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Interview With Attorney General John Ashcroft; Trail of Terror; Suspects' Aunt Speaks Out

Aired April 22, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Charged with using a weapon of mass destruction.

I'm Jake Tapper and this is THE LEAD.

The surviving terrorist suspect charged after facing a magistrate in his hospital room, the White House says he will not be tried as an enemy combatant. Is that a mistake? We will talk to a man who's been down this road before, former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Was there a connection between the dead suspect and a Chechen terror cell? The FBI questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev two years ago and came up with nothing years ago. What was missed?

And another terrorist plot discovered, this apparently foiled in time. Canadian authorities arrest two men for an alleged plot to attack a passenger train and it appears to be linked to al Qaeda.

A moment of silence all across Boston today at 2:50 p.m. Eastern time, the precise moment of the terrorist attacks on the marathon here one week ago. THE LEAD is once again coming to you live from Boston.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is now facing federal charges after a magistrate judge visited his hospital room earlier today. He's looking at one count of using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction in the U.S. and causing death and also one count of malicious destruction of property by using an explosive device resulting in death.

If convicted, it could mean the death penalty. He has been assigned a federal public defender, but the White House says he will not be labeled an enemy combatant. Instead, he will be tried in a civilian court.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He will not be treated as an enemy combatant. We will prosecute this terrorist through our civilian system of justice. Under U.S. law, United States citizens cannot be tried trialed -- tried, rather -- in military commissions. And it is important to remember that since 9/11, we have used the federal court system to convict and incarcerate hundreds of terrorists.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, along with his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a pair of Chechens originally born in Kyrgyzstan, are accused of unleashing chaos on the city last Monday.

And we know so much more than we did a week ago. Tamerlan Tsarnaev is dead following a shoot-out with police, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev listed in serious but stable condition at a Boston hospital with a gunshot wound to his neck after police apprehended him Friday night. A source with firsthand knowledge of the investigation tells CNN that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is on a breathing ventilator and heavily sedated.

As we talk about what in the suspect's future, we cannot forget about those who lost their lives.

Let's take time to recall them, to remember them, 29-year-old Krystle Campbell. Funeral services were held for her earlier today -- 8-year-old Martin Richard whose mom and sister were also grievously wounded, and 23-year-old Lingzi Lu, a Boston University graduate student from China. A memorial is planned for her later this evening.

And then, of course, there is MIT officer gunned down, 26-year- old Sean Collier. We're told Vice President Biden will attend a memorial ceremony for him on Wednesday.

As we mentioned, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will not be tried as an enemy combatant.

I want to bring in Juliette Kayyem, CNN national security analyst.

Juliette, Tsarnaev will be prosecuted in the criminal justice system. Is this the right move?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN ANALYST: Absolutely. It's actually a no- brainer on so many levels. For one, this is a strong case so why would you abandon the sort of normal system of criminal justice, but for symbolic reasons?

TAPPER: Well, that, but also, as for the same reason they held off on Mirandizing him, to get as much information from him in case there are other plots.

KAYYEM: So this is where the question of what they can get out of him and what they can use in court are sort of different questions at this stage.

They can ask him a lot of questions without Mirandizing him, although we believe that he has been Mirandized at this stage, and get information about him, about either impending threats or what happened to his brother and what happened over the last week or years even.

That doesn't need to be used against him in a court of law. That's what's so amazing about this complaint. The charge is not a terrorism charge.

It's use of one weapon of mass destruction. TAPPER: One weapon of mass destruction, presumably because his other brother -- his brother used the other one.

KAYYEM: Right, which is broadly defined in the law. It actually means essentially any weapon that's not a firearm or a firework. That's just a sort of way to think about it.

And by doing that, all they really need is an evidentiary case. So the debate about whether we -- and the government does these cases all the time. They're good at it, they're strong at it, and then you resolve it. Putting it through some other system because, you know, he's a kind of person, he's a terrorist or you want to do is symbolically would not only raise all sorts of legal questions, but it would essentially I would have to say sort of symbolically undermine what makes America a pretty good country, which is we have a criminal justice system that can even convict the worst of the worst.

TAPPER: We don't know yet. Law enforcement has yet to present a case about whether or not this is the result of some sort of foreign organization.


TAPPER: We do not know.

KAYYEM: No. And it's not in the complaint.

TAPPER: It's not in the complaint. A lot of things aren't in the complaint. The MIT police officer Collier is not in the complaint.

KAYYEM: Right.

TAPPER: There's a lot of things that are not in the complaint.

But if it is established that he was, that the Tsarnaev brothers were acting on behalf or in conjunction with a foreign enemy organization, he could then be charged as an enemy combatant, right? That's something that could happen.

