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Text: Justice Department Briefing on Status of Investigation

Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001

Following is the transcript of a briefing given by Attorney General John Ashcroft on the status of the Justice Department's investigation into the attacks.

ASHCROFT: While the investigation is ongoing and still moving forward vigorously, we are beginning to learn more about the attack last Tuesday and the plot to make it happen. As we have said before, we do believe that there are associates of the hijackers that have connections to terrorist organizations that may still be in the United States. The tips we have received and the leads developed in the FBI field offices have been extremely helpful in helping us assemble a list of individuals that might have information about these associates or, in fact, be among the associates.

We are looking at the possibility that there may have been more than four planes targeted for hijacking, but we are not able at this time to confirm that. To date, the FBI has received more than 96,000 tips and potential leads, more than 54,000 on the web site, nearly 9,000 on the hotline--the toll-free WATS (ph) line, and more than 33,000 leads that were generated in the FBI field offices.

Obviously, there is still a great deal of information to be collected in order to understand the full picture of how last Tuesday's attack was planned and the full extent of damage that the terrorists intended to cause is understood.

Our effort includes talking to the numbers of people that may have information related to the case. That's why we have forwarded a list of more than 190 people to national, state and local law enforcement agencies across the country and other organizations that could be helpful in this effort, organizations like the airlines.

We also have a responsibility to use every legal means at our disposal to prevent further terrorist activity by taking people into custody who have violated the law and who may pose a threat to America. The details that we have learned and the enormous destruction and devastation that was caused by last Tuesday's attack have brought us to a turning point in our country's fight against terrorism and the preservation of the safety and security of our society.

On that morning, last Tuesday, the forces of terrorism attacked the citizens of our country with a ferocity that was nothing short of a declaration of war against the people of America.

The president of the United States has announced that we will meet that declaration with a full commitment of resources and with a firm resolve to rid the world of terrorism.

The fight against terrorism must be an over-riding priority of the Department of Justice. I have talked this week about possible legislative changes that we would need in order to be able to fight effectively against terrorism. And I'm pleased with the cooperation from members of Congress and their ideas, their comments, their suggestions and their support for a package which we would hope to have ready in the next few days.

But this new effort requires more than just legislation. There are actions the Department of Justice can take now on its own to make sure the prevention of terrorism is a high priority. That's why last night, at my direction, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Jim Ziglar signed an administrative revision to the current INS regulations regarding the detention of aliens.

The regulation previously allowed the Immigration and Naturalization Service only 24 hours in which to decide whether to charge an alien that had been taken into custody because of a violation. The revision announced last night expands the 24-hour time period to 48 hours, or to an additional reasonable time, if necessary, under an emergency, or in other extraordinary circumstances.

This rule change will apply to these 75 individuals who are currently detained by the INS on immigration violations that may also have information related to this investigation.

In addition, every United States attorney's office has reviewed the offices resources and structure in light of the growing threat of terrorism. As a part of the new counterterrorism strategy, every United States attorney and every district of such an attorney that hasn't already done so has been asked to establish an anti-terrorism task force.

At my direction last week, each U.S. Attorneys Office identified an experienced prosecutor who will serve as the anti-terrorism coordinator for that district. That coordinator is to convene a meeting of representatives from the federal law enforcement agencies, and that would be the FBI, the INS, the DEA, the Marshals Service, Customs, Secret Service, ATF--for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Together with those federal officials, there would be the invitation to primary state and local police forces in that district.

That group, headed by the U.S. attorney, would be the anti-terrorism task force in that U.S. attorney's district. These task forces will be a part of a national network that will coordinate the dissemination of information and the development of a strategy to disrupt, dismantle and punish terrorist organizations throughout the country.

First, the task forces will serve as a conduit for information about suspected terrorists between federal and local agencies, so that local police forces can be part and parcel of an effort to prevent terrorist attacks by having access to the information available to federal agencies. Intelligence about terrorist networks obtained by federal agencies will be disseminated through these task forces to the local police officials who can help monitor any terrorist network in their locality. Also, intelligence developed by local police will be conveyed through this collaboration to the federal agencies. This information highway will not be a one-way street.

Second, the anti-terrorism task force in each district will serve as a coordinating body for implementing the operational plan for the prevention of terrorism.

Once substantial, credible information is received indicating that individuals or groups in a particular district may be terrorists or abetting terrorism or aiding terrorism, the members of the anti-terrorism task force, in conjunction with the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice, will determine and implement the most effective strategy for incapacitating any terrorist activity on their part.

Third, the anti-terrorism task force in each district will serve as a standing organizational structure for a coordinated response to any terrorist incident in that district.

In sum, the implementation of the task force coordinated by the U.S. attorney in each district, working with the FBI, will provide the operational foundation for a concerted national assault against terrorism. This system will provide law enforcement with a comprehensive, seamless approach to attack terrorism within our borders.

