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Interview With Barbara Comstock

Aired September 22, 2002 - 11:30   ET


KRIS OSBORN, CNN ANCHOR: In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the failure to stop the attacks in advance, the government is asking citizens to report suspicious activity.
Critics ask, what is exactly suspicious activity? How should it be reported and to whom? And when does the tip program turn into spying on fellow citizens?

Here to answer some of these very same concerns and give us some tips for tipsters, Barbara Comstock, chief spokesman for the Justice Department and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Hello to you.


OSBORN: Well, let's start with this very familiar scenario in southern Florida -- I-75 is shut down -- a lot of real divisive feelings about this. Some saying that the woman was a hero, others saying that she was profiling and, in fact, lying possibly.

COMSTOCK: Well, in that -- not to speak particularly to that situation but in general the woman in that situation was doing what we have asked citizens since 9/11 to do, which is use common sense when you're in a situation where you see unusual activity or you hear about unusual information to report it to law enforcement.

And then it's law enforcement that makes the decision on how to respond to that activity.

And when people are reporting things that they're not sure about the information or they have some doubts about whether somebody was joking or not they relay that information.

And that -- we're really asking the American people to use their common sense and alert public to respond to their common sense instincts because you had another situation where another woman in Florida pre-September 11 was a Department of Agriculture employee who Mohammed Atta came into her office and started acting very strangely but she didn't report it.

He talked -- he joked about slitting her throat. He joked about perhaps Washington blowing up. And, "How would you like that if your citizens in Washington were blown up like mine in my country?"

And although she felt it was unusual, she didn't report it. Now post September 11 we want people to report information because this woman at the Department of Agriculture says she wants people to know you should pick up the phone, report it and then law enforcement can take the appropriate actions.

OSBORN: Well, some of those circumstances you mentioned were mentioned in a "Weekly Review" article in "The New York Times" which talked about a high degree of contact that people had with the 9/11 hijackers, of course, prior to 9/11.

But how do you go about maintaining a delicate or precarious balance, you might say, between on the one hand vigilance and caution and being properly informed and passing things along and then not spying on your fellow friends?

COMSTOCK: Well, as I said, I think the American people have good common sense. We see this every day the show -- "America's Most Wanted" has gotten information over the decade or so they have been on TV that has led to 700 criminals.

After September 11, the FBI put up a hotline and then an e-mail tip line where they have gotten 400,000 pieces of information. Now that 400,000 has been filtered out to law enforcement. I believe about 85,000 leads have been developed from that that got sent to state and local and federal officials for them to follow up on.

And so at each level people are using their common sense with a respect for due process and the appropriate way to respond to the information.

Sometimes you don't know when you're reporting information that there are many other pieces of information that fits with that one piece. So it's helpful to put it forward. Law enforcement will weed through.

I believe the superintendent of police up in New York in that same article you mentioned that is in "The New York Times" today talks about, "We'd rather have more information than less."

And certainly the information that came in about the 19 hijackers post September 11 we would have rather have had that information before. Certainly the public did not know what we know now.

If you look at the situation with the shoe bomber, Richard Reed, on that plane around Christmas time last year, you had an alert public who had not been told to look for people who might light their shoes on fire. That was not something we had thought about.

But because the public realizes now that they need to be alert, they need to respond to situations -- you had an alert stewardess and other people on that plane who immediately responded to the situation.

And that's all we're asking the American people to do is to share this type of information with law enforcement and they will then carefully handle it with all of the due process and proper respect for people's privacy.

OSBORN: Well, certainly many in the Justice Department, yourself among them, and as you just said moments ago, have praised the public for their response and its effectiveness and usefulness in this very intelligence-driven effort these days.

But I wanted to ask you quickly -- how might you explain or advise someone how they might distinguish between something to ignore and something to actually go call police about? What are some tips?

COMSTOCK: Well, it is that common sense. Like I said, with the shoe bomber you really can't figure out what it might be but when you relay that information you can tell law enforcement how -- what your suspicions are about it but maybe some of the doubts that you might have but what your knowledge is of the area because if you're in a public area -- maybe you drive over a bridge . . .

We have a highway watch program where truck drivers who go through a regular route all of the time -- they know what's unusual on their route. So they can tell us, "Well, I drive this route every day and I've never seen an abandoned vehicle like this in a certain place under a bridge." That would be the type of information that obviously somebody would want to check out.

Now hopefully when we check it out we hope that it's something innocent -- that there's an innocent explanation because we certainly don't want to have any more acts of terror.

But an alert public, ruling out these kinds of things and following up on information allows us to find out that there aren't problem areas.

And we know in any type of public involvement when you have neighborhood watch, alert citizens telling us what -- telling law enforcement and working closely with them with the information that you have crime drop in an area.

OSBORN: Barbara Comstock, thank you so much for your time. I apologize for my horrible manners having to interrupt you here but heading into a commercial.

I want to thank you. The spokeswoman for Justice Department, of course, saying more information is preferable. Thanks for your time.

COMSTOCK: Thank you. And thanks for citizens helping us.



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