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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

John Ashcroft News Conference

Aired June 19, 2003 - 13:59   ET

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

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right.
We are going to interrupt this right now to go live to Attorney General John Ashcroft. He's here to tell about an important plea bargaining arrangement out of Washington on a -- allegations of terrorism involving a truck driver and a plot to blow up airplanes.

Let's listen in to the attorney general.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: ...to Pakistan and to Afghanistan, covertly met with Osama bin Laden, joined Al Qaeda's jihad against America.

From late 2000 to March of this year, Faris worked in concert with Al Qaeda, our enemies, to plot potential attacks against America and its citizens here in his adopted homeland.

This afternoon I am announcing that Judge Leonie Brinkema of the United States District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia has unsealed the guilty plea of Iyman Faris, also known as Mohammad Raouf.

On May 1, Faris pled guilty to two charges: conspiracy to provide material support to the Al Qaeda organization, as well as providing material support to that terrorist group, Al Qaeda.

With this two-count plea, the Department of Justice continues to root out terrorists and those who support terrorists and those who support the operations of terrorists here in the United States.

Faris has admitted to, in late 2000, meeting with Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda operatives; in late 2000 or early 2001, providing Al Qaeda with research on ultra-light airplanes, which Al Qaeda intended to use in its terrorism; in early 2001 providing Al Qaeda with material support, including dealings involving cash, thousands of sleeping bags, plane tickets and cell phones; and between April 2002 and March of 2003 scouting sites for acts of terrorism in the United States, including a bridge in New York, as well as train tracks.

ASHCROFT: Shortly after the horrific assault of September 11, we learned of and began to participate and plan for a potential second wave of terrorist attacks. We knew that Al Qaeda and its network of terrorist operatives remained in the United States planning and pursuing potential attacks against America and American citizens.

Since September the 11th, we worked diligently to uncover supporters of terrorism in a variety of locations: in Buffalo, New York, where we obtained guilty pleas from six men for providing material support to Al Qaeda; in Detroit, Michigan, where two men were recently convicted of providing material support to terrorists; and Seattle, Washington, where Earnest James Ujaama pleaded guilty to providing support to the Taliban.

The Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state and local law enforcement agencies have been using all available legal tools to detect, to disrupt and to dismantle terrorist threats here at home.

This investigation highlights the importance of law enforcement tools, such as those in the USA PATRIOT Act that the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies have been able to use better to communicate and coordinate complex international anti-terrorism operations.

Because of this close cooperation, we are thwarting terrorist operatives from further activities. The case of Iyman Faris is but the latest of those cases.

Faris was born in Kashmir on June the 4th, 1969. He entered the United States in May 1994, and became a United States citizen in December of 1999.

For several years, he has worked as an independent truck driver from his home base of Columbus, Ohio.

ASHCROFT: According to the plea documents, in late 2000, Faris traveled to Pakistan and joined with a long-time friend and supporter of Al Qaeda to travel to Afghanistan. There at an Al Qaeda training camp, Faris met with Osama bin Laden.

During his stay in the camp, Faris was asked by one of bin Laden's lieutenants about obtaining information about ultra-light airplanes. Faris agreed to do so. Approximately two months later, back in Pakistan, Faris admits that he went to a Karachi Internet cafe and performed an online search. He downloaded information about ultra-light aircraft and provided it to an Al Qaeda representative.

In late 2000 or early 2001 in Pakistan, Faris helped procure 2,000 sleeping bags that were shipped to Afghanistan for use by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Faris also admits to visiting a Karachi travel agency where, wearing a disguise, he obtained extensions on five or six airline tickets so that Al Qaeda operatives could travel to Yemen.

In early 2002, Faris performed another service to Al Qaeda, delivering cash and cell phones to a senior Al Qaeda operative. In this meeting with a terrorist leader, Faris outlined his job as a truck driver, detailing his routes and deliveries for airport cargo planes. The senior Al Qaeda operative was interested in the cargo planes, according to Faris, because they would, quote, "hold more weight and more fuel."

During this meeting in early 2002, Faris says he was told of Al Qaeda's plans for yet another simultaneous operation in New York City and Washington, D.C. The plans included destroying a bridge in New York City by severing its suspension cables.

Faris was asked to assist in providing the equipment for the operation. His main task was procuring what the Al Qaeda leaders called gas cutters that could burn through the bridge cables. Faris was instructed to refer to them in code as gas stations, that code to be used in any subsequent communications with Al Qaeda.

ASHCROFT: Faris also was instructed to purchase the necessary equipment that would allow Al Qaeda operatives to derail trains. Communications were to be made through the Internet. In messages to the Al Qaeda leader, these derailment tools were to be referred to as mechanics shops.

Upon returning to the United States from Pakistan in April of 2002, Faris admits to performing Internet research on, quote, "gas cutters" and a bridge in New York City. Faris also approached an acquaintance with technical knowledge and asked about obtaining gas cutters.

