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John Ashcroft Holds Press Conference

Aired November 29, 2001 - 14:04   ET

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


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We are leaving the White House briefing, and we apologize for that, but we do want to hear what the Attorney General John Ashcroft has to say, announcing a new incentive plan to get information from immigrants.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... to reach out to freedom- loving people of all nations in the war against terrorism. The title of this initiative is the Responsible Cooperators Program.

Under this new initiative, the Department of Justice will provide immigration benefits to non-citizens who furnish information to help us apprehend terrorists or to stop terrorist attacks. We are asking all non-U.S. citizens who are present in the United States or who seek to enter our country to come forward to the FBI with any valuable information they have to aid in the war on terrorism.

In return for this information, the Department of Justice will assist nonresident aliens in obtaining what are called S visas, which are available when the information provided is critical and reliable and the person is placed in danger as a result of sharing that information. S visa holders may remain in the United States for up to three years, and during that period visa holders may apply to become permanent residents and ultimately to become United States citizens.

Aliens who provide useful and reliable information but are not technically eligible for S visas will receive assistance in seeking either parole or deferred action status, which would allow them to reside legally within the United States. They may then apply for a work authorization, permanent residence and eventually citizenship under the normal immigration rules.

The United States will be grateful to responsible cooperators who help us protect American lives.

We are at war with a fanatical terrorist network that claims to have nuclear weapons, and wants to slaughter innocent Americans citizens. We have clear evidence that bin Laden and Al Qaeda terrorist network killed nearly 4,000 Americans on September 11.

We believe Al Qaeda continues to operate within the United States. These enemy operatives are trained to disguise their appearances, to memorize false personal documents, to evade electronic and physical surveillance, and to avoid trouble in their neighborhoods or at work. Al Qaeda teaches them thoroughly how to hide from the police, and to hide from the authorities, to lie to authorities, during any encounters using elaborate, pre-planned cover stories. In short, law enforcement is tracking a trained enemy that poses a deadly threat to innocent American lives.

However, terrorist activity rarely goes entirely unnoticed, and non-citizens are often ideally situated to observe the precursors to, or early stages of terrorist activity. Information of such activity is critically important to our war against terrorism.

Some visitors may be hesitant to come forward with their information because their immigration status. They may rest assured that the United States welcomes any reliable and useful information that they can provide to help us save lives in the future. In return, we will help them make America their home.

We need continued help from every responsible individual within our nation's borders. People who have information about terrorist activity must make a choice: either they will come forward to save American lives, or they will remain silent against evil. The people who have the courage to make the right choice deserve to be welcomed as guests in our country, and perhaps one day to become fellow citizens.

I have had a series of meetings with representatives of Arab, Muslim, Sikh communities, over the past several weeks. On October 16, I met in my office with leaders of these communities to hear their concerns in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Most recently, on Tuesday of this week, I visited the mosque at the Islamic Center here in Washington D.C. I spoke at length with the imam, Dr. Al-Kuj (ph), and many others in my continuing dialogue with the Muslim community. And they have expressed a sincere desire to support America in the war on terrorism. And they have asked, "How can we help additionally?"

The Responsible Cooperators Program is an important way for those who are non-citizens to assist in preventing future terrorist attacks.

Freedom-loving people everywhere in the world are our greatest allies in the war on terrorism. Today, we call on those individuals who share our love for freedom to make a contribution to defend that freedom.

America's greatest asset is the privilege of living in America and enjoying the liberties of America, and it costs us nothing to provide those to responsible individuals who would seek to help us defend this land.

I may cost us nothing, but it is priceless to the recipient. For many people, a visa that provides a pathway to American citizenship is worth its weight in gold. It provides access to the freedoms and opportunities, to the dignity and integrity that defines this culture.

Our message today to people who share our love for freedom is this: If you have any information you think might assist the federal government in its efforts to fight terrorism, please contact your local FBI office; or if you're abroad, contact the nearest United States embassy. If the information that you provide is reliable and useful, we will help you obtain a visa to reside in the United States and ultimately become a United States citizen.

The second item that I have today is a request by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Marshal Service for help in providing information leading to the arrest of self-described anti- abortion warrior Clayton Lee Waagner, whom the FBI considers to be a primary suspect in the series of anthrax hoax letters sent to women's reproductive health clinics. Waagner is one of the FBI's most wanted fugitives and has been the subject of intense investigation by the U.S. Marshal's Service, which also list him on its most wanted list.

