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Interview With John Ashcroft

Aired May 31, 2002 - 21:00   ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, Attorney General John Ashcroft, in depth, one on one. Will his overhaul of federal law enforcement keep us safe from future terror attack or does it undercut civil liberties? It's all next on LARRY KING LIVE.

Welcome to this special edition of LARRY KING LIVE on this Friday night. A great pleasure to welcome to our microphones and cameras, it's always great to see him, the attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft. We interviewed him many times when he was in the Senate, and of course had the pleasure of doing the first interview with him when he was appointed attorney general.

That seems -- how long ago does that seem now?

JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, time has both raced, and then, frankly, it's not all that long ago, about 18 months ago, but we've had so many big, substantial things happen that in some ways it seems like ancient history.

KING: There's no way you could have thought all that has happened to you, the office and us could have happened?

ASHCROFT: I don't think it was imaginable. And it's an honor to serve the country; it's an honor to serve the country in tough times. And I think we've got to understand that the whole nature of the way the American democracy guards its freedom has been changed. We so long with the sense that threats to America were, sort of, national...

KING: Out there.

ASHCROFT: ... out there, international. And we have a different set of responsibilities for safeguarding American freedom.

KING: Do you feel the pressure all the time?

ASHCROFT: I think there is a duty and a responsibility that I never feel lift, and I don't want to feel it lift as long as it's my responsibility. And I have to do everything I can, I have to think -- as I told the staff, we have to think outside the box, inside the Constitution, find ways to do things that will elevate our security, reduce the risk of the incidence of terrorist attack.

KING: It's hard to be a democracy.

ASHCROFT: Well, you know...

KING: I mean, totalitarian governments have better records with crime.

ASHCROFT: Oh, well, they -- look at America. We have 540 million to 550 million border crossings a year in and out of America. That's how many times people cross the border of the United States of America. Well, that means we're quite vulnerable. So you have this massive inflow and outflow of people from a free society. We don't keep track of people inside America; we don't even keep track of foreigners. That's not been our way of doing business. We're going to do a better job of keeping track of who comes in and who leaves because that's important to our security, and we can get to that.

But you put that kind of access to America in place, and then you understand that those who have decided they want to destroy this symbol of freedom for all the world, this, sort of, lamp of liberty we call America, and they've run thousands -- more than 10,000, maybe close to 20,000 people through their training camps to destroy America, and with that desire on their part to not only interrupt our freedom, but to try to discredit freedom in the world by things they do to the United States, it's a big job.

KING: Were you upset, general, when you learned that the FBI had had memos, that someone in Phoenix knew about pilot training, that someone in Minneapolis suggested that they go into the Internet and they, and even the director admits, overlooked? Therefore, were you surprised?

ASHCROFT: I think what we have to do is to say we've got to do a better job. How do we upgrade? How do we improve?

KING: But were you shocked?

ASHCROFT: Those are things that were surprising to me. My sense is that when you have 11,000-plus agents around the world in 55 different district offices covering the entirety of the United States and then 44 different countries there are a lot of pieces of puzzles that can exist out there.

And one of the things we've got to do is to improve our ability to take those puzzle pieces, fragments of information that we get, put them together and see what we can see from bringing those bits of information.

So that we have decided we need to strengthen our analytic capacity in Washington, we need to centralize the anti-terrorism effort, so that whenever there is any information that is developed it comes into this central place, and not only rely on human capacity, but by putting this in the right kind of computer data banks, so we can search the data banks for pieces of information that should relate and ultimately may help us develop a picture that's a puzzle. So that's one of the things, to improve that capacity.

KING: You have praised the director, Mueller, you publicly back him. He works for you. The Wall Street Journal editorial today says that past actions suggest that he isn't willing or able to change the culture of FBI. The editorial goes on to suggest that he could complete his mea culpa with FBI problems with an honorable resignation. How did you react to that...


KING: ... a paper that strongly supports you editorially?

ASHCROFT: I'm always grateful for their support of the efforts that I've made in government.