Now, I understand that this is an aggressive and ambition agenda, that it represents a preventative approach to doing business in the U.S. Attorneys Offices together with the FBI than, perhaps, has been the case in the past. We must all recognize that our mission has changed. It has been changed by the events of this last week.

The threat that seemed fairly remote to most Americans seven days ago, is now felt in every heart and every home in the United States. And if we are dispel this threat, we must meet it with ingenuity and with determination.

I want to thank all of the hardworking individuals in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and all of the United States attorneys across the country, and state and local law enforcement officials who have joined together with us for their quick action in this important mission.

Let me just address you on another matter that I think may be of concern to you. As you all may be aware, a new Internet infection designated NIMDA--some people say that's ADMIN backwards--it is, but I'm not sure if that's consequential--was noted this morning.

It may have started as early as yesterday, and it infects computers on the Internet worldwide. The computers that are infected then scan the Internet in search of other computers, and this very substantially expands the traffic load on the Internet. The scanning activity thus far indicates that this could be heavier than the July activity with Code Red.

Our government, together with the private sector--which is, incidentally, a very strong and powerful partnership when we work together--is assessing the problem. We'll try and provide more information from the FBI to you about this later today.

In the meantime, I'm pleased to say that I understand that most of the anti-virus companies have posted the files needed to protect unprotected computers, and those files, obviously, are available at this time.

There is no evidence at this time which links this infection to the terrorist attacks of last week.

Thank you very much.

QUESTION: What evidence is there, Mr. Attorney General, at this point that might connect this case to the Iraqi government? And secondly, has the FBI scuttled any other planned attacks that you're aware of?

ASHCROFT: Let me take those in inverse order, if you will.

Obviously, as the FBI and other law enforcement agencies elevate their security, we would hope if there were other attacks in the making that those would be deterred. And that's the reason we are asking people around the country to not only work, but to watch; and law enforcement and security agencies to elevate their concerns.

I wouldn't be in a position to discuss evidence in regard to questions about other responsible parties.

QUESTION: A few weeks ago, the FBI questioned flight schools in Minnesota and in Oklahoma about a man who we now know is in custody because of suspicions about his flight training requests. Did the FBI or any federal officials warn airlines or FAA to be on the watch for this individual? And if not, why not?

ASHCROFT: I'm not able to make a comment on that.

QUESTION: Earlier this year, you had a series of meetings with a bipartisan group from Congress in an effort to try and repeal the use of secret evidence--evidence that is not shared with defendants; so-called classified information. Courts have repeatedly struck down the use of secret evidence against possible criminal aliens. You also had assured Congress a while back that to the best of your knowledge, secret evidence is not being used by this administration against possible criminal aliens, including alleged terrorists, and that you would not use secret evidence until Congress decided what to do.

Given the situation, will that change your opinion and also Congress' move, which I thought was imminent this month, to try and repeal the use of secret evidence?

ASHCROFT: Well, your question brings us really to a point about the extent to which we will respect the constitutional rights of individuals. And we will not yield in our determination to protect the constitutional rights of individuals.

Very frankly, those who attacked the United States would attack the constitutional rights as well as the safety of individuals. We're going to do everything we can to harmonize the constitutional rights of individuals with every legal capacity we can muster to also protect the safety and security of individuals. It's with that in mind, that we would evaluate any potential changes in the law.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) overstays. No one even knows how many people are in the U.S. without a visa.

ASHCROFT: Would you want to repeat that question?

QUESTION: No one would have ever found these people if there hadn't been a catastrophe. There's no way to track people who are out of status, or whatever way you want to call it.

ASHCROFT: You know, the president of the United States recognized a very broad set of deficiencies in our Immigration and Naturalization Services that related to very many people out of status, and suggested and has called for, a reformation in INS.

Plans to make the Immigration and Naturalization Service a better service agency and a better enforcement agency are under way. And I can only hope that when we do that, it will result in an elevated capacity to secure the safety of the American people.

QUESTION: General Ashcroft, is there any--had more information that there were more than five planes or six planes? You said you were unable to confirm it.

ASHCROFT: We are unable to confirm that there are additional planes, but we have not ruled that out in our evaluation. And we are pursuing an examination and investigative potentials that might help us be more certain about that particular matter.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) possible tips, how is it possible to sufficiently check all of them, and how many are actually proving to be helpful?

ASHCROFT: Well, that's a very good question.

Obviously, many of them are redundant, and many of them are mutually exclusive. And so we sort through them as best we can. We try to prioritize them. And pursuing an investigation like this is a little bit like selling insurance: It doesn't matter how many bad ones you get, it's a matter of how many times you finally find a situation where the answer is yes, and you pursue it. When we get to a good lead then we follow it.

QUESTION: Could these suspects be considered prisoners of war? Are you assuming wartime powers in any way?


Thank you.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company