to working to develop and implement the USA PATRIOT Act, providing the regulations upon which the act would operate last March the 6th, as I indicated, we have also undertaken a number of other important acts.

We have changed the culture of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to focus prospectively on the prevention of terrorist attacks.

We have reorganized the management of the FBI to support agents in the field and better analyze intelligence.

We've integrated more closely the activities of the FBI and the CIA.

We have revised FBI investigative guidelines to provide agents in the field more flexibly and to allow agents to utilize new information technologies and public information sources.

We have expanded FBI-led joint terrorism task forces to each of the 56 field offices to improve counterterrorism investigations. We've established anti-terrorism task forces in each of the U.S. attorney's offices to improve cooperation with state and local law enforcement. And we have created for the Foreign Terrorism Tracking Task Force and Terrorism Financing Task Force to coordinate investigations and share information between federal agencies.

On behalf of the Department of Justice, I thank the members of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review for this decision. Although we have had an honest legal disagreement, I have the greatest respect and appreciation for members of the FISA Court and their outstanding service to the nation. The Department of Justice is committed to implementing the decision of the Court of Review.

I look forward to working with the members of the court in implementing the decision. I thank them for their cooperation, their service to America and their leadership in defending America.

And I thank you very much, and I'd be pleased to answer questions.

QUESTION: General, civil libertarians are quite concerned about this ruling and I wonder if you could give any assurances that this does not simply mean the FISA Court is purely a rubber stamp for the Justice Department, and that there will be still Fourth Amendment protections for American citizens. ASHCROFT: Well, obviously, this is a decision of the appellate level of the FISA Court structure, and a very careful and very considerate of the Constitution has this appellate process been.

We have no desire whatever to in any way erode or undermine the constitutional liberties here. And even though it's required by law, the appellate court here in this instance welcomed the views and arguments of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Department of Justice welcomed those views and arguments, because we wanted the full range of considerations to appear before this appellate body.

And we believe that the appellate court had a very through and appropriate sensitivity to safeguarding rights. And with that in mind, they have issued this decision.

This decision does allow the law enforcement officials to learn from intelligence officials, and vice-versa as a means of, sort of, allowing the information to flow from one community to another, as long as there are fundamental definitions met, reinforced by this court, realistic options of enforcement and intelligence value.

And in doing so, this will greatly enhance our ability to put pieces together that different agencies have.

I believe this is a giant step forward.

QUESTION: Yes, General, this decision obviously allows greater cooperation between your surveillance and criminal prosecutors. Many, though, are expressing concern about other efforts to break down walls that kept divisions of justice apart; for instance, proposals for a so-called total information awareness system that the Defense Department is working on, the investigative guidelines that allow greater leeway for law enforcement officials in searching through commercial databases.

Could you just speak to how this decision will affect Justice's plans to incorporate and data-mine information from a variety of sources?

ASHCROFT: This decision is narrow in terms of its scope. It affects the activities of the department as it relates to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act procedures. And as such it should not be interpreted as a guide to behavior in any other part of the Justice Department's activities.

QUESTION: General, there are a number of Iraqis in this country, and Iraqi-Americans, who are disturbed about reports of increased surveillance of them, interviews by law enforcement with the view to the possible coming war. Can you address their concerns? Are you confident that their rights are being safeguarded?

ASHCROFT: First of all, it's not my practice to, and I won't begin a practice now, of commenting on any kind of national security work or the investigations or surveillance.

I will just say in general that the strict adherence to the Constitution, and an observation of the responsibility of this government to safeguard the rights of all individuals regarding the Constitution, is at the highest level of the priorities of this department and of the government and administration.

And any surveillance that is done will be done in strict accordance with the law and only done in ways which we believe respect the Constitution fully.

I would refer back to the fact that on March the 6th, I issued the orders to implement the guidelines of FISA as amended in the PATRIOT Act. When there were initial reservations about that expressed in the FISA Court at the first level, those activities were suspended until they could be resolved by the higher court in its dispassionate, careful review of the Constitution and its evaluation of the responsibilities of the Justice Department.

It's with similar care that I can assure you that we undertake all of the responsibilities when they relate to the national security of our people. And I would say that kind of care characterizes all of our investigations and efforts in intelligence matters.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could comment on the proposal to create a domestic spying agency within in the United States and how this ruling might be a prelude to such an agency.