KAYYEM: Well, enemy combatant you mean outside of a U.S. court that could happen. The administration is pretty confident they won't need that and they don't want to do that. I think part of what this sort of post-9/11 world is about is sort of reasserting the American judicial system over a lot of these terrorism cases.

You can fight wars abroad, but here in the United States he is, after all, a U.S. citizen, therefore not covered by the Military Commissions Act. So the one takeaway from the press conference today, though, was that they are leaving open other charges. That's just because the investigation is ongoing. But the complaint is pretty solid.

It's evidentiary-based. We don't have to get into motive, we don't have to get into jihadist movement. Make the case, get a conviction and show that the system can work against these cases. TAPPER: All right, Juliette, thank you so much.

Speaking of press conferences, also breaking a short time ago, word of major terrorist arrests north of the border. Canadian police say they foiled a plot that had support from al Qaeda to derail a train. Two men are under arrest, under surveillance for more than a year. U.S. Homeland Security and the FBI were also involved.

I want to bring in Paula Newton who's on the phone from Ottawa, Canada.

Paula, what do we know about the case right now?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now we know that Chiheb Esseghaier from Montreal, 30 years old, was arrested, as was Raed Jaser, 35, from Toronto. Two arrests in two cities and again a plot as you said to derail trains, police are characterizing this as a real threat to kill people, hurt people, and a threat to the economy.

You know, they are cautious in saying that this was an imminent threat but -- it was not an imminent, but no less a very real threat. What's interesting here, Jake, is the fact they refused to release any information regarding the search warrants. I can tell you they have a good handful of plots that are under surveillance right now, and I have been briefed on a few of them.

What they do is they continue from the very instant they seize on communication or anything that is suspicious, they then start to try and gain the authority to be able to bug their mobile phones, bug their homes, do whatever they need to do to keep the public safe. It seems to be what's happened at this point in time.

They still say that the searches -- that the execution of those search warrants is ongoing. What is key is what they find there. Will they find explosives, will they find the beginnings of a bomb, or will they find more stuff on computer hard drives, phone calls in question, things like that which would make the plot more aspirational?

The other thing I have to tell you though, Jake, is the fact they said this was A.Q.-supported from Iran. They said it was supported and had guidance, but refused to actually say what the character, what the nature of that was, and that is especially intriguing. Intelligence officials here have told me they have been worried about that for several years.

In fact, they worried about Iran's influence but could never give me anything concrete that really worried them. This would tend to point to something different, Jake.

TAPPER: Paula, thank you so much.

Tom Foreman joins us now from Washington, D.C., with more on this operation.

Tom, explain to us exactly, where did this all go down? TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This all happened mainly around Toronto and Montreal.

Look at these images. You can see Canada in here. What I have highlighted here are really the train routes run by the Via train system up there, which is an inter-city connecting system.

One thing I do want to point out Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the RCMP, typically release much less information than we might be used to from law enforcement agencies here. It doesn't mean they don't have the background of all of this. They just won't talk about it very much.

Let's at what specifically they were talking about. The real target here apparently was train activity in and around the largest city here Toronto, and if you zoom in here, you can see this is a rail yard here, one of the main ones here, for Via up there. These suspects apparently scouted out these locations, watched the comings and goings of trains, looked at the security system here, and had a real target of trying to hit this system.

Why would that matter so much? Well, because Via carries more than four million people on trips every year up there in Canada, and for a long time, Jake, there's been talk about the idea that train stations are comparatively a soft target compared to airplanes.

In fact, ever since 9/11, as air travel has been more and more locked into security, various people have said the real concern is going to be train stations because there are millions of people on them. Think about this.

We had train attacks in London, in Mumbai, in South Korea. So the fear for a long time has been there would be a plot like this and that it could actually have some kind of big impact on train travelers. And this route, the primary route for Via, runs generally along the U.S. border. So if, in fact, this is al Qaeda-sponsored, if they prove all of that, you have got to know there's a lot of discussion going on about whether or not this is even testing ground, seeing how much can be hit here and how much could be carried across the border on U.S. train routes -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Tom Foreman. Thank you.

Returning to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the manhunt for him that shut down the city of Boston for a day while thousands of police combed every corner, the big break came when a Watertown man stepped outside for a smoke and spotted the suspect hiding in a boat trailered in his backyard.

This picture posted on Facebook was the first glimpse we got of the suspect in police custody. Watertown Police Captain Raymond Dupuis was among the first at the scene. He joins me now.

First of all, David Henneberry is the homeowner. You spent the night with him even after Dzhokhar had been taken away. He must have been freaking out. That is an unsettling turns of events. Tell us about it.