Bob Mueller is reforming the FBI. It's a massive culture. It's been a culture that served America well, and it's been focused on prosecution. But what we need in terms of terrorism is prevention. It doesn't help to wait until something happens and then to prosecute the offenders, especially if it's the idea of the offender to extinguish himself in the commission of the crime.

So we've got to shift that culture from prosecution, which is investigatory after a crime has been committed, into prevention, which is the development of information prior to the commission of a crime, and to diverting, disrupting, making impossible the commission of a crime.

Mueller's going to get that done. He is getting it done.

KING: We're suggesting though that he should be the one that takes the rap in a sense.

ASHCROFT: Yes. It's kind of hard to do when the guy showed up on September, I think, 4 took the oath of office. On September 11 this great injury from international terrorism was inflicted on the United States.

He's grabbed the agency. He has begun to shift the culture. As we were talking earlier, he's established a reformation which will allow us to consolidate the terrorism information in Washington to see where these pieces fit together, to use the electronic analysis, the data processing as well human analysis to get that done.

And then, of course, there's another piece to this puzzle, and that is that these agents in various areas need to be free to pursue investigations in ways that they haven't. And there have been restraints that a reformed FBI needs to make sure that we don't any longer impose.

For example, they had to have certain kinds of authority and OKs from the bureaucracy to extend investigations. We've changed that.

They were forbidden to, for example, to attend open meetings. If there was a rally of people who were railing about the presence of the United States in some part of the world and saying that the United States should be punished for it, if there hadn't been any lead or evidence that a crime had been committed, or was being committed, they couldn't go even to the public park and listen to the rally.

KING: Under what premise?

ASHCROFT: The premise was that there could be no investigation and no activity by the FBI without a specific lead or a preliminary investigation being opened or a full-blown investigation being opened.

Now those protocols served the FBI well when it was prosecutorial as its main focus. But if we've got to be prevention-oriented and not prosecution-oriented, we can't wait until we had a lead about a crime that's been committed. We've got to find out about the potentials of crime that are about to be committed.

KING: By the way, does the president support you in your support of him?

ASHCROFT: I believe he supports that support thoroughly. You know, Bob is an outstanding public servant.

KING: He ain't going anywhere.

ASHCROFT: Not if I can help it.

KING: We'll be right back with more. The attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft, on this edition of LARRY KING LIVE. Don't go away.


KING: We're back with the attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft.

Is there a -- the FBI, by the very nature of Federal Bureau of Investigation, I guess we always thought they're an after-the-fact agency. They investigate after the crime. Wasn't that the way they were chartered?

ASHCROFT: Well, I think there is a sense in which we've always expected law enforcement generally to operate after a crime has been committed, and we expected the threat of punishment to keep crime from being committed. But the way the terrorist is trained to operate, especially the suicide terrorists, makes punishment and the threat of punishment far less valuable to those who would prevent the commission of the crime. If the person wants to commit suicide in the commission of the crime, threatening to punish him, after we find out that he committed suicide, isn't of value to us.

When you lose 3,000 people in a massive crime like we had on September 11 and you injure the economy and the well-being of the United States in untold ways in addition to those lives lost, it's not good enough to think "Well, we'll just try and see if we can find someone or a few people to prosecute."

To become clear, because of the scale of terrorism, and the philosophy of those committing it who seek to extinguish themselves in the commission of the crime, that relying on prosecution is no longer acceptable. So, the massive shift in mentality has to take place. Now, fortunately the FBI has the kind of tools and skills properly focused to help us prevent. The FBI is an information-driven organization. And information is the best friend of prevention. You can't prevent things from happening if you don't know something about them, so developing that information and focusing our attention on early opportunities to develop the information and the opportunity to intervene and sharing with the public information.

We're in a little bit of a strange universe right now. We share a risk, and by sharing the risk we help people be alert, and when you do that, when people are alert, and the perpetrator knows that people are alert, frequently they would change their plans so that when we share information about a risk, the risk goes down, which is what we want it to do.

KING: And there's nothing more important than to prevent a major terrorist attack. I mean, what could be more important than that?