He has been previously convicted on charges of possession of a firearm by felon and interstate transportation of a stolen motor vehicle. He escaped from the Dewitt County jail in Clinton, Illinois, on February 22 this year, where we was awaiting sentencing a facing a term of 15 years to life.

Authorities received information over Thanksgiving that Waagner has claimed responsibility for sending more than 280 letters purporting to contain anthrax to women's reproductive health clinics on the East Coast in the second week of October. A second series of letters also falsely containing to contain anthrax was sent to more than 270 clinics in the first week of November.

The Department of Justice considers Waagner's threats and all anthrax hoaxes to be serious violations of federal law. Perpetrators of anthrax hoaxes and those who threaten abortion providers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We are committed to identifying, tracking down and prosecuting those domestic terrorists who threaten the lives and welfare of innocent Americans.

As just a moment of personal privilege, I had hoped that Tom Pickard would be able to be here today, the deputy director of the FBI. Tom, tomorrow, terminates his active service as a member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He has served as the acting director of the FBI and, obviously, now as the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

His service has been faithful, his service has been valuable, and it has been complete. He has served the FBI well, he has served the president of the United States well, he has served the Justice Department well, and he has served his fellow citizens in a notable way, giving over a quarter-century of his life in the effort to make this society one which is secure and one in which the risks of crime do not invade the opportunity for liberty and freedom that Americans enjoy.

And I'm pleased to just have this opportunity to thank him publicly, even in his absence, for his outstanding service to America, to the Justice Department, and to me personally. When Director Freeh left office in June of this year, Tom Pickard stepped nobly into those leadership responsibilities and conducted himself with distinction.

I'm pleased to introduce Assistant Director for the Criminal Investigative Division of the FBI Reuben Garcia to give you more information about the anthrax hoaxes.

Reuben?

REUBEN GARCIA, FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: Thank you, Attorney General.

Given this announcement by the attorney general, it is more imperative than ever that we locate and arrest Clayton Lee Waagner. The FBI, in concert with U.S. Marshal Service and other local, state and federal authorities, have been actively searching for Waagner since his escape from federal prison in February.

We placed him on our top 10 most wanted fugitives list just two months ago, on September 21. He has proven very resourceful in eluding law enforcement over the past nine months. We consider him extremely dangerous. He has survivalist skills and may be heavily armed.

The FBI's most wanted list has been very, very effective -- has been a very effective law enforcement tool for over half a century. A total of 467 dangerous criminals have been put on the list since 1950; 438 of these fugitives have been captured, a success rate of nearly 94 percent. Of that number, nearly one-third, or one in three, have been apprehended through a tip from a private citizen. Obviously, we hope to repeat that success once more.

This investigation once again proves the determination of the FBI and the Department of Justice in protecting civil rights of American people and ensuring the safety and well-being of this nation during this unique moment in history.

We are absolutely committed to identifying and prosecuting anyone who tries to intimidate or frighten the American people or to violate our civil rights.

We call upon the American people, as we have done so in the past, to lend their eyes and ears in helping us track down Clayton Lee Waagner, so we can bring to an end this violent crime spree and his wanton disregard for the rights of our citizens.

Thank you.

At this time I'd like to introduce Don Gambatesa, the deputy director of the Marshals Service.

WOODRUFF: We've been listening to a press conference at the Department of Justice for two primary reasons: one is to announce a new program wherein people who seek to immigrate to the United States, or who are already here, but who are not citizens, will receive help from the government in becoming, first of all resident aliens, and then a citizen if they provide credible information in any form about terrorism or the sources of terrorism. This is a program that the attorney general has just announced. And he said -- in so many words, he said the United States will be grateful to those who help us make and make American lives safer, and who will help us protect American lives. Joining me now, our correspondent Susan Candiotti.

Susan, that's one big story. But the second story -- and I want to touch on this first -- is this announcement that they are looking for Clayton Lee Waagner, somebody who escaped from a federal prison back in February, as a principal suspect in anthrax hoaxes.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they have been looking for him for many months now -- what, 10 months now -- and, in fact, they believe that he is behind hundreds of -- literally hundreds of anthrax hoax letters. Letters that were sent to health clinics that provide abortions. Letters that were said to contain anthrax -- a powder. But we have known for quite some time now that the letters were, indeed, hoaxes; that the powder inside was not anthrax.

