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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Justice Department News Conference

Aired April 17, 2003 - 14:09   ET

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

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: We need to turn our attention to a news conference in Washington, fascinating stuff. Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI director Richard Mueller.
JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good afternoon. As President Bush has said, these are good days in the history of freedom. The victories in Iraq have been achieved with a most impressive and humane military campaign, thanks to the leadership of President Bush, our coalition partners, General Tommy Franks, his staff and our brave young men and women in uniform.

For decades, a fortunate few Iraqis have escaped the reign of Saddam Hussein's terror and tyranny in order to find freedom in the United States. These Iraqis who tasted liberty here have longed for liberation in their native land, and during the past few weeks Iraqis in the United States have become our unheralded partners in Operation Iraqi Freedom. America is honored by their sacrifices and the risks that they have endured to help liberate Iraq.

Today, America celebrates with the Iraqi people as they experience their first breaths of freedom and people who for the first time in a generation can look forward to a future free of fear and tyranny.

We know that danger still exists and that there is still much work to be done. Many challenges are ahead, both overseas and at home.

ASHCROFT: The Justice Department's Iraq's related terrorism prevention efforts included planning for the possibility of intensified domestic threats during the conflict with Iraq.

Last spring, as a contingency plan, the FBI developed the action plan to address any related threats that we might face during any possible elevation of military activity in Iraq. History taught us from Operation Desert Storm in the early nineties that Iraq had a plan to use intelligence officers to infiltrate the United States in 1991 to carry out terror.

The Iraqi intelligence service played a role in terrorists operations, including the attempted assassination of President George Herbert Walker Bush, and other attempts around the world. These Iraqi intelligence officials endangered both our nations and the Iraqis who fled Iraq start a new life here, free of Saddam Hussein's oppression and terror.

As this conflict escalated, we heard Osama Bin Laden speak in a videotape released on February 11, saying and I quote: "We stress the importance of the martyrdom operation against the enemy. Operations that inflicted harm on the United States and Israel that have been unprecedented in their history. Thanks to all-mighty God," Bin Laden said.

He also said, "regardless of the removal or the survival of the socialist party or Saddam, Muslims in general, and Iraqis in particular, must brace themselves for jihad against this unjust campaign and acquire ammunition and weapons," Bin Laden said.

An FBI focused, Justice Department, Iraqi taskforce plan was put in place, in addition to the integrated prevention security framework established after the September 11 attacks. So basically, in addition to our anti-terrorism effort following September 11, the FBI, together with the Justice Department, developed a plan related to the escalation of military activity in Iraq.

Iraqi taskforce plan consisted of a three-prong strategy: First, to gather intelligence from Iraqis here in the United States; second, to eliminate the Iraqi intelligence service presence in the United States; and third, to disrupt potential attacks by other terrorists. Attacks which might have been launched in conjunction with the elevated activity in Iraq.

First, the effort to identify threats to America and to assist our forces overseas by cooperating with and speaking with Iraqis here in the United States. The FBI gathered intelligence on Iraq in the United States and abroad. The Iraqi taskforce conducted nearly 10,000 voluntary interviews with US-based Iraqis in order to obtain counter- intelligence information and intelligence data, as well as to identify backlash threats to Iraqis in the United States.

Director Mueller will provide greater detail on the interview process and I would add that the cooperation of the Iraqi-American people was essential to our efforts to secure and safeguard our nation at this critical time.

The Department of Justice greatly appreciates the assistance and the cooperation of the Iraqi community here in the United States. Efforts to reach out to this community are part of an overall strategy the department has in place to work with the broader Arab and Muslim communities across the country to ensure that their rights are respected and protected.

The FBI took care to ask those interviewed if they were aware of any backlash discrimination or hate crimes. And the Civil Rights Division, here in the Justice Department, opened 36 new cases into incidents as a result.

Other activities that we've undertaken at the Department of Justice to make sure that individuals of Iraqi origin who are living in the United States have not been the subject of backlash include the establishment of the post-September 11th discrimination initiative within the Civil Rights Division of the national origin working group. Approximately 400 incidents of backlash discrimination have been investigated since September of 2001 by the Civil Rights Division, the FBI, the U.S. attorneys offices.