Do you want to -- are you going to need more of a budget to have more agents to do bank robberies? And if you put emphasis aside, if a man assigned to this is assigned to that, does that let another criminal go?

ASHCROFT: Well, obviously, the FBI has long been a part of the security for the nation's banks because bank robberies have been a priority. But there is no priority higher than the prevention of terrorism. And bank security is going up substantially...

KING: Are we going to give them more money and more agents?

ASHCROFT: We have asked for more money and more agents, but I think, in significant measure, that's to improve our capacity in the terrorism area.

We've asked for more analytic skills in Washington, to be able to take whatever information we get, pieces of the puzzle that come in from around the world, from all these agencies. We've asked for, and I've granted, greater authority recently to the agents so they can get more puzzle pieces to send in.

We've asked for more resources so that we can use data processing and electronic computers, et cetera, to coordinate and develop whatever puzzle picture there is to be developed.

So I think, yes, there are going to be areas where, when we assign greater resources to terrorism, we're going to have to do a better job with fewer people in other areas.

KING: It's going to be tougher. That's the price we pay.

ASHCROFT: Some of the things that we've been doing we're going to have to make sure that they're done but maybe done elsewhere, as well.

It's pretty clear that a recent reform at the bureau announced this week by Bob Mueller was to take almost 500 individuals and... KING: Move them.

ASHCROFT: ... focus them in different ways. And some of the world relating to those individuals had been drug-oriented. We've been talking to the DEA folks about, you know, "You specialize in the drug war. Can you take some of these responsibilities? How can we cover some of these bases in ways that allow the FBI to make sure that we put the ultimate priority on terrorism?" And I think we'll get that done.

KING: Can you tell the FBI, "I want you to work better with the CIA," which has been, apparently, a constant conflict, no matter Democrat or Republican administration?

ASHCROFT: Well, I have witnessed the FBI and CIA coming together and knitting up their operation; the welcoming of high-level CIA intelligence figures into the FBI, so that we would learn from what they know. The Patriot Act, which was enacted just shortly after September the 11th, allows and provides a basis for an exchange of information that previously had not been appropriate between these agencies.

In our mentality prior to September 11, when we thought that the world beyond our shores was one world of risk and the world in our continent was another world of risk, we had built these bureaucracies, the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to be separate: one to deal with, in large respect, risks on the domestic side, the other to deal with risks internationally.

We found out when people train in Afghanistan, they plan in Germany, they get additional specific training in the Southwest of the United States and in Florida, they regroup in Southeast Asia, they refine their planning in meetings around the world, and then come and execute their plan in the Northeast of the United States, compartmentalization of our intelligence effort between internal and domestic...

KING: It's silly.



... it's not what will help us.

KING: But why have they been rivals, General?

ASHCROFT: Well, I think it's this mentality that we had for years that there were two separate threats, and one addressed one threat and one addressed another.

There's another important thing that I ought to mention, that the right and liberties and freedoms which we hold dear and we recognize and cherish and respect in the United States guide the way we gather information in the United States. When we're outside the United States, we simply aren't quite as... KING: We break the law -- we break what might be our own law.

ASHCROFT: We don't -- we're not guided by the same responsibilities. And the courts have said over and over again that that's not something we need to attend to when we're doing things overseas.

KING: So an agent -- a CIA agent can do something tomorrow overseas that an FBI agent can't do tomorrow in Chicago.

ASHCROFT: I think it's pretty clear that there are a different set of responsibilities.

So there are reasons that you have different protocols, but it's pretty clear that the information is relevant now in ways that we hadn't previously understood. And so, if necessity is the mother of invention, it's the father of cooperation. And we're cooperating like never before.

KING: Right back with the attorney general of the United States after these words.


KING: We're back with Attorney General Ashcroft.

Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU, said, "People who go to places of worship, people who go to libraries, people who are in chat rooms are going to have Big Brother listening in even though there's no evidence they're involved in anything illegal whatsoever." Does that conflict with the Privacy Act of 1974? How do you respond to that?

ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, nothing that we have authorized conflicts with any law regarding privacy or any provision of the constitution. And notable scholars, including notable scholars like I think Lawrence Tribe (ph), other...


ASHCROFT: Well, frankly, he is a good scholar. He has a perspective, but I believe he has indicated that he doesn't see these -- the new guidelines for investigations, which I issued yesterday for the FBI.

One of the things that some individuals have been distressed about is simply the statement that an FBI agent is allowed to go to any public place where any other member of the public is invited, so that if there's a rally in the park, the FBI agent doesn't have to have a specific investigation in mind in order to go to the rally in the park.

Or it's surfing the net. You know, an FBI agent ought to be able to surf the net and look for sites that instruct people in how to make bombs. Any 14-year-old in America can sit down at his keyboard -- I've got a 4-year-old grandson that can surf the net. And they can go anywhere on the net they need to, want to, because the net's a public place. The FBI has previously had rules that said, unless you have a specific investigation under way or you're following a specific...

KING: Like a wiretap, you mean.

ASHCROFT: Or you've been told you can't look for things that might be a problem.

KING: That's why Minneapolis memo was declined, right?


KING: In a sense. They didn't want to look into the Internet of the man arrested.

ASHCROFT: There are a variety of things there. I don't want to try and be conclusive. The Joint Committees on Intelligence are looking at that situation. We're going to cooperate with them. I think they'll do a good job. The Patriot Act also expanded our capacity to make inquiry and to develop information.

I'm not talking about looking at a specific person's file. I'm talking about just going to a web site. And people who post web sites, post them because they want the world to see them. We're not talking about reading e-mail between people. We're talking about things that people say at public meetings and in public places.

KING: Are you saying that no American watching this tonight has any fear that any part of his or her privacy would be affected by this?

ASHCROFT: I think that's totally correct. The new rule says that the FBI has the right to go to public places on the same terms and conditions as other members of the public for counter-terrorism purposes. Now that means if there is a rally of people who are criticizing the United States and its policies and saying that the United States will someday perhaps be destroyed because of that, the FBI agent can go and listen to what's being said. But it's a public meeting. This is not wire tapping, this is not eavesdropping, this is things said in public, these are things posted in public on the web, this is not reading people's e-mail. This is reading what people put into the public domain. If you hire a billboard, and you write what you're saying on the billboard, I don't think it's an invasion of privacy for the FBI driving by to look at the billboard and read it. And they ought to be able to see what's going on.

Let me go just one step further. Historically, every county sheriff and deputy, every policeman, every highway patrolman's been able to do these kinds of things, never been against the law, not against the Constitution. The FBI ought to be able to have at least as much investigatory authority as they do. These are things not against the Constitution, even by the best scholars, that Dershowitz, I think, said today -- and you know, he's not another, sort of, middle of the road guy. He's very much tuned to civil rights -- he says these don't invade privacy. KING: Do you fear, as some have said, the kind of suicide actions that have taken place in the Mideast could take place in the United States: going into a shopping center and blowing yourself up?

ASHCROFT: Well, I think we have to understand that the people who have perpetrated these acts against the United States are willing to do virtually anything.

KING: How do you defend against something like that?

ASHCROFT: Well, I think we have to have as much information as is possible. That's why we're renovating the FBI. That's why we're changing its perspective from prosecution to prevention. That's why we're saying to the people, FBI members should be able to go in public places and hear public things. The idea of community policing, you know, it's helped reduce the level of crime in the culture. And it's because ordinary policemen are out there in the culture, where they have their eyes and ears open, and are in a position to prevent and see things. We need our FBI to be in the same setting.

KING: How to we keep on guard? When we hear, like, there's a yellow. I mean, everybody says this. What do we do?

ASHCROFT: Well, we do what the citizens did who were on the flight from Paris to Miami, and they saw someone suspicious, and then they saw him tying to light his shoes, and they said, "We're going to take action. We're going to stop this." And we have, as you well know, a criminal prosecution now that's flowed out of those circumstances.

