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Transcript: Ashcroft on Terror Probe Suspects

Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2001

Following is the full text of Attorney General John D. Ashcroft's remarks on the status of the U.S. Justice Department's probe into the September 11 terrorism attacks.

ASHCROFT: Good afternoon.

As I've discussed previously, the Department of Justice is now focused on two important priorities: first, finding those responsible for the horrific acts of September the 11th; second, and more importantly, making sure that we prevent any further terrorist activity.

Through dozens of warnings to law enforcement, a delicate campaign and a deliberate campaign of terrorist disruption, tighter security around potential targets, with arrests and detentions, we have avoided further major terrorist attacks. And we've avoided these further major terrorist attacks despite threats and videotape tauntings.

America's defenses have grown stronger. We are standing firm on our commitment to protect American lives. The Department of Justice is waging a deliberate campaign of arrest and detention to protect American lives.

We are removing suspected terrorists who violate the law from our streets to prevent further terrorist attack.

We believe we have Al Qaeda membership in custody, and we will use every constitutional tool to keep suspected terrorists locked up.

The department has charged 104 individuals on federal, criminal charges. Fifty-five of these individuals are currently in custody on federal criminal charges. Although some of the indictments or complaints are filed under seal by order of the court, the Department has made available the public complaints.

For example, Luiz Martinez-Flores was charged with helping hijackers Hani Hanjour and Khalid Almihdhar obtain fraudulent Virginia identification cards.

Mohamed Abdi was charged with forging housing subsidy checks. Abdi's phone number and name were found on a map retrieved from hijacker Al Hazmi's car that was left at the Dulles Airport on September 11.

Osama Awadallah was charged with making false statements to the grand jury. His name was also found in Al Hazmi's car left as Dulles.

Faisal al Salmi was charged with giving false statements to the FBI in connection with the investigation into the September 11th attacks. Al Salmi lied about his association with Hani Hanjour, one of the hijackers.

So we have, as I mentioned, this kind of individual charged criminally, in custody in our system.

There are currently 548 individuals who are in custody on immigration charges.

These individuals were arrested as part of the investigation into the events of September the 11th, 2001.

The department has made public some of the immigration charging documents with certain identifying information redacted. Ten of the 548 individuals in INS custody have been charged with federal criminal charges, but are in still in the process of being moved from INS custody.

For those detained by the INS, I do not think it is responsible for us in a time of war, when our objective is to save American lives, to advertise to the opposing side that we have Al Qaeda membership in custody. When the United States is at war, I will not share valuable intelligence with our enemies. We might as well mail this list to the Osama bin Laden Al Qaeda network as to release it. The Al Qaeda network may be able to get information about which terrorists we have in our custody, but they'll have to get it on their own and get it from someone other than me.

These detainees do have a right to counsel--the 540--pardon me, I'll get the number exactly right--554, I believe it is, in INS custody, but they do not have right to taxpayer-funded counsel. The INS assists detainees with information about how to obtain free counsel, which is available. In addition, they have the right to make phone calls to family or attorneys. Also, they can make their identity public if they wish to; there is no gag order preventing them from doing so.

There are other individuals who have been detained who are currently being detained on material witness warrants. Those proceedings are being conducted under seal, as related to grand juries, and therefore the department cannot provide the number or identify of those individuals.

The Department is also unable to provide any information about affadivits, motions or other papers filed in grand jury proceedings. However these proceedings are all being conducted under the supervision of judges of the U.S. federal district courts.

An individual held on a material witness warrant has a right to be represented by counsel, to have court-appointed counsel, and to be presented before a judge who determines the necessity of holding that individual on a material witness warrant. These individuals also have the right to make phone calls to family or to the attorneys, and to make their identity public if they choose to do so.

Our system of justice is not configured to make it impossible for us to protect the rights of the accused and also protect the lives of the American people. While I am aware of various charges being made by organizations and individuals about the actions of the Justice Department, I have yet to be informed of a single lawsuit filed against the government charging a violation of someone's civil rights as a result of this investigation.

One of the accusations suggest that detainees are not able to be represented by an attorney or to contact their families. As you have just heard me discuss, this is simply not true. I would hope that those who make allegations about something as serious as a violation of an individual's civil rights would not do so lightly or without specificity or without facts. This does a disservice to our entire justice system in the event that such charges are made in the absence of specificity or facts.

