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Attorney General Announces Plan to Question 3,000 Nonsuspects

Aired March 20, 2002 - 11:42   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We have to go live to Virginia right now, where Attorney General John Ashcroft will be speaking in just a moment. We are expecting to hear another announcement about more so- called voluntary interviews of perhaps thousands of people. As you might recall, several thousand people were brought in for questioning by Justice Department officials after the September 11 attacks, some people who were actually held without legal representation for days, if not weeks, until agents were able to ferret out whether they had anything at all to do with the September 11 attacks.

This is Paul McNaulty, the U.S. attorney there in eastern Virginia, in Eastern Virginia District.

We are waiting now for Attorney General John Ashcroft, seeing what are some of the reasons why several thousand more people may need to be questioned.

We are going to listen in now to attorney McNaulty.


PAUL MCNAULTY, U.S. ATTORNEY: So let me introduce to you just a few who are here today who were involved in the interview project that we did a couple months ago. With me today would be the chief of police of Alexandria, Chief Charles Nettestad. Raise your hand. Also, from Arlington County, Chief of Police Ed Flynn. From Fairfax County, we have Col. Walter Baranyk. Sorry. And from Falls Church, we have Chief of Police Robert Murray. And from Herndon, we have Chief of Police Toussaint Summers. Then from the FBI, we have our federal partners in all of this, the assistant director in charge of the Washington field office, Van Harp, and the acting assistant special agent in charge, Tom Fields (ph). Again, we are very thankful for your being here with us today.

Let me just briefly say before the attorney general comes forward that all of our lives have changed dramatically since 9/11, and the work of this office especially has changed. We continue to do the kinds of cases that made this an outstanding office from years gone by, prior to 9/11. But since that time, we have added to that very demanding schedule the cases that are very familiar to many of you and a lot of work on cases that are perhaps less well publicized but are important parts of the effort against terrorism.

Included in that would be the effort to make sure that we are preventing terrorism, by tracking down leads and looking for anyone who might have an association or might pose a threat to human life in the Eastern District of Virginia and beyond EDVA.

So I'm very honored the attorney general is here today to talk about the next step in that effort. Let me also say that his visit to our office was very special to us. The attorney general has been an inspiration to the American people, but especially to the men and women of the Department of Justice. By coming here today and meeting us and encouraging us, it only helps us more to fulfill our responsibilities, which we gladly do.

So General, thank you very much for being here. I will turn it over to you.



Paul, it's a pleasure for me to get a briefing from your office about the progress that you're making on a variety of fronts. And it's a pleasure to be here among my friends and colleagues in the U.S. attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and I are honored to be invited, and we do thank you for giving us this briefing and helping us, together with your wonderful staff, to improve our understanding of exactly the progress that's being made.

I also want to recognize those members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Virginia law enforcement community who are here with us today. Paul's already done that. We are particularly pleased to be joined by a number of these officials who have worked closely with our office and with the Department of Justice and with the United States of America in the campaign against terrorism.

Over the past year, I've visited quite a few of our United States attorney's offices around the country. I've been uniformly impressed with the spirit and dedication of prosecutors and their staffs. And I do not want to embarrass Paul, which is hard to do, believe me, but there's no better example of the spirit of dedication than that shown by this office in the six months since September 11. I commend you.

From the moment that American Airlines flight 77 exploded into the west wall of the Pentagon just up the road from here, this office became one of the centers of our antiterrorism effort.

Staff from the eastern district teamed up with the FBI and other state, and local and federal agencies, law enforcement as well as emergency response agents to man a 24-hour command center. Others tended to victims' needs in the days after the attack.

They continued to provide information and support to thousands of victims and their families. Prosecutors joined with colleagues from the criminal division in the Department of Justice and the southern district of New York to form a task force to work on the investigation. And prosecutors from this office are involved in the prosecutions of alleged terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, John Walker Lindh, the American citizen captured with Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

And this office has also formed a new unit, the Terrorism and National Security Unit, that is staffed with experienced prosecutors as well as support staff whose positions were funded by the supplemental appropriation provided by the United States Congress to fight terrorism. Its mission is to pursue and prosecute terrorists, those engaged in espionage and others who threaten our national security.

I've just met with the supervisors and some of the attorneys in the unit, including the attorneys handling the Moussaoui and the John Walker Lindh prosecutions, and I can report that these critical cases are in very good hands.