Now they said they learned over Thanksgiving that they had information that become available to the FBI that he was behind these letters. Now the question, of course, is that he's still out there. So they're asking for the public's help to try to track him down. They are saying that they believe him to be extremely dangerous -- could be armed.

At least this provides some answers, putting a face behind -- at least a suspected face behind who is behind the hoax letters that were sent to the abortion clinics.

WOODRUFF: But Susan, we want to make a distinction between those letters, which we and other news organizations have been reporting on, which did, in every case, turn out to be a hoax. I mean, there has not been anthrax...

CANDIOTTI: That's true.

WOODRUFF: ... turned up and the abortion clinics, and the very real anthrax letters that went to the Hill and to the news media.

I'm sorry, I'm told, Susan, that the attorney general is back now at the lectern answering reporters questions. Let's go right back to that.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ASHCROFT: ... gives us the opportunity to convict those responsible for the activities.

QUESTION: On that standard, what is the criteria that would be used? Would the information have to lead to the apprehension? Would they be allowed to enter in lieu of an investigation of that information? What more can you tell us about that?

ASHCROFT: Well, the criterion is that it has to be useful information to us, and reliable information. It does not necessarily have to lead to a conviction, and it doesn't have to be comprehensive. It might be that it's a missing link in a chain of evidence that allows us to actually do something. And so we're asking that individuals be, sort of, generous minded about how they view the information they have. They should give it a try, because frequently other people will have provided other aspects of the information.

So the criterion is useful and reliable, the judgment to be reached will be reached by those offices that receive the information in conjunction with the efforts to either disrupt the terrorist activity or to prosecute those involved in terrorism. And the recommendations then will be made to main Justice and INS.

QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, do you have any idea how many people might possibly be interested in this kind of a program? Do you think, for example, the majority might be from overseas rather than from people who were already in this country? Do you have any...

ASHCROFT: You know, I really don't. You know, we could sit here and muse about this. I think there are a lot of people who come to this country who decide having lived here that this is a worthy placed to be, because of its respect for individuals, and because of the opportunities that are seen here.

I know that many who come -- and I spent some years teaching before I got into politics, and that's a long time ago, but many students decided they wanted to stay here at the expiration of their visas. They know that a student visa doesn't provide that opportunity, but an S visa would provide that opportunity, and so would the other accommodations that are built into this program.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) 5,000 people that you've pinpointed for in the first round of...

ASHCROFT: This is not limited to any population of individuals, except to non-citizens. So literally the world, except for American citizens, is offered this opportunity to be a participant in a visa which could lead to citizenship, and would provide a basis even for working in the United States prior to becoming a citizen, if they choose to be responsible and to provide reliable and valuable information in this arena.

QUESTION: Are you hoping that this will lead to more of those 5,000 people coming forth and talking to the...

ASHCROFT: Well, obviously, we would like for all individuals who have information to come forward. We expect Americans who have information to come forward.

The crimes of September 11 were not merely crimes against America, they were crimes against humanity, they were crimes against civilization. The people of 86 different nations died in the World Trade Center.

And individuals, I believe, have a responsibility as citizens coming forward. And this is just an added incentive to a population of individuals, some of whom might be situated in a way to have access, either by their capacity to understand language or by their involvement in various communities, to be able to be helpful to us. And we want to signal to them our desire to get that help.

STAFF: Last question.

QUESTION: It sounds almost...

ASHCROFT: Make it good, will you? This is the last one.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: I'll try.

ASHCROFT: I'll do my best.

QUESTION: But in a way this sounds almost desperate, Mr. Attorney General. It sounds like you're desperate for people to come forward. Does this, sort of, underscore the fact that there were massive intelligence failures?

ASHCROFT: No. The answer to that is no. This underscores the fact that we want to do everything possible to prevent further loss of American life as a result of terrorism. And we are seeking every avenue.

And frankly, we are delighted that to date we've been successful, but we don't want to arrest on a laurel of success to the exclusion of other items which might assist us in achieving this goal of making sure that other Americans, innocent civilians, don't die in terrorism.

And so you've seen a progression of things happen. We've strengthened our security around a variety of assets in the country. We've warned and trained law enforcement. We've created task forces to integrate the efforts of law enforcement around the country. We have interviewed groups of individuals we thought might be situated in a way to help us develop information. And now we're welcoming individuals to self-select on the basis of some benefits to them their opportunity to come and assist us achieve this noble goal and objective.

And I hope that we can think of more good ideas as time goes on.

