Transcript

Attorney General Gonzalez Holds a News Conference on Terrorist Arrests

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Friday, June 23, 2006; 2:52 PM

SPEAKERS: ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL

JOHN PISTOLE, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, FBI

ALICE FISHER, ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL, CRIMINAL DIVISION, JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

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GONZALES: Good morning. I'm joined today by FBI Deputy Director John Pistole and Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher of the Criminal Division.

The convergence of globalization and technology has created a new brand of terrorism. Today, terrorist threats may come from smaller, more loosely defined cells who are not affiliated with Al Qaida, but who are inspired by a violent jihadist message.

And left unchecked, these homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like Al Qaida.

Recent events around the world have demonstrated the challenges posed by homegrown terrorists who live in the area that they intend to attack.

The terrorists and suspected terrorists in Madrid and London and Toronto were not sleeper operatives sent on suicide missions. They were students and business people and members of the community. And they were persons who, for whatever reason, came to view their home country as the enemy.

It's a problem that we face here in the United States as well.

As has been reported, seven men were arrested yesterday in Miami on charges of conspiring to support the Al Qaida terrorist organization by planning attacks on numerous targets, including bombing the Sears Tower in Chicago, the FBI building in North Miami Beach, Florida, and other government buildings in Miami-Dade County.

Fortunately, because of the fine work of law enforcement, these men were unable to advance their deadly plot beyond the initial planning phase.

The seven men who were arrested -- Narseal Batiste, Patrick Abraham, Stanley Grant Phanor, Naudimar Herrera, Burson Augustin, Lyglenson Lemorin and Rotschild Augustine -- were named in an indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Miami.

GONZALES: The indictment charges four counts: conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, namely Al Qaida; conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists; conspiracy to maliciously damage and destroy buildings by means of an explosive device; and conspiracy to levy war against the government of the United States.

These individuals wish to wage a, quote, "full ground war against the United States." That quote is from the investigation of these individuals, who also allegedly stated the desire to, quote, "kill all the devils we can." They hoped for their attacks to be, quote, "just as good or greater than 9/11."

The defendants -- five American citizens, one legal permanent resident and one Haitian national in the United States illegally -- are expected to make appearances at U.S. district court in Miami today.

As always, it is important to remind you that the defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty in a court of law.

The indictment alleges that Batiste, the ringleader of this group, intended to recruit and supervise individuals to organize and train for a mission of war against the United States.

Batiste and his co-conspirators allegedly attempted to obtain the support of Al Qaida to achieve their goals. They also took steps to carry out their plans for violent attacks on the nation. Those steps included seeking out uniforms and weapons, conducting reconnaissance, and taking bay'ah, the oath of allegiance to Al Qaida.

We know this because an individual they thought was a member of Al Qaida was present at their meetings. In actuality, he was working with the South Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force.

If convicted, the defendants in this case each face a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison on the charges of conspiracy to provide material support or resources.

The defendants also face a maximum of 20 years in prison on each charge of conspiracy to destroy buildings by use of explosives, and conspiracy to levy war against the United States.

GONZALES: And this case clearly demonstrates our commitment to preventing terrorism through energetic law enforcement efforts aimed at detecting and thwarting terrorists acts.

The arrests and today's indictments are the result of an extensive investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigations Joint Terrorism Task Force in Miami, which includes, among others, the Miami-Dade and the city of Miami police departments, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Criminal Investigation Unit at the Internal Revenue Service.

I am pleased by the cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement in taking down this group of individuals who wish to harm our country and its citizens.

I want to thank FBI Deputy Director John Pistole in particular for the FBI's leadership in this investigation. I also thank the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida, Alex Acosta, and his office for their efforts in prosecuting this case, along with the Counterterrorism Section of the Criminal Division here at the Department of Justice, headed by Alice Fisher.

I'll now turn to John Pistole for remarks, and then we'll be glad to take your questions.

John?

PISTOLE: Thank you, Attorney General Gonzales.

Good morning.

Today's indictment is an important step forward in the war on terrorism here in the United States.

As you know, the Department of Justice and the FBI's highest priority is preventing another terrorist attack. And thanks to the efforts of each agent and officer who worked on this investigation together we identified and disrupted a terrorist plot before any harm could be done.