ASHCROFT: Well, this ruling really addresses the need to be able to integrate the activities of our law enforcement community. It says that we ought to be able to have things which come into the awareness of the intelligence community, they should be able to be passed to the prosecutors, and things that come up in the law enforcement community should be able to be passed over to the intelligence community.

In other words, this ruling is a ruling that talks about the value of integration and how things can be appropriately integrated, coordinated, there can be cooperation, collaboration in the entirety of the law enforcement community.

And frankly, that advances a theme, because we felt that we need better integration, better communication, cooperation, collaboration between our law enforcement and intelligence communities.

And that's something we've been working on since September the 11th.

It seems to me that the establishment of a separate, distinct agency would be a move in the other direction. Instead of to integrate and cooperate and communicate, it would be to segregate and to set aside this.

And so it would be a surprise to me to have it seriously considered that the effort we've made to integrate. so that we can have the kind of collaboration and cooperation that brings the right result. so all the information is on the table so that we can take advantage of all the resources. would somehow now be abandoned and that there would be some reversion to a segregated approach, where we have this other agency that'd be distinct and outside this relatively active now flowing stream of information and cooperation which has been developed in response to the terrorism which was so damaging to America on September the 11th, last year.

QUESTION: Attorney General, are you at all concerned about possible abuse of these new powers? And how are you monitoring to make sure that the new circumstances aren't abused which brought the ban in the first place?

ASHCROFT: Well, none of these powers is exercised absent the supervising authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. So these are all done in a process that has the court supervision. And in none of these settings is there action taken that isn't court supervised.

And it's with that in mind, plus an understanding that we haven't really changed the thresholds for occasioning surveillance, we've simply said that, when we have surveillance, we don't have walls that keep us from being able to share it with individuals who can help interrupt the threat, who could help in identifying, disrupting, delaying and defeating the terrorists.

And we're going to do everything we can...

SAVIDGE: U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, talking about what is a major victory for the U.S. Justice Department handed down by a federal appeals court. And it has to do with the issue of domestic surveillance, obviously in dealing with the war on terror.

To get more insight on this, we want to bring in CNN's Kelli Arena.

Kelli, there was a lot of legalese that was being thrown out here. Try to put it in plain English for us.

KELLI ARENA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Marty, the bottom line here is that this secret appeals court has basically agreed with the Justice Department in saying that federal agents, the U.S. government, does have lot of flexibility under the PATRIOT Act that was passed by Congress after the September 11 attacks in terms of listening in on telephone conversations or reading e-mails. This pertains specifically to terrorism investigations or espionage investigations. So it's number one, when can you wiretap, when can you use wiretap and surveillance? Then what do you do with that information once it's gathered?

So you have two prongs here. First, broader flexibility in when you can use surveillance methods. And then secondly, if that information is gathered, it can be passed back and forth between the intelligence community and the law enforcement community. There used to be a wall between the two. If you remember way back when, under J. Edgar Hoover, there were abuses of power. 1978, we had the creation of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act; the FISA Court was established, and so agents go to the FISA Court whenever they want to put a tap on your phone or read your computer, go through your computer for e-mail messages. You remember the Zacarias Moussaoui case. It was the whole FISA argument, can we get into his computer? Do we have enough probably cause? This gives a little more flexibility. They can go to the court and say under this new law, we have broader discretion.

At first, a lower court said, Oh, no, the Justice Department is wrong. They have totally misinterpreted these new powers, and it is not as broad as they think; it's much more limited. Justice, of course, appealed, and the appeals court -- this panel -- said, No, you were right; you do have broader powers under the PATRIOT Act as a result of the September 11 attack. So there you have it.

SAVIDGE: So it looks like the Justice Department has some new powers to put the work?

ARENA: That's right. They got the powers from Congress in the PATRIOT Act. It was the interpretation of the PATRIOT Act that this court is dealing with. So the court did not give them new powers. The court just said, Yes, the Justice Department's interpretation of what the PATRIOT Act allows them to do is correct.

SAVIDGE: Got it.

Kelli Arena, thanks for putting it in perspective.

ARENA: You're welcome.

SAVIDGE: Live from Washington.

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