The president of the United States has made it very clear to me and to, I think, the American people that this is a long-range effort to fight terrorism, and the Al Qaeda network is a very important part of that. But the president's indicated that terrorists and those who harbor terrorism should expect that we're going to be in this for the long haul.

And I expect that we'll be looking for additional ways and additional ideas. And, frankly, we'd be willing to accept them from any quarter, including those of you who might want to counsel us as to good ideas and ways that we could additionally protect the innocent lives of Americans from terrorist attacks.

Thank you very much.

WOODRUFF: The attorney general of the United States unveiling a -- what appears to be largely a new program providing incentives to people who are not American citizens who may have any valuable information about terrorism or terrorist. In effect, the attorney general said aliens could receive -- either in this country now, or overseas -- could receive a visa allowing them to stay and work in the United States, but then that would lay the groundwork for them, eventually, to become citizens.

Now I've just been handed a wire; I'm going to change subjects very quickly here.

(INTERRUPTED FOR CNN COVERAGE OF BREAKING NEWS)

WOODRUFF: Back now to Attorney General John Ashcroft and this announcement out of the Justice Department.

I want to go quickly to our White House correspondent John King.

John, do they really believe a program like this is going to make that much difference?

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they hope it will. You heard the attorney general say he has no idea how many people might come forward, whether it be here in the United States or some places overseas. But he hopes this is an incentive. There is a State Department reward -- $25 million -- for any information -- credible information leading to the arrest, capture or even killing of Osama bin Laden and his top deputies.

This, another weapon, if you will -- tool in the war on terrorism from the law enforcement side. An expansion of an existing program, but a dramatic expansion of an existing program, essentially putting embassies around the world on alert: If someone comes to you and says they have information and that information is then deemed credible, they can get a visa to come to the United States, as you noted, to work and eventually apply for citizenship.

The attorney general was asked at the very end there if this is a sign of desperation, that they don't have information. And he said, no. And we are told from an array of senior officials, this and all the other tools -- some of them much more controversial than this that have been given to the attorney general and others in law enforcement -- yes, they are trying to investigate the September 11 attacks.

But we're told time and time again what the president says in the meeting is that his even greater priority -- not to lessen the priority on the investigation -- but his even greater priority is on preventing future attacks. That is the No. 1 priority. And you heard the attorney general say maybe somebody in a community who has heard something -- even if they're not directly involved, but because of their language skills has heard something about a potential threat, might come forward now that they know they would be protected by the United States government.

WOODRUFF: All right John, thank you.

And Susan Candiotti is here with me in the studio. Susan's been covering the Justice Department and this ongoing investigation.

Susan, does this meant that they think that these people would be reluctant? That they know of people who would be reluctant to come forward if it weren't for something like this?

CANDIOTTI: Well, yes. In fact, they say that -- as John King pointed out -- programs like this have existed for a number of years. That if you are a non-U.S. citizen and you feel you have information about some illegal activity going on here or elsewhere, that you could work with INS and they would turn a favorable eye on your application to stay in the United States longer, to apply for citizenship. They would work undercover operations in the past with people like this.

This, obviously, is an expansion of that, as you indicated, to try to move it up -- speed up the visa process for these people if they feel as though their information would put them in danger.

In a related issue that is of concern to a number of people, is the program where they are going to be interviewing the U.S. government, upwards of some 5,000 non-U.S. citizens, mostly of Middle Eastern extraction between the ages of 18 and 33, who will be interviewed who the government says were not saying that they're -- you committed any wrong or any illegal activity, but nevertheless it's being called by a number of people who represent those individuals that this amounts to racial profiling. And that, in fact, there is a government memo -- an INS memo that is out there -- that says that if people come in, and if it is determined that there is an immigration violation, then they might be held without bond while their information is investigated.

So there is concern that the government is speaking out of, you know, both sides of their mouth, and it's...

WOODRUFF: Sending two different signals.

CANDIOTTI: Two different signals.

WOODRUFF: On one hand, if you've had any problems, we're going to hold you if there's been any immigration violations. On the other hand saying we will -- if you give us information that helps us get something we're looking for, we'll help you become a U.S. citizen, if that's what you want.

CANDIOTTI: So it's very hard for people to trust, at this point -- to give up this information. But the government clearly is hoping that they will look beyond all this and come forward if they think they can help with the investigation.

WOODRUFF: All right, Susan Candiotti reporting on this -- these developments out of the Justice Department today. And of course, we'll continue to follow that story as it develops.

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