My additional reason for being here today is to announce the second phase of a major effort undertaken by the U.S. Attorneys' offices across the country, undertaken of course in cooperation with federal, state, and local law enforcement officials. It's a project to enlist the assistance of those individuals visiting our country in the effort to prevent terrorism.

On November 9, 2001, I directed all U.S. attorneys to mobilize their antiterrorism task forces of federal, state and local law enforcement with a view to seeking voluntary interviews with approximately 5,000 visitors or foreign nationals to the United States.

These interviews are now largely completed, and overwhelmingly, the individuals we located voluntarily agreed to speak with and confer with officials. Except for a very small number who declined to be interviewed, the majority of the persons we spoke to made their best effort to provide useful information -- the overwhelming majority.

In total, approximately one-half of the foreign nationals on the list were located and interviewed. The information they provided was entered into a database for use by antiterrorism investigators. The antiterrorist task forces did a superb job of finding the individuals we sought, but, candidly, their best efforts could not overcome the serious flaws that exist in our ability to locate visitors to our country -- that's our current ability we're seeking to improve that dramatically.

A significant number of individuals on the list could neither be verified as having left the country nor could they be located within the country. We continue our attempts to locate these individuals in case they remain in the United States.

Despite this situation, the individuals who were located and interviewed have proven to be valuable sources of information about the would-be terrorists in our midst.

Accordingly, today, I am announcing that we are reaching out to a second group of foreign nationals for their assistance in identifying and disrupting terrorist networks. Approximately 3,000 individuals who entered the United States more recently than the first round of interviewees will be asked to speak voluntarily to U.S. officials.

In a memorandum sent today, each United States attorney has been directed to assign responsibility to interview these individuals to members of the antiterrorism task forces and to ensure completion of the interviews within 60 days.

As in the first round of these interviews, these visitors to our country have been selected for interview because they fit criteria designed to identify persons who might have knowledge of foreign-based terrorists. We believe that these individuals might either wittingly or unwittingly be in the same circles, communities, or social groups as those engaged in terrorist activities.

The individuals to be interviewed are not suspected of any criminal activity. We are merely seeking to solicit their assistance to obtain any information they may have regarding possible terrorists or potential terrorist acts. Today, we are making available a redacted report on the first round of interviews.

Much of the information we gained from these interviews is law enforcement sensitive, but what we can share demonstrates the success of this approach and the need on our part to continue to reach out to those who visit America. As the report details, the first round of interviews generated a significant number of leads for investigators looking into the September 11 attacks and those who would look into other potential terrorist activities.

And perhaps more importantly, the process of reaching out to foreign nationals and their communities fostered new trust between law enforcement and these communities. The task forces were able to develop sources of information that should give potential terrorists pause.

In fact, many of those interviewed volunteered to provide information on an ongoing basis in the future, and a significant number offered to serve as interpreters in our efforts against terrorism.

In addition to developing leads and sources of information, these interviews were designed to disrupt potential terrorist activities. The sheer volume of activity and the dedication of the task forces ensured that potential terrorists hiding in our communities knew that law enforcement was on the job in their neighborhoods.

Such a climate could cause would-be terrorists to scale back, to delay or to abandon their plans altogether. While it's impossible to gauge definitely, this disruption is a critical component of our prevention strategy, and it may well have contributed to the fact that we have not suffered a substantial terrorist attack since September 11th of last year.

Contrary to the critics who warned that reaching out to visitors in this country would create friction and resentment, we have seen over the course of these interviews an improvement in relations. Representatives from many of the agencies involved in the project -- and I'm personally involved and have been -- have made a point of meeting with community and religious groups to explain the project and to listen to concerns which they have expressed.

This outreach effort put many of their fears to rest and help to enlist the support of these groups for this project. And also, most importantly, the agents and officers who conducted the interviews did so in a sensitive manner, showing full respect for the rights and dignity of the individuals being interviewed.

I want to thank the United States attorneys for their leadership in this effort. I also want to thank our state and local law enforcement partners -- the county sheriffs, the police departments, the police officers, the state troopers who so enthusiastically contributed their time and their energy to this project of securing America. Their willingness to join forces with federal law enforcement has sent the clear message to terrorists that they face a formidable adversary, a unified law enforcement team with a proven track record of working together effectively.

Lastly, I want to give special thanks to the individuals who willingly participated in this interviewing project. I'm inspired by the quiet courage of these visitors to our country, and I want to commend them for stepping forward and speaking out in the face of evil.