We do what a lot of people do now when they see things that are suspicious is, they see people filming a power plant or some other important infrastructural component of the country, they contact the local FBI. We run down those leads.

KING: Because we're at war here.

ASHCROFT: We are at war...

KING: Which is not vigilantism.

ASHCROFT: This is not vigilantism. It is an opportunity and duty of every citizen to join in the protection of the freedom we have. And this is not a fight of security against liberty. This is a fight in which we are trying to secure the liberty of the people of the United States...

KING: Survival?

ASHCROFT: This is survival.

KING: Do you fear that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) shooting of nuclear weapons from the ground against commercial airliners?

ASHCROFT: My sense is that when you have to be prepared, and to take whatever action regarding air safety, regarding any variety and nature of threats. Biological and chemical weaponry is something that was of interest and is of interest to Al Qaeda. We know that from the things that we discovered in the training camps. We know that from the debriefs and other things that we've had.

So that these individuals hate the way in which America stands for freedom and individual choice. And if they believed in individual choice, they'd not have to try and force people to their point of view. They would just offer their point of view and ask people to join them.

But they've come to the conclusion, the terrorists have, that the only way that they get adherence to their position is to extort it by force. They are enemies of liberty, we are the champions of liberty, and they want to do what they can to destroy us.

KING: So you would fear, then -- I mean if there's anything, anything's possible. From shooting the plane down, to....

ASHCROFT: I think what we learned on September 11 is that the unthinkable is now thinkable in the world. We'd better be thinking about it in every way be can, to make sure we do what we can to prevent.

KING: The unthinkable is thinkable.

We'll be back with more of John Ashcroft, attorney general of the United States, right after this.


KING: We're back with John Ashcroft, the attorney general of the United States. He's not used to doing these long interviews, but we get the pleasure of having him for a while.

How do you make...

ASHCROFT: The only time I've been on anything longer has been before the Senate committee.


KING: There has been some criticism of you -- I want to touch some bases -- about using private aircraft when you're telling the public to -- I think Dan Rather was public in some criticism. I haven't got it completely straight....White House acknowledges that President Bush acknowledges received a warning last summer about Al Qaeda. The Justice Department maintains Ashcroft's taking private flights had nothing to do with this, but Dan Rather, he's raised the issue you knew something about airline terrorism, didn't tell the public and flew privately. That's serious so I think, maybe a response is in order.

ASHCROFT: Because of threats to my personal security, I was advised to fly when on government business and in responsibilities where my travel plans were well known, to fly on government aircraft. It had and nothing to do with potential for hijacks, it had to with the idea...

KING: There were threats against you?

ASHCROFT: ...those who were in charge of securing me as the attorney general said this is our recommendation.

KING: This was government aircraft, not privately given by corporations.

ASHCROFT: No. It's government aircraft.

And so that, you know, it's true.

Now, when I'm on personal business and I'm unannounced I have flown many times, and still do, and my family flies and has flown through last year and through this year on commercial aircraft. And so, it's not a threat against aircraft, in terms of the hijacking or threats against aircraft in that respect, but the kind of thing that was addressed in their recommendations and that resulted in my taking government aircraft beginning about this time last summer was threats regarding my own personal security.

KING: Were you angry that this has been released without checking with you? Or did they check with you?

ASHCROFT: I don't have any idea who checked with what. It's not true.

KING: You were never asked to comment before someone said...

ASHCROFT: It was a surprise to me when I learned that it was -- you know, this came up at the time, about a year ago, and was discussed and thoroughly vetted at the time. And I think, maybe, if anybody was making any charges, again, they remembered half the story and didn't get to the explanation.

KING: Do you like the glass house?

ASHCROFT: Well, I like the opportunity to serve the country. And...

KING: But? There's got to be a but.

ASHCROFT: Well, I wouldn't trade this opportunity for any that I know of.

KING: Like it better in the Senate?


KING: You do?