Between April 2002 and March of 2003, Faris confirms he sent several coded e-mail messages indicating that he was still trying to obtain gas stations -- gas cutters -- and mechanics shops -- or derailing equipment for railroads.

In late 2002, Faris admits to traveling to New York. After casing the particular bridge, he concluded that the plot to destroy the bridge was unlikely to succeed because of the bridge's security and structure. He sent a coded message to his Al Qaeda contact which stated, "The weather is too hot." This message conveyed the defendant's assessment that the bridge plot was unlikely to succeed.

It is clear from this plea agreement that Al Qaeda knew that Faris, wrapped in his cloak of American citizenship and protected by the liberties of our free nation, could travel unfettered and undetected from country to country, from state to state and from city to city here at home.

This case has many of the hallmarks we have come to recognize in Al Qaeda operations. Recruitment of sympathetic operatives, extensive planning, travel inside several countries and extensive use of hard to track communications such as cell phones and Internet cafes.

In apprehending Faris and reaching this plea agreement, we have taken another American-based Al Qaeda operative off the streets, who appeared to be a hardworking American truck driver, but secretly scouted terrorist sites that could have killed many of his fellow citizens. ASHCROFT: Using the new information-sharing system implemented since the 9/11 attacks, the threat information that Faris provided was promptly disseminated through the intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security communities to make them aware of the threats and allow them properly and promptly to respond.

This case highlights the very real threats that still exist here at home in the United States of America in the war against terrorism.

To our enemies, let this case send a clear message that the United States will continue to be vigilant against all threats, whether they come from overseas or whether they are home-grown.

To our citizens, this case sends a clear message that our government will continue to respect the rule of law, while doing everything within its power to prevent terrorist attacks.

I want to add my notes of thanks and gratitude to the Criminal Section Acting Assistant Attorney General Chris Wray, who has joined me here today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the leadership of Director Robert Mueller.

Pat D'Amuro, the FBI's executive assistant director for counterterrorism and counterintelligence is here today....

O'BRIEN: Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing a big plea bargain agreement, 34-year-old Iyman Fairs, Columbus, Ohio, an independent trucker, pleading guilty to terrorism related charges.

Joining us in Washington now -- she's been tracking this case very closely for us is Kelli Arena. Kelli, try to give us a sense now of in the grand scheme of things where Faris sits.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to officials that I've spoken to, this is obviously a low level person within the al Qaeda organization tasked with getting information, with surveiling certain targets.

But as we have heard from the attorney general, he also told his government interrogators that he met personally with Osama bin Laden and senior al Qaeda leadership which is not uncommon. It's used, we are told by counterterrorism officials, as a rallying, morale booster, making sure that people are energized to the cause and so meetings with Osama bin Laden, while it may sound extraordinary, are not actually out of the ordinary.

What is most chilling here is that counterterrorism officials continue to insist that there are -- they firmly believe there are people within the United States who have gone through terror training camps, that are living here, that are perhaps waiting for an order or involved in similar activities as this individual is charged with.

We know that the attorney general has said that there have been several plea agreements that remain under seal and that those people are cooperating with the government. And, Miles, I just got off the phone with several sources who say that some of those individuals were, in fact, found as a process of interrogating al Qaeda senior leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, much like Mr. Faris was found, and that those people are also providing information, and that perhaps, eventually those plea agreements will also be unsealed, as we saw happen today.

O'BRIEN: Kelli, let me ask you this, fairly quickly here, if we can. What sort of information might Mr. Faris has? And It doesn't clearly state what the deal really is here. Could he really be fingering a lot these people you mentioned who might be out there in these cells, autonomous or not?

ARENA: Well, I mean, that is obviously the hope. I mean, obviously he talked to investigators about simultaneous attacks that were planned for 2002, obviously, they did not come to fruition. Talked about some of the targets that al Qaeda's allegedly interested in -- the Brooklyn Bridge, trains, also the use of light aircrafts, aircraft comes up consistently, Miles in much of the intelligence -- al Qaeda maintains a distinct desire to continue to use aircraft in terror attacks. They were so very successful obviously on September 11.

So it's information like that about targets, hopefully individuals. But as we reported, al Qaeda cells and individuals are kept very much compartmentallized, Miles. And so individuals are not always aware of other individuals who might be in the same vicinity. It's all on a very much a need-to-know basis. So there's only so far that a person can get in an interrogation in terms of fingering other people because they often don't know about other people even if they could be living right next door.

Obviously the government feels that it has exhausted the -- most of the information that it can get from Mr. Faris by now going forward and saying, OK, we can now unseal this plea agreement because the major concern was, let's keep it quiet because we don't want to tip off anybody to the fact that this guy's talking.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Kelli Arena in Washington. Thank you very much.

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