The investigation reveals outstanding work by the law enforcement community. It also reminds us that we have much more work to do.

As the indictment alleges, the threat of terrorism exists right here on American soil. Like other groups we've detected and the department has prosecuted over the last several years, these seven individuals are members of a homegrown terror cell. They lived and worked in the United States and enjoyed all the freedoms our great nation offers. Yet they pledged their allegiance to Al Qaida -- or at least to whom they thought was Al Qaida.

Their goal was simple: to commit attacks against America.

They sought funding, support, materials and weapons for their mission. They initiated a plot to blow up targets, including the Sears Tower, as you've heard, and five government buildings, including the FBI office in Miami.

PISTOLE: They conducted surveillance. They conspired to murder countless Americans through attacks that would be, in their words, quote, "just as good or greater than 9/11," as the attorney general has mentioned. But we preempted their plot.

This investigation reminds us that while we have made tremendous progress in combating terrorism, the struggle is far from over. We cannot afford to become complacent as the threat is real and the stakes are high.

Across the United States, the law enforcement community is rising to the challenge. The FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force in Miami, as you heard, led the effort to detect and disrupt this terror cell. And our success is due to the outstanding work of our partners in federal, state and local law enforcement. We worked closely with a number of them, as the attorney general has mentioned: the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, IRS Criminal Investigative Division, ATF, Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Secret Service, Miami Police Department, Miami-Dade Police Department, the Miramar Police Department, Broward County sheriff's office and the Fort Lauderdale Police Department and the Hollywood Police Department.

As you can see, it was a collaborative effort. I'd like to thank these agencies for their work and for their continued partnership.

This investigation is a success, but our work is not finished. The FBI and our partners will continue to be vigilant in fighting terrorism both here and abroad. We will continue to work with our partners throughout the country toward our common mission to secure American citizens and safeguard American freedoms.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Has every known member of the cell been arrested?

GONZALES: What I can say is the investigation continues, but I can't comment beyond that.

And let me just remind everyone, because I know there's going to be a desire for additional facts: This is an ongoing criminal investigation. And so with respect to disclosure of facts beyond the indictment, I can't do that.

QUESTION: What can you tell us about the cooperating informant, the one who posed as an Al Qaida representative? How was he known to the members of the plot?

GONZALES: He was known as someone who was a member of Al Qaida. But I can't provide any additional information beyond that.

QUESTION: Did any of the men have any actual contact with any members of Al Qaida that you know of?

GONZALES: Any?

PISTOLE: No.

GONZALES: The answer to that is no.

QUESTION: Did they have any means to carry out this plot? I mean, did you find any explosives, weapons?

GONZALES: No, and you raise a good point.

You know, our philosophy here is that we try to identify plots in the earliest stages possible, because we don't know what we don't know about a terrorism plot. And that once we have sufficient information to move forward with a prosecution, that's what we do. And that is what has occurred here.

And so what we have is a situation where individuals here in America made plans to hurt Americans. They did take some overt acts. They did request materials. They did request equipment. They did request funding. They swore allegiance to Al Qaida.

We clearly believe there's sufficient information, sufficient facts, to support this prosecution. And, therefore, we took action when we did because we believe we have an obligation to prevent America from another attack here.

QUESTION: From reading the indictment, it appears that about a month ago, their plans, sort of, fell apart, which raises a couple questions.

QUESTION: One: It appears they had real criminal intent, but did they have the capability? That is, were they just naive and incompetent? In other words, were you ever afraid that they could really pull off this plot?

GONZALES: I think it's dangerous for us to try to make an evaluation case by case as we look at potential terrorist plots and making a decision, "Well, this is a really dangerous group; this is not a dangerous group."

We look at the facts in every particular case. And we felt that the combination of the planning and the overt acts taken were sufficient to support this prosecution. And that's why we took this action.

There is no immediate threat. We've already publicly announced there's no immediate threat to facilities in Miami; no immediate threat to the Sears Tower.

Obviously, part of the reason for that is because they didn't have the materials they requested. They didn't receive the weapons, at least we don't know of.