CAPT. RAYMOND DUPUIS, WATERTOWN POLICE: He was very nervous. He was very upset and just gathered in things and went elsewhere for the night.

TAPPER: What did you tell him to reassure him, it's over, the guy's caught, that's it?

DUPUIS: I told him everything was fine, it was OK. I walked through the house with him as he collected his personal belongings that he needed for the night and made arrangements to stay elsewhere. I told him the same thing, that -- what the police department could for me and to give me a call and we would take care of him.

TAPPER: When do police think that Dzhokhar went into the boat? Was it Friday evening, was it some time -- I'm sorry, was it Friday early, early morning during the shoot-out and he stayed there all day, or do we still not know?

DUPUIS: We're not sure. I mean, we speculate that where the boat was from where he abandoned the car and ran is not that far of a distance. So...

TAPPER: How far is it about?

DUPUIS: Three blocks.

TAPPER: Three blocks.

DUPUIS: We speculate that he probably went through the backyards off the street and found the boat and got in it. But that's just speculation at this point.

TAPPER: How can you be sure -- I guess you have cleared it now, but how could you be sure Friday night when you went to the house that there weren't any bombs, traps, anything else going on there?

DUPUIS: We didn't until after he was -- the suspect was captured and then the FBI brought in some explosive teams to make sure there were no explosives in the boat.

TAPPER: And how -- tell us about how the Watertown Police Department is dealing with this. I don't imagine a situation like this happens in Watertown all that often. How are people dealing with the trauma? Have you brought in counselors to talk to the officers?

DUPUIS: Yes. The Boston police have provided a -- they have a stress debriefing team which is very helpful to us.

The officers right after the shooting spoke to the stress officers before they went home. And then also we have the ATF is providing a stress debriefing team to come in tomorrow to talk to the officers as well.

TAPPER: There are little two mysteries from Watertown that evening. You may not have the information or you might not be able to share. But I want to ask you anyway.

One is, it seems as though Dzhokhar probably killed his older brother accidentally by running over him. Is that your understanding of what happened?

DUPUIS: He ran over his brother. He was alive before he got run over, before he was run over.

TAPPER: Then lastly, the guy who was stripped naked and then later set free, do we have any idea who he was?

DUPUIS: I'm not privy to that information at this time. I don't know who that was.

TAPPER: All right, well, Captain Dupuis, thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate you answer our questions.

DUPUIS: Thank you for having us.

TAPPER: Thank you.

Terror on trial. Up next, we will hear from former Attorney General John Ashcroft about what he thinks should happen to Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.


TAPPER: They've got him. Now what do they do with him? The capture of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Today, the White House made it very clear he will not be tried as an enemy combatant. It's a controversial move.

I spoke earlier with John Ashcroft, former attorney general to the Bush administration, about it.


TAPPER: Attorney General Ashcroft, thanks so much for joining us today.

If you were attorney general right now, would you be recommending that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev be tried as an enemy combatant? Or are criminal courts also OK with you?


Fortunately, there is a mountain of evidence that would support either a state charge or a federal charge in the Article III courts, being the traditional criminal jurisdiction courts. And the evidence is so substantial that it probably doesn't matter whether or not anything he would say now to interrogators would be used against him.

He's already the focus of so much hard evidence that the business about Miranda warnings is probably a tempest in a teapot here. TAPPER: You were attorney general from 2001 through 2005. Based on your experience, how common is it for the Russian government to reach out to U.S. law enforcement and say keep an eye on this person; we think he's a religious extremist; we think he might be up to no good.

Does that happen a lot or is it rare?

ASHCROFT: Now I'm not in the position to say how many times any specific government has communicated to the United States government. But it's fair to say that whenever we got some communications I think we wanted to take them very seriously.

TAPPER: In 2011, the FBI was informed by the Russian FSB, the successor organization to the KGB, that they were concerned about the older brother. The FBI says they looked into his communications; they interviewed him. They didn't find there to be anything that would pose a threat to public safety.

And then the older brother went to Russia, we presume to Chechnya and Dagestan according to anecdotal accounts; came back.

Should the FBI have re-interviewed him after he came back?

ASHCROFT: They took the matter seriously when it first came up. And obviously there was a very serious concern that we can see in retrospect.

And I would be particularly concerned about someone who visited an area like Chechnya, if that's, in fact, what happened, especially in the light of the fact that Chechen individuals have been involved in the war on terror pretty regularly against the United States and its operations overseas.

TAPPER: Talk about the precedents that might be relevant in this case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. You obviously were attorney general for a number of them.

Which do you see as being relevant and why?

ASHCROFT: There doesn't seem to be any precedent which would prohibit the prosecution of this individual based on state violations, federal violations.