The Department of Justice has contributed to approximately 100 backlash prosecutions in federal, state and local courts since September of 2001. And the Justice Department's Community Relations service held more than 250 town and community meetings and forums on backlash issues and developed best practices for law enforcement to prevent and respond to hate incidents against Arab Americans, Muslims and Sikhs.

The second part of our strategy that was developed as a result of the Iraqi task force activity was the Justice Department's effort, aggressively, to expel or arrest all known Iraqi intelligence officials within the United States. This included five Iraqi officials with diplomatic status who were declared persona non grata and expelled from the country.

One individual was arrested and charged with acting as an agent of the Iraqi Intelligence Service. On April 14, Raed Rokan Al-Anbuke, the son of a former Iraqi diplomat, was charged with working in New York as an agent of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, the foreign intelligence arm of the Iraq government. The complaint alleges that Al-Anbuke worked under the direction of the Iraqi Intelligence Service.

The Justice Department has taken action now against all known officials of the Iraqi Intelligence Service. Third, the Justice Department aggressively countered potential counterterrorism threats during the Iraqi conflict. Using all the tools at our disposal, including provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, we have brought charges against 21 individuals as a result of our stepped up efforts in the time period before and during the conflict with Iraq.

ASHCROFT: Some of these charges include the March 26 charges against Haroon Rasheed (ph), Urfam Kamran (ph), Sasjit Najour (ph), Kris Marie Warren (ph), Abdul Kalyam (ph) and Sama Sama (ph).

They were all charged in the district of Colorado with making various false statements in order to obtain a visa permitting (UNINTELLIGIBLE) nephew to immigrate to the United States and otherwise cover up his illegal presence in the United State. Evidence proffered at the detention hearing, included that Kamran (ph) and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) allegedly said to a cooperating source that they supported the Taliban, Al Qaida, Jihad and were awaiting a signal that would cause them to harm U.S. interests.

Evidence also included that Nasar (ph) admitted to attending a terrorist training camp on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in August of 2001. Rasheed (ph) allegedly attended a terrorist training camp in Pakistan and went to Afghanistan after September 11, 2002, where he fought for the Taliban and Al Qaida.

On March 26, Nathan al-Samar (ph) and his brother, Kazem Abdullah Jaber al-Samar (ph), were indicted for allegedly operating an unlicensed money transmitting business by transmitting millions of dollars to Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan. On March 25, 2003, Mazen Al-Saeed (ph) was detained in connection with charges that he allegedly operated an unlicensed money transmitting business. Al-Saeed (ph), an Iraqi native who recently became a naturalized U.S. citizen, allegedly collected money from various Iraqis in northern Indiana for transmittal to Maytham al-Samar (ph) in Denver, who then allegedly sent the money to the Middle East.

On February 26th, four individuals were indicted for engaging in illegal financial transfers to persons in Iraq through an organization called "Help the Needy."

According to the indictment, from approximately 1994 through the present the defendants allegedly conspired to violate the law by soliciting contributions from people in the United States, depositing the funds in accounts in New York, and then laundering over $2.7 million to sources in Iraq through accounts maintained in the Jordan Islamic Bank in Amman.

On April the 9th, a superseding 20-count indictment was filed adding tax charges in that case. On February 26th, University of Idaho graduate student Sami Al Mar Al-Hussayen (ph), a citizen of Saudi Arabia, was indicted on charges of fraudulently obtaining student visas and making false statements on visa applications.

According to the 11-count indictment Al-Hussayen (ph) received and renewed student visas to pursue computer studies at the University of Idaho, certifying that his requested U.S. entry and presence was solely for graduate studies.

The indictment alleges that from October 1998 through the present, al-Hussayen (ph) routed thousands of dollars he received from overseas sources to the Michigan-based Islamic Assembly of North America, and provided computer expertise and Web site services to IANA.

The indictment alleges some Web sites promoted terrorism through suicide bombings and using airplanes as weapons. According to evidence proffered at the bond hearing, Al-Hussayen (ph) also posted statements and proclamations of two radical sheiks who had ties to Osama bin Laden and advocated violence and terrorist activities against the United States on those Web sites.