On December 9, two days after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation from the Oval Office. The day before, the nation had declared war on Japan. In two days, we would be at war with Germany.

Roosevelt put it this way, and I quote, "The true goal we seek is far above and beyond the ugly field of battle. When we resort to force, as now we must, we are determined that this force shall be directed toward ultimate good, as well as against immediate evil." This Justice Department will not sacrifice the ultimate good to fight the immediate evil.

QUESTION: General (OFF-MIKE) remarks yesterday and today, you gave reasons why--I believe you (OFF-MIKE) that you will not provide some further details about the detainees, that is a list of all the names, you said so yesterday. And today you mentioned a handful of those arrested by name on criminal charges and you said some number arrested on immigration violations, but you did not want to say who, because you did not want to give information to Al Qaeda. Yesterday, you explicitly cited the law prevents us from doing this. What law did you have in mind?

ASHCROFT: Well, we're dealing with different categories of detainees...

QUESTION: Not that ones under seal, but all the others.

ASHCROFT: The law relating to Immigration and Naturalization Service detainees is different from the law relating to people detained pursuant to criminal charges. The names which I gave today are those names which are already public as a result of the publicity given to criminal charges that are filed and that are not under seal.

Certain criminal charges, of course, are not public because they are filed under seal. They must be done so with the approval of a court. And the court grants a petition to file names under seal when it comes to the conclusion that it's in the interest of public safety and the maintenance of our system of justice and the proper operation of that system to file them under seal and not to reveal them.

Now I do not believe that it's appropriate for us to provide a list, nor do I believe the law provides that we should provide a list of the INS detainees, and therefore I haven't used their names. We have provided, in compliance with the law, certain information about those kinds of detainees with the names redacted.

Now it's very possible that some individuals that we think might be terrorists might some day, by further investigation, be shown not to be terrorists. I think it would be inappropriate for us to either advertise the fact of their detention, or to provide the suggestion that they are terrorists in a way which would be prejudicial to their not only privacy interests, but personal interests, and for that reason, we are not going to do that. The law is simply different in the area of criminal complaints than it is from INS detentions. The department is following that law scrupulously.

Now I did mention in my earlier comments, and I would reiterate today, that I am not interested in providing, when we are war, a list to Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda network of the people that we have detained that would make in any way easier their effort to kill American citizens--innocent Americans. That will remain the policy of this department, which will scrupulously adhere to the law.

QUESTION: You can't give us the names. Can you give us any idea of, of the 558 plus the 100, how many of those are suspected terrorists?

ASHCROFT: Well, I will tell you this: that we have in detention, in the INS system, about 20,000 people overall; that these 20,000 are people who have, in one way or another, offended the INS regulations and are awaiting the conclusion and adjudication of their deportation effort by the Justice Department.

So if you'll put the 500 in a perspective against the 20,000, you'll know that the run of the mill person being detained are about 97 percent--a little less than 97 percent. It's probably 97.3 percent of all of them are not related to the September 11 inquiry.

When I've talked to you about the 500--and I believe it's 540...


ASHCROFT: Yes, 548--thank you very much--548, I've talked to you about this group of individuals that have been detained as a result of our inquiry in this specific matter. And I hope that's helpful to you.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Is there any specific law that prevents you from releasing the names of the INS detainees?

ASHCROFT: We believe that the rules regarding INS detentions would provide that it's improper for us to release those names. And we not only think that it's improper, in terms of the legal sense--and that's why when we've released documents, we've released documents with the names redacted. But we believe that it would be inappropriate for us at a time of war to provide that information, as well.

QUESTION: One of the people in INS detention right now is an old terrorism-related case of a Tampa man, a Palestinian named Mazen Al-Najjar, that the government has been trying to deport for many years now. He was recently rearrested after his deportation appeals ended. He's claiming that he cannot be deported because of the stigma of being called a terrorist. He was held for three and a half years on secret evidence--on classified intelligence information that was not revealed him, and then ordered released last year.

Do you believe that the government will be successful in getting him deported? And do you believe that the evidence against him does show him to be connected to Palestinian Islamic Jihad?

ASHCROFT: I believe that the government will be successful in his deportation, yes, I do.