ASHCROFT: I miss the people of the Senate. And obviously I've had some hard knocks from senators, but they're great people in the United States Senate. They don't get a chance to be elected there because they're not good people or not talented people. They carry their state and they work very hard. And I miss the camaraderie of the Senate. But this job has certain opportunities and responsibilities and the capacity for acting and seeing results that aren't quite there in the Senate.

You know, in the Senate everything is a result of a giant committee called the Senate. And you've got to get a majority of the people in the Senate to agree with you. And then you've got to go and get a majority of the people in the House to agree with that. And then you've got to get the president to sign or else it was -- and sometimes by the time you're through you can hardly recognize what you started with. And so there are different compensating factors.

I love this job. It's a great opportunity. I like the opportunity to serve. I like the opportunity to shape the institutions of government, so as to support and secure our freedom. All of us want to have meaning in our lives and want to feel like we're doing something that makes a difference. And right now I believe we're doing that in the Justice Department.

KING: Back to security, have we stopped things, General, that the public has not learned about? In other words, they've told me over the years the CIA has done many wonderful things the public will never learn. When you go out to CIA headquarters there are stars with no names next them, because these people were never known in life and they gave their life for their country. Have there been some preventions?

ASHCROFT: Well, I'm confident that there have. Now, what's, kind of, interesting is, some of the preventions that we've done I'm confident we'll never know about even within the agencies of government.

KING: Really?

ASHCROFT: Because if we have the right level of alertness, if we have the right level of inspection, if we're able to control our borders effectively, if we stop people from making plans, making an entry, acquiring the weapons, or acquiring the ingredients for either bomb making or other disaster-inducing ideas, we will have stopped things. If we do our job well, the better we do our job the earlier things will be stopped.

You know, if you really are stopping something and you know it's terrible when you stop it, you probably nipped it in the second before it happens. They've got the match at the fuse and you know you've stopped that.

Well, we know we stopped that. There's one.

We also know that the people on flight number 93 on...


ASHCROFT: We stopped it and landed the plane in Pennsylvania, instead of on Pennsylvania Avenue.

KING: Might an agency have stopped someone today who was planning something?

ASHCROFT: We hope. We hope that we have improved capacity to interdict, to make difficult, to disrupt and prevent terrorism. And I hope that we are stopping on a regular basis. And I think there are a lot of people who, on September the 11th, would not have bet that we would be absent an additional major attack until this time in the next year.

Frankly, I think we need to be on our guard in every respect. But I'm grateful that at least the guard we've been on has been sufficient to date to avoid another major disaster.

KING: Different world.

ASHCROFT: It's a different world.

KING: Back with more of the attorney general after this.


KING: We're back with John Ashcroft.

Years ago, no one had better PR than the FBI. I mean, they -- you heard "the FBI man in peace and war." And that went down a bit.

What do you feel about that bureau?

ASHCROFT: Well, it's, I believe, the greatest law enforcement agency in the world. But nothing remains great without a capacity to change and to accommodate the conditions of a changing world.

And this great institution needs to have the kind of reformation that Bob Mueller's bringing to it. We need to change our priority from prosecution to prevention as it relates to terrorism...

KING: But as an agency, there's no doubt your respect for it remains the same as when you were a kid growing up, and you heard about the FBI.

ASHCROFT: Well, I probably didn't know about the need for it to change then. I listened to the program on Sunday afternoon radio...

KING: "FBI in peace and war."

ASHCROFT: Yes, I -- was it Herbert Philbrick, was that the guy?

KING: Yes, "I Was a Communist for the FBI."

ASHCROFT: Yes, that's who...

KING: Herbert Philbrick.

ASHCROFT: Yes, something like that. I remember, and Sunday afternoon, that was just before "The Greatest Story Ever Told" or after it. I listened to that stuff religiously. But the point is that we now know that this great agency -- and it's huge; it has 11,000 agents in these offices all over the world -- needs to have a capacity to integrate what we developed in terms of information, so that we can see the picture that's developed out of the pieces of the puzzle. And we need to have greater capacity to actually go and get puzzle pieces.