Also during this same time the Justice Department took guilty pleas from four individuals who are providing cooperation to the United States as part of their plea agreements.

I want to emphasize the value of the guilty pleas with agreements to cooperate. The information in a guilty plea obviously assists us in detaining and disrupting the activities of those who are not associated with the plea.

The person pleading guilty goes to jail, but the information helps us disrupt activities of others who are not a party to that particular litigation.

Ernst James Ujaama in Seattle pled guilty to providing goods and services to the Taliban, two defendants in Buffalo pleaded guilty for providing material support to Al Qaida, and Yusef, I'm having trouble with this one, Yusef Himsa (ph) pled guilty to multiple criminal charges and is currently cooperating in the Detroit cell case.

His testimony has been of value, substantial value in that respect. Such cooperation is a critical tool in our war against terrorism, and those who may be contemplating terrorist activity are aware of the fact that there are others who had been involved in the terrorist network who are cooperating and providing information.

We believe that is a destabilizing, disrupting influence on any who might be seeking to engage in terrorist acts. Indeed, when we have information that comes from those who are active in the terrorist community, and that information is understood to be in our possession, we believe it is disruptive to those who might be planning additional terrorist acts.

The Department of Justice's efforts leading up to and during the Iraqi conflict should send a clear message to the American people and to other people, both here and abroad, that we will not tolerate those who would seek to do harm to our nation.

It is a credit to our new investigative tools, carefully targeted and utilized, as well as it being a credit to the law enforcement community and our intelligence agencies and a cooperative public, and I would underscore a cooperative public, that we have not suffered a major terrorist attack in this country since September the 11th.

But we know that a significant terrorist threat persists, and as a result we will continue to persist in our efforts.

want to express my appreciation to the Iraqi Task Force, focused around the activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and to Director Mueller for his outstanding activities in this respect. I call upon the director at this time.

RICHARD MUELLER, DIR., FBI: General. Thank you sir. Good afternoon everyone. I'd like to start if I might by taking this opportunity to thank those who have been so forthcoming in assisting the FBI during these demanding times. As I've said before, and will continue to say, since September 11, the FBI's overriding mission has been to prevent future acts of terrorism against Americans, and against American interests both here in the United States and abroad.

And during the past several months, the FBI has made great strides in this endeavor, and most notably during the recent war in Iraq. I say that since September 11, and I and -- I have many FBI executives both here in Washington throughout the field have personally met with leaders of the Muslim and the Sihk and the Arab American communities to exchange views, and to engage in an ongoing dialogue which continues to this day and will continue after today.

And also, as the attorney general has noted in the last month, the FBI has conducted nearly 10,000 interviews with current and former Iraqi citizens residing here in the United States. All of these interviews were voluntary, and all were conducted within the strict confines of the Constitution. And they were conducted with the full respect to the rights and the dignity of those who were contacted by our agents.

Many of the persons we interviewed have fled Iraq in fear of its then dictator. Some are engineers. Some are scientists. Some even former leaders in the Iraqi government. They were contacted by the FBI because of their possible knowledge of the Iraqi leadership, Iraq's military facilities, and potential knowledge of Iraq's support of terrorism.

Furthermore, as the attorney general has pointed out, we took this opportunity to make those we interviewed aware that the FBI investigates hate crimes, and encouraged those persons whom we interviewed to contact us should any such unfortunate attacks occur.

The response that the FBI received during the course of these interviews was overwhelmingly positive. As a result of these interviews, approximately 250 reports were provided to the United States military to assist in locating weapons production and storage facilities, underground bunkers, fiber optic networks and Iraqi detention and interrogation facilities.

MUELLER: As has been said by the Department of Defense, much of the information that had been provided in the course of our interviews has been corroborated by the efforts in Iraq, and according to the Department of Defense, the information was timely, excellent, relevant and greatly assisted in bridging gaps in other intelligence.

So I would like to personally thank the Iraqi community members who participated in these interviews and the Arab American civic leaders who worked so hard to assist the FBI in this important endeavor.

These efforts have clearly worked to make America safer, but also serve to build communication and understanding between the FBI and the Iraqi, the Muslim and the Arab American communities.