And if the president were to determine this individual an enemy combatant, based on the facts and if found out that he had been involved with part of the war against the United States by terrorists overseas and could probably -- or properly come to a conclusion that he's an enemy combatant, then he might be adjudicated as a war criminal who violated the law of war.

And he could be -- that matter could be tried by a military commission.

TAPPER: Lastly, Attorney General Ashcroft, based on what we know, do you think the FBI should have sought a FISA warrant so they could have electronically monitored Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

And do you think in any way that this was an intelligence failure and a failure by the FBI, given that they had been warned about him?

ASHCROFT: Anytime we have a situation like this, we should take a careful look to see if there are ways that we could improve our performance.

And if we had been able to intercept or interdict this operation at any point in the process, lives could have been saved. If we had been able to prevent it totally, we would have saved lives and the maiming of a lot of innocent people, but even after the bomb was originally detonated, if we could have somehow been able to interrupt this prior to the killing of the MIT police officer.

TAPPER: Attorney General John Ashcroft, thanks so much for joining us today. We really appreciate your time.

ASHCROFT: Thank you, Jake. Thank you.


TAPPER: Tsarnaev, it should be noted, was a naturalized -- an American citizen. In an eerie coincidence, that ceremony took place at the Boston Garden on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, although the government says that naturalized citizens do not get to pick the dates on which they will be naturalized.

Up next, today was the first day back to school for the children of West Texas. We'll take a look at the recovery efforts after a massive explosion turned their hometown into a disaster area.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper in downtown Boston.

All eyes have been on Boston, but family members of the bombing suspects halfway around the world are playing a big role in this investigation. Police are using them to piece together the state of mind of bomber number one and bomber number two.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh spoke with an aunt of the suspects in Dagestan.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): She knew the alleged elder Boston bomber as a child and saw Tamerlan Tsarnaev grow up and leave for America. But strangest to aunt Pateimat Suleimanova was his return here last year, a devout Muslim.

PATIEMAT SULEIMANOVA, SUSPECTS' AUNT (through translator): They hadn't prayed before. They went to America. Nobody taught him. He learned everything himself. At the same time, we were happy about it because he didn't start doing drugs or alcohol. I mean, he doesn't speak to other women.

WALSH: She saw him for four of the six months he was here, and he went to Chechnya twice.

SULEIMANOVA: Yes, he went to Chechnya for a couple of days. I don't know where those relatives lived. I mean, the relatives from his father's side.

WALSH: As pictures of Boston played out around the world, she reveals that mother Zubeidat rang the boys to check if they were well. But later that week, they rang her, allegedly when they were on the run just the day before Tamerlan died. The day before Zubeidat said they spoke. It was like always, mommy, everything is fine with us, we're totally fine. Mommy, that's what they call her.

SULEIMANOVA: We miss your warmth and your caress. Tamerlan said, mommy, I love you. And Dzhokhar's voice came from a distances, I love you, too, mommy.

WALSH: She watched the boys' father filmed here earlier in the week see them on the news for the first time.

SULEIMANOVA: And then for some reason he tells me, Pateimat, this is Dzhokhar and Tamerlan and points to the screen and says, here's Tamerlan in the blue jacket and Dzhokhar in the white jacket. And I say, Anzor, these are the guys with the backpack, and these photos were shown.

These can't be that. I don't know, Pateimat, these are my children.

And then Zubeidat grabs the TV screen and starts screaming, "It can't be, it can't be happening, I don't believe it."

Children are dead. I would have shouted myself.

WALSH: Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Makhachkala.


TAPPER: It's another catastrophe that's been overshadowed by the terrorist attacks here in Boston, an enormous explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant that obliterated part of a small town. Later this week, investigators hope to get into the giant crater left at the scene of the blast, the explosion killed 14 people, 10 of them were first responders, including five of the town's 33 volunteer firefighters.

We learned today that the president and First Lady Obama will attend a memorial service for them on Thursday along with firefighters from across the country who did not know the victims but are bonded by their heroics.

Martin Savidge is live for us in the town of West, Texas.

Authorities just held a press conference. What's the latest, Martin?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, they're still focused on the crater which you mentioned. And today, they actually went back. There was some sophisticated equipment, 3D measuring, they were using to gauge how wide it is, how deep it is. All of that critical evidence that could tell them something more about what exploded. More importantly, they want to know why it exploded.

They are focusing not so much on the blast but the fire that preceded it. They know 0 it was the fire that triggered the blast. So what caused the fire? And that's the focus. The evidence they say is like processing a -- well, a forensic site or any site like, say, you were searching back in time, digging carefully layer by layer, slow methodical work.