QUESTION: We've been talking to a lot of the leaders of the Arab American community about these ongoing 5,000 interviews, and they've been telling us they're not just concerned, but they're really angry. They feel that the reaching out to people because of their ethnicity and the singling out of them because of their ethnicity, and some of the questions being asked are highly intrusive. What can you say to explain to them why this is not profiling?

ASHCROFT: All Americans and all people in the United States have a responsibility to help protect American lives. When the plane went down in New York, people in the neighborhood who might have information were interviewed, were asked questions. When a crime is committed, or there's a threat, a potential crime to be committed, Americans are asked, citizens are, individuals who come here and enjoy the freedom of this country, are asked responsibly to help protect the body politic, not just Americans but others who are here visiting.

Let us never forget there were citizens from 86 different countries who lost their lives in the vicious terrorist attack in the World Trade Center alone, not to mention other settings. And the question has to be asked, are people going to accept their responsibility to help us prevent additional terrorist attacks or not. And I believe that's everyone's responsibility.

Now, we're being as kind and fair and gentle as we can in terms of inviting people to participate in helping us. And we have not identified people based on their ethnic origin; we have identified individuals who are not citizens, but based on the country which issued their passports.

Virtually all the nations that issue passports, just as the United States of America does, issues passports to people of a variety of ethnic origins and backgrounds, because they're diverse nations.

And we have asked individuals to help us, and we ask them to exercise appropriately their responsibility to assist rather than assert irresponsibility some right to resist.

QUESTION: You said some of this group of about 650 you believe are Al Qaeda members. Can you give a general estimate for how many and how many are suspected terrorists within that 650?

ASHCROFT: I don't want to try and be more specific in terms of Al Qaeda membership. A number of the individuals that are being detained in that group of both INS and criminal related individuals are suspected terrorists.

QUESTION: Sir, can you say whether any of the charges that have not been made public yet, do any of those deal directly with the events of the 11? I know that none of the ones that are out there in the public deal directly with...

ASHCROFT: For those charges which are made public, they're public, and for those charges which are under seal, I'm not going to try to reveal them. So I think it would be inappropriate for me to try and--do you want to ask another question? I don't want to wipe out your calling on you, but I didn't answer that, and I'm not going to, is what I'm saying.

QUESTION: Of about the--you said there were 55 in custody on criminal charges, and 104 people charged, and another 10 in INS detention that are going to be moved to custody. The other 29 or so, are they still at large--you're looking to find them, and do you expect to find them?

ASHCROFT: There are some individuals the whereabouts of whom we are uncertain. We're seeking them. There may be some in that respect that have been released on bond--I'm not sure exactly what. Those two categories I think would make up any differential there.

QUESTION: You're right: Your critics have not been able to point to a specific violation of civil liberties, but it's the cumulative effect of White House and DOJ policies which are causing nervousness at editorials across the country.

Would you be willing to have like a bipartisan commission--civil liberties commission, perhaps appointed by Congress, oversee the conduct of this massive investigation to ensure that there aren't any civil liberty violations?

ASHCROFT: Well, that's an interesting and novel idea. In one respect, it's novel, and in another respect it sounds like the Justice or the Judiciary Committee of the House or Senate.

Now we already have bipartisan committees whose responsibility it is to oversee the Justice Department. And I have responded constructively to the invitation of the Senate to come this week, and suggested to them that I would come on Thursday afternoon. And they've asked me to defer that until next week, when I'll appear before them.

I think it's entirely proper that the United States Senate and House exercise oversight over the Justice Department. I have the highest level of respect and regard for these elected representatives of the people. I happen to have spent some time sitting on their side of that operation. Some of their job is tedious, other parts of it are more exciting.

I'll be there, and I will respond to them. I consider them to be expert in the law--they create the law--and would respond to them and their questions. And I think that's the appropriate thing to do.

QUESTION: The Judiciary Committee has other responsibilities...

ASHCROFT: Do you think there would be other groups that wouldn't have any other responsibilities?

QUESTION: What about a full-time commission--civil liberties commission, that basically has the confidence of Congress, that could assure the American people that civil liberties are...

ASHCROFT: Maybe you ought to make that your platform when you run for president next time.

I thank you all. It's nice to be with you. Thank you.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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