Now, in addition to this interview initiative, last month the FBI activated command posts in each of its 56 field offices throughout the country. These command posts were staffed 24 hours a day by both agents and support personnel, but also as well by state and local law enforcement. And since September 11, and most particularly in the last month, we as the FBI could not have undertaken these endeavors by ourselves. It has been a joint effort of the FBI and other federal agencies, but most particularly all of us working together with state and local law enforcement that we have been successful to date.

These task forces work to investigate any intelligence information concerning threats of possible terrorism and to support the efforts of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, which, as I'm sure you're aware, includes not only federal agencies, but also state and local law enforcement.

Let me also add that, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, over the last week we at the FBI have undertaken steps to address the reported widespread looting of Iraqi museums and other historical sites. These steps include sending FBI agents to Iraq to assist with criminal investigations; issuing Interpol alerts to all member nations regarding the potential sale of stolen Iraqi art and artifacts on both the open and the black markets; and then assisting with the recovery of any such stolen items.

Let me just say that we recognize the importance of these treasures to the Iraqi people, and as well to the world as a whole, and we are firmly committed to doing whatever we can in order to secure the return of these treasures to the people of Iraq.

And finally, FBI agents are now assisting in the review of documents obtained from Iraq in an effort to locate and extract any potentially valuable intelligence information. Currently we have over 25 FBI employees who are working on the identification and analysis of documents seized in Iraq; again, for the purpose of identifying any future terrorist threats or links to Iraqi intelligence activities.

The FBI will continue to be vigilant in its counterterrorism efforts, both here and abroad.

MUELLER: And I might say, as our troops have fought for freedom overseas, the FBI continues to protect our freedom here at home.

Thank you and let me turn it back to you, John.

QUESTION: General, when you talk about the threat that exists now, how do you gauge the threat now posed by Hezbollah, especially given their threat (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Israel and language now following the U.S. campaign and the continued occupation?

ASHCROFT: We take seriously a wide variety of threats. We believe that as a nation we are far better at handling and anticipating and disrupting than we were two years ago.

But we take them very seriously, and as a result the alert status for the country remains elevated alert. We believe that not only are there other organizations which have recently developed aggressive language, indicating their intent to be hostile to the United States and our interests, but there is still a persistent threat from Al Qaida, and as a result the nation remains on elevated alert status.

QUESTION: So it seems like more rhetoric now than a real threat?

ASHCROFT: No, I don't want to, I hope I didn't, may I correct that if that was the impression. I said some organizations have elevated their rhetoric, and we don't mean that's just rhetoric, but they have begun to verbalize in ways that they hadn't previously.

So we take that seriously.

QUESTION: How did you go about soliciting the interviews, and did you, did anybody turn you down?

ASHCROFT: Well, I would call upon the director to give the details on that, but far more than 10,000 people have come to the United States over the past decade from Iraq, as immigrants or refugees or persons who have come here to work, and there was a careful process and I don't know whether anyone turned us down, but I think it's very clear that the overwhelming majority of individuals interviewed were very helpful to the United States of America. Go ahead, Bob.

MUELLER: Well, we went through a process to determine throughout the country those whom we thought would be useful to interview, and it turned out to be around 11,000, and as we've said we've conducted almost 10,000 of those interviews of those individuals. And, as I said in my remarks, the response has been overwhelmingly positive to those interviews. There have been -- I think I have heard of two complaints out of all of that that have been brought to our attention, and I will tell you than when I meet with the Muslim-American, Arab- American, the Sikh-American community leaders, one thing I express is that we want to hear from you.

If there are complaints, if there are issues, then we have to put them on the table and address them. And that has been the purpose of our meetings, not only in Washington with these leaders, but also in all of our field offices,

And I think you have seen since September 11th an outreach program that enables us to discuss these issues in a way that we did not have perhaps prior to September 11th.

QUESTION: General Ashcroft, this is a follow-up to the question about Hezbollah. You mentioned that sometimes aggressive language can mean more than that. Are there any efforts underway in the United States to sort of get a handle on Hezbollah here?

I know that there's been investigations in Charlotte and Detroit and elsewhere. can you discuss what efforts are underway to sort of see if there's any increased activity out there?