But nonetheless, they did take sufficient steps that we believe does support this prosecution. That's why we took the action that we did.

QUESTION: The key question becomes, we know that the FBI and law enforcement is trying to be proactive, in front of these types of things. "But exactly who is doing the initiating here?" I guess is the question. Did they request the materials? Or did the informant initiate that part of this alleged plot?

PISTOLE: The lead defendant made the first indication of intent to commit an attack. And that was against the FBI office in Miami. From that stemmed conversations, and the evidence developed from that.

QUESTION: May I ask you a question about whether the group ever took steps to try to acquire explosives?

PISTOLE: There was discussion about different types of weaponry, small arms and others, and explosives.

PISTOLE: And I'll just say, there was some report about ammonium nitrate (inaudible) out there. There was no discussion of ammonium nitrate.

QUESTION: Well, did they ever try to -- can you say whether ever tried to acquire explosives?

PISTOLE: Not independent of what we are aware of.

QUESTION: Was there anything against the Sears Tower except this one apparent just, kind of, a mention of the Sears Tower? It doesn't look like they ever took pictures or...

PISTOLE: One of the individuals was familiar with the Sears Tower, had worked in Chicago and had been there, so was familiar with the tower. But in terms of the plans, it was more aspirational than operational.

QUESTION: Did the informant wear a wire? Do you have any tapes of these discussions?

PISTOLE: Let's just say we have good evidence.

QUESTION: Can you talk about how these men found each other? Was there a group or organization that brought them together initially?

PISTOLE: They were already together, yes.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) logical follow-up to that, then, is why would a group of men of seemingly different ethnic backgrounds -- I'm not a names expert or whatever on this -- why would they get together? What do they have against the United States? Why would they pledge allegiance to Al Qaida?

PISTOLE: They shared a common ideology, which I think you have heard some about, or you will later, in the Miami press conference. So there was a common ideology. They had other similarities which will be -- more information will be provided on that later.

QUESTION: Well, I'm just trying -- what they had against the United States?

PISTOLE: They did not believe that the government of the United States had legal authority over them. They were separatists in the sense of not believing that the U.S. government had the legal authority to enforce certain laws against them. And so it was from that ideology that some of this stems.

QUESTION: Was there any discussion of locations here in the Washington area as being possible targets? And is there anything in the criminal background of these gentlemen that had already put them on perhaps more or less a watch list for you all?

PISTOLE: Not a watch list from a terrorism standpoint. Several of them had prior arrests but, again, for traditional criminal activity as opposed to any terrorism-related.

QUESTION: Before your informant got involved in this, were these guys out there trying to recruit or solicit help and that's how they became known to you or the informant?

PISTOLE: Let's just say that they were doing things that came to our attention through people who were alert in the community.

QUESTION: I have a question of this with Banking Cooperative, a major newspaper, reporting this morning. Did the DOJ approve the legality of this? And did this have anything to do with maybe catching up these people or any other...

GONZALES: No to your last question. I think Stuart Levey has already commented on the effectiveness of the Treasury program.

As to your first question, the Department of Justice has reviewed the program. And we believe it is lawful.

QUESTION: For either you or Mr. Pistole, you mentioned that these groups thought that the United States did not have authority over them. There have been other radical black Muslim groups that call themselves a variety of names, including the Moors, who thought that the United States had no authority over them, that the government owed them money.

Are they tied in to those groups? Or did they, sort of, spring up on their own?

PISTOLE: I think at this point it would be best to defer to what's in the indictment and see what is pled later on.

QUESTION: Can you tell us a little bit more about their background? Just, do they live in other parts of the country? You mentioned Chicago. Do they live in Atlanta? Do they live in any other parts?

PISTOLE: Primarily South Florida.

QUESTION: The charges mostly surround providing material support to Al Qaida. It looks like these guys were actually asking for material support from what they thought was Al Qaida.

QUESTION: These guys couldn't buy boots on their own? They don't sound like very sophisticated or effective operators.

PISTOLE: What we tried to do, between the department, the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, is to be alert to any activity that may cause harm to U.S. citizens. And it's part of that assessment process through any investigation that we assess the means, the intent, the motives and the capabilities of any individual or group of individuals. And that's what's happened in this investigation.