The reforms expressed this last week were to empower the agency. You know, we've heard from agents. And some people think that, "Whoa, the agents are being critical." Yes, when they're being critical, that can help us. We can capitalize on what they tell us, to take some of their circumstances, either the bureaucracy and its restraints or the guidelines and their inhibitions, so that we can liberate those agents to get more puzzle pieces, and then we do a better job of putting those puzzle pieces together.

This idea of consolidating things relating to terrorism is something that we did in the Justice Department in terms of prosecution. Normally, we have prosecutions in the variety of places where a crime exists. But we consolidated a number of the 9/11 prosecutions because we wanted to be able to see the whole picture. That's new for the Justice Department in its prosecution function. It's even more important for the FBI in its prevention function.

In this change, we'll find out -- you know, I believe it's the greatest law enforcement organization in the world, but it has to be able to make this kind of change.

I think the people in the field are helping us make that change. They want to make it. We want to make it. Director Mueller will get it done here.

KING: I want to touch some other bases. The crisis in the Catholic Church: Are you surprised at that? And two, is there no question in your mind that if a priest is accused it should go to law enforcement?

ASHCROFT: Well, I believe people who commit crimes should be responsible for those crimes. It doesn't matter whether they're priests or whether they're ministers or whether they're atheists. America doesn't accord different law enforcement treatment to people based on who they are. The rule of law is not the rule of individual standing or individual profession or -- it means that people are treated on an equal basis.

So obviously, no problem in my mind that when people commit crimes those individuals should be responsible.

KING: Were you surprised in that they hid things?

ASHCROFT: Well, my view is that it's a great tragedy. I am disappointed, but I also recognize the fact that the Catholic Church has been a tremendous value to this culture.

I know in my own home state of Missouri, the largest school district in the state when I was governor was the Catholic diocesan school of St. Louis, and they were good schools, and they helped students and the university system and the social services of the Catholic Church across America.

So yes, I deplore and am disappointed with the problems that the church has faced, but I don't want to say that this great institution that has helped America in so many ways is not to be respected.

But it needs to -- like any other institution or any other entity, needs to be in a position to require that those who are involved respect the rule of law.

KING: Were you glad the president brought it up with the pope?

ASHCROFT: Oh, this president is the kind of person who is going to mention issues that ought to be mentioned. He's going to be very open. He's going to be transparent. He doesn't hide things. George W. Bush is what you see is what you get.

You know, I meet with him virtually every morning with the director of the FBI and others in our briefing and, of course, the CIA cooperates with all those things. And this president, he has the virtue of being able to relate honestly and openly with individuals. And I know he would do it with great respect for the pope and great respect for the church.

KING: But you're not shocked that he brought it up.

ASHCROFT: No, it's not a shock to me that this president would have that kind of transparent, what-you-see-is-what-you-get openness in a respectful way.

KING: We'll take a break, and when we come back, we'll have our remaining portion of the program with Attorney General John Ashcroft.

We celebrated 45 years in broadcasting, and I don't know what they're going to do, but Walter Cronkite is hosting two specials over the weekend in this time period, Saturday night and Sunday night.

And we'll be right back, don't go away.


KING: You may wonder what we do on breaks. John Ashcroft and I were imitating Walter Cronkite. Does him pretty good, because he came right after Philbrick.

"You are there," right?

ASHCROFT: Yes, that's right.

KING: "That's the way it is." You do him pretty good, John.

ASHCROFT: He was a Missourian, you know.

KING: That's right.

ASHCROFT: St. Joseph, Missouri. I believe he went to the University of Missouri-Columbia...

KING: Journalism.

ASHCROFT: ... School of Journalism.

KING: One of the great journalism schools in America.

ASHCROFT: Has had many great journalists.

KING: Earlier this month, the Justice Department argued in briefs to the Supreme Court that the Second Amendment gives the people the right to own guns. You're saying it's an absolute right. If it's a right, does that mean anybody can go and get a gun anytime, anywhere...

ASHCROFT: Well, we believe...

KING: ... like free speech?