ASHCROFT: Well, if I'm not mistaken, I believe that there are charges pending regarding certain smuggling activities that went to funding certain terrorist groups, and I wouldn't want to make any additional comments of the cases that are pending.

Suffice it to say that we are serious about curtailing the flow of finances to terrorist organizations, and when individuals are involved in cigarette smuggling or other activities which have been used, and charged and convictions have been obtained in regard to smuggling supporting terrorist activities, we take that seriously and we'll continue to do so.

I have asked U.S. attorneys across the country, the Criminal Division here at main justice, that when individuals associated with terror are involved in illegal activities, that we are to bring charges and to do so with dispatch.

And we continue to accelerate out effort in that respect, and that effort in no way has been abated.

QUESTION: Attorney General Ashcroft, do you plan to seek an indictment against Abu Abbas now that he's in American custody? ASHCROFT: Well, let me just say that the capture is an example of how Iraq was a haven for terrorists worldwide and it reflects on the pattern of behavior that I think is characteristic of Saddam's regime.

I have to say that we're continuing to review the legal issues in regard to this matter. And until we have completed that review, I won't be able to make additional comments.

QUESTION: Can you describe what other aid Justice is providing this stand-up (OFF-MIKE) of government in Iraq other than the agents that Director Mueller had mentioned earlier (OFF-MIKE)?

Director Mueller, could you describe you a describe a little bit more about the size of that contingent and what they're going to be doing?

ASHCROFT: Well, a couple of Justice Department and State Department agencies that work together, the International Law Enforcement Institute and another training facility, OPDAT, for training police officials, those institutes and groups are making their services available for rule of law focus as the resources to any subsequent government in Iraq.

We feel that the rule of law, which is essential to human freedom and liberty, is something that we expect to be part of any new government in Iraq, and we want to be able to provide training.

This is not a new enterprise for us. We have this kind of presence internationally; and several thousand individuals out of the Balkans have been trained in recent years to try and make sure that there's an awareness of the capacity for rule of law there. And it would be an extension of that kind of activity in terms of Justice's involvement and the development of institutions that respect rule of law and the kind of adjudication of issues that protect liberty and freedom.

MUELLER: I think there are four areas which you can expect us to be involved in Iraq. The first is, as we have done in Afghanistan in the wake of September 11th, with other intelligence agencies and the military, exploring information opportunities, where they would be from interrogating individuals or from documents relating to counterintelligence, that is the intelligence operations of the Iraqi Intelligence Service around the world, but also in the United States.

Counterterrorism information relating to support of terrorists activities or the fact that some terrorists may have been, may still be in Iraq. Again, we'll be working with the other intelligence communities, other intelligence entities and the military to identify any such individuals.

Thirdly, as I think I indicated before, we'll be participating and exploring documents. Any documents that are found, whether they relate to the Iraqi Intelligence Service or relate to terrorism or relate to weapons of mass destruction, we'll working with the other agencies. And lastly, the fourth area is, as I think I mentioned, was with regard to recovering the artifacts and other art objects that may have been taken from the museums in Baghdad. And I can't get into the numbers at this point.

QUESTION: Mr. Director, sir, I wonder if you could perhaps address the issue of the relations with the Muslim community a little bit more? You say that you've only heard of two complaints and that you've made significant outreach efforts, and I don't doubt that.

QUESTION: But we are meanwhile getting press releases from Arab groups and Muslim leadership organizations continuing to complain, saying that you have -- people are being detained, that there's not enough information being made available about them, that there are unnecessary delays in asylum applications for individuals from Al Qaida countries.

You said you have ongoing discussions. Can you amplify a little bit?

MUELLER: No, you've covered a broad spectrum there. Let me just tell you, with regard to the interviews that we've undertaken, and most recently with regard to Iraqis, I have not heard, other than -- I have been told, I have not heard myself, of two instances where there was some concern about whether the interviews were undertaken at all or how they were conducted. And that's it, out of almost 10,000 interviews.

And when you talk to persons, when you sit down one to one and discuss what has been happening, the reaction you get is far different than you may see in an isolated letter that may find its way into the media, if I may put it that way.