Their courage evokes the volunteer spirit that's been a sustaining force in America since our founding. These citizens of other nations proved that the commitment to defeat terrorism is universal to all people who believe in justice and the sanctity of human life. Their cooperation demonstrates our shared allegiance to religious tolerance, our fundamental commitment and belief in equality for women and our common commitment to free speech and open speech.

The campaign against terrorism is a campaign on behalf of the values of freedom and human dignity that know no nation, race, creed or religion.

On behalf of the United States Department of Justice and the people of this great nation, I thank all of those individuals who participated in this project with good spirit and voluntary cooperation. I thank those individuals for their hard work and for their respect and for their commitment to human dignity and their willingness to defend the values of freedom which we share with them.

For without the respect for humanity and faith in the freedom that is humanity's endowment, we cannot win the war against terrorism. But with respect, and with that faith, we cannot lose the war against terrorism.

Thank you. I'd be happy now to take some questions.

QUESTION: How concerned are you (inaudible) 20 percent of the people you are seeking and they be may planning terrorist attacks (inaudible)?

ASHCROFT: I don't understand...

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: ... that you cannot find, that perhaps they could be planning terrorist attacks.

ASHCROFT: We don't assume that because we couldn't find a person that they're planning terrorist attacks, and we think the cooperation was very substantial. Well beyond 90 percent of the people that we could find were very willing and eager to converse with us, and that's a commendable result. So we don't draw a conclusion that there are those we cannot find, that they are somehow automatically involved in terrorist activity, we don't.

QUESTION: This document states that the government has now arrested 20 people who complied with the voluntary interviews. For the second round, why would these 3,000 people be willing to be interviewed when they realize they may be subject to arrest?

ASHCROFT: Well, you know, American citizens are constantly involved in helping us solve crimes and provide a basis for law enforcement. But if American citizen violates the law or is involved in a serious infraction of the law, an American citizen similarly runs the risk of arrest.

If you look at the number of arrests that were made, given the number of people who participated here, it's a very, very small number. And obviously people cannot escape responsibility for criminal acts or other infractions of the law merely by cooperating in this setting.

So what we do is we count on the fact that these individuals understand that things they believe in -- liberty, freedom, responsibility, human dignity, the rights of individuals -- are to be defended here, and we expect visitors to this country to reflect that in their behavior and to participate in the defense by participating in these interviews.

We had rather dramatic levels of participation. One city that I went to to talk with individuals that had expressed some reservations originally, I think there were well over 300 interviews requested and there were only eight people who declined to participate in the interview. That really reflects the fact that there are people visiting the United States of immense good will, they are here because they share with the United States the values we share, and they want to assist us, and that's what we're capitalizing on.

QUESTION: Attorney General, the criteria for the second round of 3,000, what are the criteria (inaudible)?

ASHCROFT: The criteria is relatively similar to the criteria that we had. It's in a different time frame. I don't know that I've got the exact time frame in mind. It's a later time frame than the individuals who were in the earlier arrivals.

QUESTION: The numbers you just gave apparently refer to the Detroit area, where only eight people refused to be interviewed. That was one of the places where there was the most criticism from civil libertarians and leaders of the Muslim community. Have you gotten any sense since then that they're satisfied with the way this was done? Have these leaders talked to you at all about whether they still have continuing concerns about this?

ASHCROFT: Well, I did go to Detroit, and I met with leaders at that time, at which time a number of the individuals with whom I met expressed the intention of the members of the community to do everything possible to help, because they were outraged, and their freedom is as threatened by an assault against the United States as is anyone else's.

And I think it's understandable that as this project began there might be misunderstanding about it, there might be misgivings about it. I think some of you may have a copy of a report which we are issuing today which I think very fairly reflects the fact that the effect on our law enforcement was beneficial, they felt like they developed a better understanding of the community.

Many people in the community felt good about it, that they had a better -- this community -- these communities, these individuals want to be understood well by our law enforcement because they know they are good people.

So I think it's been a win-win situation, and I think early on we had to make sure that things were clearly understood in order to be able to get to that place.

QUESTION: Attorney General, you said that these interviews produced leads, but when I look at this report...

LIN: You are watching Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has just announced that the Justice Department wants to interview voluntarily 3,000 more foreign nationals that may have knowledge of terrorist or terrorist activities. These are people who are not accused of any criminal activities themselves, but may have connections in this country that could be helpful to law enforcement.





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