ASHCROFT: Yes, I think you need to let me clarify that. I do believe that the Second Amendment right described in the Constitution goes to individuals, and, frankly, that's been the way it's been interpreted through the vast history of the United States. Again, I hate to call on Lawrence Tribe to support that position. At one time he wasn't of that mind, but his most recent treatise is elaborate in its explanation of that as an individual right. That's one part of the answer.

The other part of the answer is that it's not a right without -- that's not subject to regulation. Reasonable regulations regarding the ownership of weapons are appropriate. I stated before the United States Senate Committee that I would defend the laws of the United States that had been -- and all of them, I believe, are in that category that have been passed, and they reasonably regulate...

KING: So Brady is reasonable?

ASHCROFT: Yes, those are reasonable regulations and they're to be defended.

So the fact that you have a right of free speech doesn't allow you to yell "fire" in a crowded theater; neither does the fact that you have a right to bear arms allow you to own certain kinds of arms and to use them in ways that are inappropriate.

KING: And the Second Amendment is clear to you, even though some think they were referring to militia?

ASHCROFT: Well, it's clear to me. I think it's been clear in history that that right inures to individual citizens of the United States.

KING: Today a federal judge has overturned the new law, federal law, that would have forced public libraries to use Internet filters designed to block pornography. They said the Children's Internet Protection Act went too far. You have a comment? ASHCROFT: I'd have to read the opinion and assess what the court had done before I could make a comment on the case. I will make a comment on the topic.

KING: Yes?

ASHCROFT: I think that we've got a major problem in our culture, especially as it relates to the Internet and pornography and child pornography. And we have a real challenge where children are used and abused, and then that use and abuse is published on the Internet and it becomes a part of the motivation of people who are child abusers.

We have recently asked the Congress to enact new legislation hoping that we've been able to craft legislation that will pass muster with the Supreme Court.

Not long ago, the Supreme Court struck down a law that would have regulated child pornography even if it was computer-generated children and not real children. The problem we have here is that a real child and a computer-generated child on the computer are virtually indistinguishable, and if we're going to prosecute children pornography, which we must do, it's going to be very difficult if the defendant can always say, "Well, how do you now that's a real child and that wasn't a computer-generated child?" to create a, quote, "reasonable doubt" of his guilt.

So we're working hard on this. The Internet provides very serious challenges to our ability to keep from children the kinds of things that are destructive to them and to keep adults from being involved in ways that abuse children.

KING: They had no Internet in Philadelphia in 1776, or in 1781 when they wrote the Constitution, right? This is a whole new ball game.

ASHCROFT: It is a new ball game. It is a ball game obviously, though, that relates to speech and to freedom of the press. I think those are easy analogies to make. Pretty clear to me that in those days they wouldn't have tolerated the kind of either computer- generated pornography or other pornography that we have now.

KING: Do you think the courts generally should bend a little here?

ASHCROFT: Well, very frankly, I think the courts need to find a way to respect the Constitution and defend our children. And we've got to be very careful that we don't energize individuals whose object it is to abuse the children of America, and to have that happen on the Internet.

KING: And in our remaining moments, we know you are a great sports fan: Still have faith in your St. Louis Cardinals?

ASHCROFT: I do. They're playing better ball. They took a little dip earlier in the season.

KING: And you're a basketball freak, right?


KING: Yes, come on.

ASHCROFT: Yes. I was a freak, is the right word.

KING: Did you play?

ASHCROFT: I played in high school, and I played last week, and I played the week before last week, and...

KING: Five-man ball?

ASHCROFT: No, I don't play full court anymore. I just play half-court, you know.

KING: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Bradley (ph), former senator, came from your state, went to Princeton...

ASHCROFT: Well, maybe one of the greatest ballplayers in the history, and a very fine individual and a well known and a valuable public servant in the Senate. But...

KING: Another great Missourian.

ASHCROFT: A great, great scorer. I mean, Bradley (ph) could light it up and fill it up.

KING: Thank you, John.

ASHCROFT: Thank you.

KING: The attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft.

Over the weekend, Walter Cronkite hosts.


In Washington with the attorney general, I'm Larry King. Good night.




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