#09-24-01: Attorney General John Ashcroft Testimony Before the House Committee on the Judiciary


Attorney General John Ashcroft

Testimony Before the
House Committee on the Judiciary
September 24, 2001

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear before this committee to discuss America's response to the criminal act of war perpetrated on the United States of America on September the 11th.

Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, the American people do not have the luxury of unlimited time in erecting the necessary defenses to future terrorist acts. The danger that darkened the United States of America and the civilized world on September 11th did not pass with the atrocities committed that day. They require that we provide law enforcement with the tools necessary to identify, dismantle, disrupt and punish terrorist organizations before they strike again.

Terrorism is a clear and present danger to Americans today. Intelligence information available to the FBI indicates a potential for additional terrorist incidents. As a result, the FBI has requested through the national threat warning system that all law enforcement agencies nationwide be on heightened alert.

When we have threat information about a specific target, we share that information with appropriate state and local authorities. We have contacted several city and state officials over the last 13 days to alert them to potential threats.

We also act on intelligence information to neutralize potential terrorist attacks using specific methods. Yesterday the FBI issued a nationwide alert based on information they received indicating the possibility of attacks using crop-dusting aircraft. The FBI asses the uses of this type of aircraft to distribute chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction as potential threats to Americans. We have no clear indication of the time or place of any such attack.

The FBI has confirmed that Mohammed Atta, one of the suspected hijackers, was acquiring knowledge of crop-dusting aircraft prior to the attacks on September 11th. The search of computers, computer disks and personal baggage of another individual whom we have in custody revealed a significant amount of information downloaded from the Internet about aerial application of pesticides or crop-dusting.

At our request, the Federal Aviation Administration has grounded such aircraft until midnight tonight. In addition to its own preventative measures, the FBI has strongly recommended that state, local and other federal law enforcement organizations take steps to identify crop-dusting aircraft in their jurisdictions, and ensure that they are secured.

I also urge Americans to notify immediate immediately the FBI of any suspicious circumstances that may come to their attention regarding crop-dusting aircraft, or any other possible terrorist threat. The FBI Web site is www.ifccfbi.gov -- pardon me, .org -- that's www.ifccfbi.org. Our toll free telephone number is 866-483- 5137 -- 866 -- that's toll-free -- 866-483-5137.

The highly coordinated attacks of September 11th make it clear that terrorism is the activity of expertly organized, highly coordinated, and well financed organizations and networks. These organizations operate across borders to advance their ideological agendas. They benefit from the shelter and protection of like-minded regimes. They are undeterred by the threat of criminal sanctions, and they are willing to sacrifice the lives of their members in order to take the lives of innocent citizens of free nations.

This new terrorist threat to Americans on our soil is a turning point in American history. It's a new challenge for law enforcement. Our fight against terrorism is not merely or primarily a criminal justice endeavor. It is defense of our nation and its citizens. We cannot wait for terrorists to strike to begin investigations and to take action. The death tolls are too high, the consequences too great. We must prevent first -- we must prosecute second.

The fight against terrorism is now the highest priority of the Department of Justice. As we do in each and every law enforcement mission we undertake, we are conducting this effort with a total commitment to protect the rights and privacy of all Americans and the constitutional protections we hold dear.

In the past when American law enforcement confronted challenges to our safety and security from espionage, drug trafficking and organized crime, we have met those challenges in ways that preserve our fundamental freedoms and civil liberties. Today we seek to meet the challenge of terrorism within our borders and targeted at our friends and neighbors with the same careful regard for the constitutional rights of Americans and respect for all human beings.

Just as American rights and freedoms have been preserved throughout previous law enforcement campaigns, they must be preserved throughout this war on terrorism.

This Justice Department will never waver in its defense of the Constitution, or relent in our defense of civil rights. The American spirit that rose from the rubble in New York knows no prejudice, and defies division by race, ethnicity or religion. A spirit which binds us and the values that define us will light Americans' path from this darkness.

At the Department of Justice, we are charged with defending Americans' lives and liberties. We are asked to wage war against terrorism within our own borders. Today we seek to enlist your assistance, for we seek new laws against America's enemies, foreign and domestic.

As the members of this committee understand, the deficiencies in our current laws on terrorism reflect two facts. First, our laws fail to make defeating terrorism a national priority. Indeed, we have tougher laws against organized crime and drug trafficking than terrorism. Second, technology has dramatically outpaced our statutes.

Law enforcement tools created decades ago were crafted for rotary telephone -- not email, the Internet, mobile communications and voice mail. Every day that passes without dated statutes and the old rules of engagement -- each day that so passes is a day that terrorists have a competitive advantage. Until Congress makes these changes, we are fighting an unnecessarily uphill battle. Members of the committee, I regret to inform you that we are today sending our troops into the modern field of battle with antique weapons. It is not a prescription for victory.

The anti-terrorism proposals that have been submitted by the administration represent careful balanced, long overdue improvements to our capacity to combat terrorism. It is not a wish list; it is a modest set of proposals -- essential proposals focusing on five broad objectives which I will briefly summarize.