QUESTION: I see in the indictment that Batiste in March asked the cooperating informant for a rental van and a video camera to do surveillance (inaudible) the FBI building, and then three days later he gave video footage.

Was the video camera provided by the cooperating informant and the JTF, the FBI, and the rental van to do that surveillance?

PISTOLE: I don't believe that's contained in the indictment, so I'll stay away from that.

QUESTION: What does this say about the importance of keeping tabs on the population domestically; for example, through wiretaps?

PISTOLE: The key is that Americans are vigilant about activities that may lead to terrorist attacks. We talk about homegrown terrorists. We've seen several examples of that over the last couple of years. We see the Canadian group, 17 individuals recently arrested.

These are individuals who are intent upon causing harm to their homeland. And we use all lawful tools that have been made available to us to make sure that we're doing everything humanly possible to prevent the next terrorist attack.

QUESTION: You began talking to these people last December, and the last overt act here is in April. Why did it take until now to bring the indictment?

PISTOLE: As the attorney general mentioned, there are a number of phases to an investigation. And a decision is made in each of those investigations uniquely as to when the best time to charge and to prevent the terrorist attack occurring. So that's what happened in this instance.

QUESTION: You mentioned in the indictment and the press conference here explosives. What type of explosives did they discuss?

PISTOLE: I think the indictment just refers to explosives. I'll just leave it at that for now.

QUESTION: May I ask you a question about the charging decisions as a legal matter, and following up on one of my colleague's questions? They're charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization, namely Al Qaida, even though there was no actual connection to Al Qaida.

Can you explain a little bit the basis of that charge if there was no connection to Al Qaida?

FISHER: Sure.

These charges are conspiracy to commit material support to an organization, but it's charged under 2339-a as opposed to 2339-b where the support actually is to a specific member of Al Qaida. In this case, it wasn't, so we charged it under 2339-a as applicable.

QUESTION: But what -- just the elements of the offense here, they -- as long as they intend to support a terror organization that is good enough for the statute. It doesn't have to be an actual terror organization?

FISHER: Under 2339-a, that's correct. That's the laws that Congress has given us. 2339-b, we list a specific designated terrorist organization such as Hezbollah or Al Qaida. But under 2339- a, it doesn't have to be a listed organization.

QUESTION: Was there any connections, common telephone numbers or any other connections between any of the defendants in this indictment and any of the 19 hijackers that lived or trained in Florida and/or any of the people charged that indictment (inaudible)?

GONZALES: I don't have any additional facts on that.

QUESTION: Given the reference in the indictment to the fact that this operation was, kind of, breaking down in late May -- you, kind of, touched on it, I think, in an earlier question, but can you explain a little more as to why you intended to move or why you moved when you did?

QUESTION: Did the informant's identity become known?

GONZALES: Well, let me just say this.

There is going to be additional information given out of Miami. And this was a decision made by the folks in Miami, by the career folks, the career investigators, the career prosecutors. And so they can give you more information as to why -- more specifics about the timing of the charge.

QUESTION: Two more questions.

What country was the legal permanent resident from? And can you tell us which of the two were not American citizens?

GONZALES: The country is Haiti. And I don't know, but we can certainly get you the information as to the two that were non-U.S. citizens.

QUESTION: Did they actually receive any funding? And if so, how much funding did they receive?

GONZALES: OK. I'm told I can't comment on that. It's not in the indictment.

(LAUGHTER)

All right. One final question.

QUESTION: I'm just curious about the meeting that occurred on December 16th, the initial meeting. Was that prompted by the informant or was it prompted by Batiste?

PISTOLE: The initial meeting occurred as a result of Batiste disclosing his intent to commit an attack. And that was provided to us and it was a follow-up to that.

QUESTION: Was he disclosing the intent to work with Al Qaida to commit an attack? Or just he wanted to commit an attack and then the informant came forward as an Al Qaida person?

PISTOLE: Nowhere in the indictment specifies on that, so I'll defer to that.

Thank you.

END

.ETX

Jun 23, 2006 11:17 ET .EOF

Source: CQ Transcriptions © 2006, Congressional Quarterly Inc., All Rights Reserved


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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