QUESTION: Director Mueller, in light of various individuals that have been captured in Baghdad, looking at your most wanted terrorist lists, Abdul Rahman Yasin, wanted in '93 World Trade Center bombing, any intelligence on him and his whereabouts?

MUELLER: Well, I can't get into the details of this. I will tell you, I know there was a question with regard to Abu Abbas. We worked cooperatively with the military in terms of identifying Abu Abbas, and I expect other individuals who might be detained by the military forces there or by others, we'll work cooperatively with them and provide what expertise we have in terms of identifying them and doing whatever necessary investigation is required to follow up on any acts that may have been committed by them.

QUESTION: Sir, have the documents exploited out of the Ansar al- Islam camp told you anything at all about possible terrorist operations in the United States?

MUELLER: All I can tell you is that, to the extent that we have received documents from wherever in Iraq, we are going through them as soon as we receive them, and not only us, but the CIA, Department of Defense, and taking whatever action is necessary to follow up on any lead that many come out of those documents, whether it be a telephone number or an address or some other item of information in the United States or around the world that we obtain from those documents that may help us to prevent another terrorist attack.

QUESTION: Director Mueller, on the Iraqi interviews, apparently some people who cooperated provided some of that valuable information, you said 250 reports that went overseas to the military, cooperated in the hopes that perhaps it would help their chances at becoming naturalized U.S. citizens.

Was there any sort of carrot on the stick or were there any deals cut to help these folks who've been cooperative to become U.S. citizens?

MUELLER: I can't look at the motivation of the person whom we contact to interview. I will tell you that in almost all the cases, the response from the persons interviewed was positive.

In fact, we had a number of instances, far more than two, in which the person would call up and say, "I've got information. Why am I not on your list? Why have I not been interviewed?"

And the response, the point I want to make is, the response from the Iraqi-American community was tremendously supportive -- tremendously supportive. And for that, they deserve a tremendous amount of thanks, because it not only helped within the United States, but certainly helped our troops overseas.

Thank you.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: FBI director Robert Mueller, also Attorney General John Ashcroft addressing reporters there at the Justice Department. Basically just talking about the relationship between the FBI and the Justice Department, how that relationship played out in Iraq, most specifically with the Iraqi task force plan.

Let's bring in Justice Correspondent Kelli Arena. Kelli, just to kind of put this all in perspective, they talked about a lot of different aspects of this plan. Let's talk about how they did interview Iraqis, and gathered intelligence, and tried to help prevent any further attacks while carrying out Operation Iraqi Freedom.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you heard from the FBI director, all 56 field offices of the FBI were engaged in trying to identify and locate up to 11,000 Iraqi citizens or former citizens since -- naturalized U.S. citizens in the hopes of getting information. These were very specific people, though, that they were looking for. People that had relationships with individuals in government in Iraq. People who had relationships with the academic community, or the scientific community in Iraq in hopes of garnering some useful information for the military effort.

And you heard that there was some useful information that came in. They were able to identify the location of underground bunkers and fiberoptic networks and storage facilities, and Iraqi interrogation centers. All of this intelligence that we heard was very useful for the U.S. military that was on the ground there in Iraq, especially in Baghdad.

There was -- you did hear a little bit about some concern about how these interviews played within the Muslim and Arab-American community. We had heard several complaints from individuals about these voluntary interviews. Some people suggesting that they thought there might be repercussions if they didn't go along and try to provide information. Some people that were visited at work, that they thought was inappropriate because it aroused some suspicion among their coworkers.

But I think what was really important was that the FBI is fully entrenched in playing a very major role, still, in Iraq, Kyra. They talk about document exploitation, which is a very important process that goes on. It went on with all of the documents, six million documents that came back from Pakistan and Afghanistan that have -- that they have laboriously gone through to find leads, as the FBI director said. Addresses, phone numbers, names. Any lead that can be followed, and so the situation is still very much ongoing, at least as far as the FBI is concerned, in Iraq.

PHILLIPS: All right. Our Kelli Arena, justice correspondent. Thank you so much. And you're right, that relationship continues between the FBI, justice correspondent -- in Iraq, rebuilding that country, recovering artifacts, and also working with the Muslim community.

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