First, law enforcement needs a strengthened and streamlined ability for our intelligence-gathering agencies to gather the information necessary to disrupt, weaken and eliminate the infrastructure of terrorist organizations. Critically we also need the authority for our law enforcement to share vital information with our national security agencies in order to prevent terrorist and future terrorist attacks.

Terrorist organizations have increasingly used technology to facilitate their criminal acts and hide their communications from law enforcement. Intelligence-gathering laws that were written for an era of land-line telephone communications are ill-adapted for use in communications over multiple cell phones and computer networks -- communications that are also carried by multiple telecommunications providers located in different jurisdictions.

Terrorists are trained to change cell phones frequently, to route email through different Internet computers in order to defeat surveillance. Our proposal creates a more efficient technology neutral standard for intelligence-gathering, ensuring that law enforcement's ability to trace the communications of terrorists over cell phones, computer networks and the new technologies that may be developed in the years ahead. These changes would streamline intelligence-gathering procedures only. We do not seek changes in the underlying protections in the law for the privacy of law-abiding citizens. The information captured by the proposed technology-neutral standard would be limited to the kind of information you might find in a phone bill, such as the phone numbers dialed by a particular telephone. The content of these communications in this setting would remain off-limits to monitoring by intelligence authorities, except under the current legal standards where content is available under the law which we now use.

Our proposal would allow a federal court to issue a single order that would apply to all providers in the communications chain, including those outside the region where the court is located. We need speed in identifying and tracking down terrorists. Time is of the essence. The ability of law enforcement to trace communications into jurisdictions without obtaining an additional court order can be the difference between life and death for American citizens.

We are not asking the law to expand; just to grow as technology grows. This information has historically been available when criminals used pre-digital technologies. This same information should be available to law enforcement officials today.

Second, we must make fighting terrorism a national priority in our criminal justice system. In his speech to the Congress, President Bush said that Osama bin Laden's terrorist group al Qaeda is to terror what the mafia is to organized crime. However, our current laws make it easier to prosecute members of organized crime than to crack down on terrorists who can kill thousands of Americans in a single day. The same is true of drug traffickers and individuals involved in espionage. Our laws treat these criminals and those who aid and abet them more severely than our laws treat terrorists.

We would make harboring a terrorist a crime. Currently, for instance, harboring persons engaged in espionage is a specific criminal offense, but harboring terrorists is not. Given the wide terrorist network suspected of participating in the September 11th attacks, both in the United States and in other countries, we must punish anyone who harbors a terrorist. Terrorists can run, but they should have no place to hide. Our proposal also increases the penalties for conspiracy to commit terrorist acts to a serious level, as we have done for many drug crimes.

Third, we seek to enhance the authority of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to detain or remove suspected alien terrorists from within our borders. The ability of alien terrorists to move freely across our borders and operate within the United States is critical to their capacity to inflict damage on our citizens and facilities. Under current law, the existing grounds for removal of aliens for terrorism are limited to direct material support of an individual terrorist. We propose to expand these grounds for removal to include material support to terrorist organizations. We propose that any alien that provides material support to an organization that he or she knows or should know is a terrorist organization should be subject to removal from the United States.

Fourth, law enforcement must be able to follow the money in order to identify and neutralize terrorist networks. Sophisticated terrorist operations require substantial financial resources. On Sunday evening President Bush signed a new executive order under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, IEEPA, blocking the assets of and the transactions of individuals and organizations with terrorist organizations and other business organizations that support terrorism. President Bush's new executive order will allow intelligence, law enforcement and financial regulatory agencies to follow the money trail to the terrorists and to freeze the money to disrupt their actions. This executive order means that the United

States banks that have assets of these groups or individuals must freeze their accounts. And United States citizens or businesses are prohibited from doing businesses with those accounts.

At present the president's powers are limited to freezing assets and blocking transactions with terrorist organizations. We need the capacity for more than a freeze. We must be able to seize. Doing business with terrorist organizations must be a losing proposition. Terrorist financiers must pay a price for their support of terrorism which kills innocent Americans.

Consistent with the president's action yesterday and his statements this morning, our proposal gives law enforcement the ability to seize the terrorists assets. Further, criminal liability is imposed on those who knowingly engage in financial transactions, money laundering involving the proceeds of terrorist acts.

Finally, we seek the ability for the president of the United States and the Department of Justice to provide swift emergency relief to the victims of terrorism and their families.

Mr. Chairman, I want you to know that the investigation into the acts of September 11 is ongoing, moving aggressively forward. To date the FBI and INS have arrested or detained 352 individuals who remain -- there are other individuals -- 392 -- who remain at large, because we think they have and we think they have information that could be helpful to the investigation.

The investigative has yielded 324 searches, 103 court orders, 3410 subpoenas, and the potential tips are still coming in to the Web site and the 1-800 hotline. The Web site has received almost 80,000 potential tips; the hotline, almost 15,000.

Now it falls to us, in the name of freedom and those who cherish it, to ensure our nation's capacity to defend ourselves from terrorists. Today I urge the Congress, I call upon the Congress to act, to strengthen our ability to fight this evil wherever it exists, and to ensure that the line between the civil and the savage, so brightly drawn on September 11th, is never crossed again.