Department of Justice Seal

Attorney General Transcript
News Conference - Indictment in Daniel Pearl Case
Thursday, March 14, 2002
DOJ Conference Center

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Good afternoon.

    Today I'm announcing a grand jury's indictment of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British citizen currently in custody of Pakistani authorities, for acts of terrorism against two United States citizens. Saeed is charged with the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl and the 1994 kidnapping of a United States citizen in India. A grand jury in the district of New Jersey has returned an indictment charging Saeed with hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking, resulting in the death of Daniel Pearl.

    In addition, we are today unsealing an indictment filed in November of last year, charging Saeed with the 1994 armed kidnapping of Bela J. Nuss, an American tourist, in India.

   If Saeed is found guilty of the crimes he is charged with committing against Daniel Pearl, he could receive the death penalty. Conviction in the Nuss case carries the maximum penalty of life in prison.

    It has now been three weeks since the mystery of Daniel Pearl's disappearance was resolved tragically by the news of his brutal murder. In this time, in the face of this tragedy, Mariane Pearl, Daniel's widow, has refused to concede defeat to terrorists. She has instead rallied Americans and citizens of all nations to unite against the evil that took the life of the father of her unborn son. She has been an eloquent and forceful reminder to all of us that what is at stake in the fight against terrorism is nothing less than the values of free speech and open inquiry that Daniel cherished, the values that protect and undergird the freedom we enjoy.

    This morning I had the opportunity to meet with Mrs. Pearl, and I thank her and I commend her for her courage and the resolve that she has shown. With today's indictment, I'm honored to be able to offer to Mariane Pearl a measure of solace and this pledge: The United States has not forsaken your husband nor the values that he embodied and cherished. The story of Daniel Pearl -- that he died trying to tell -- will be told, and justice will be done.

    I want to thank Larry Thompson, my deputy attorney general, for his work in assembling in the Department of Justice an unprecedented prosecution team to bring the full weight of our resources to bear on prosecuting the indictments being announced today. Deputy Attorney General Thompson worked hard with two United States attorneys in whose separate jurisdictions these indictments were brought, and worked hard to bring these two individuals together to combine their knowledge and expertise for this prosecution.

    Chris Christie, our U.S. attorney in New Jersey, will work with our U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Roscoe Howard -- where is Roscoe? -- thank you -- right next to him -- to prosecute Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh for the crimes with which he is charged in both the Pearl and Nuss cases. Mr. Christie and Mr. Howard are here today, and I thank them both for the work that they've already done and for the talent and dedication that they will devote to the cause of justice as they move these cases forward.

    In addition, I want to thank Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff and the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, as well as Dale Watson, the FBI's executive assistant director for counterterrorism and counterintelligence. The FBI worked very hard in this matter. They have devoted the kind of effort and energy that's necessary to make these kinds of cases. And I'm grateful to the FBI for their untiring fight in the war against terrorism.

    The indictment in the Pearl case announced today states that Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh is affiliated with radical militant organizations. The indictment charges further that Saeed trained in military camps in Afghanistan and, in or about September and October 2001, fought in Afghanistan with Taliban and al Qaeda forces

    The grand jury charges that in the opening weeks of 2002, Saeed led a ring of co-conspirators who carefully and methodically set a death trap for Daniel Pearl, lured him into it with lies, and savagely ended his life. The indictment states that Saeed and his co-conspirators purposefully set out to take hostage -- pardon me -- set out to take hostage an acclaimed journalist from an influential United States newspaper in order to change U.S. policies in the war against terrorism and to achieve other goals.

    Using the Internet to communicate, Saeed assumed a false identity to lure Daniel Pearl to a meeting in Karachi with a fictitious source. It was from this meeting that Pearl was abducted.

    In the captivity of his kidnappers the indictment charges that Daniel Pearl was kept in seclusion under the use and threat of violence. His kidnappers communicated their demands to various media outlets by e-mail, beginning with a message sent on January the 26th that included a photograph of Pearl with a gun pointed at his head. In a second e-mail sent January 30th, Daniel Pearl's kidnappers threatened to execute him if their demands were not met and threatened the lives of other American journalists in Pakistan. But before that message was sent, the indictment charges the conspirators had already brutally killed Daniel Pearl and videotaped the mutilation of his body.

    The additional indictment against Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, being unsealed today, makes clear that Daniel Pearl was not the first American to fall victim to terror at the hands of Saeed. In October 1994, the indictment charges, Saeed met Bela J. Nuss, an American tourist, at a restaurant in New Delhi while scouting areas of the city known to be frequented by U.S. citizens and other Westerners. As in the case of Daniel Pearl, Saeed carefully selected Nuss, used lies to befriend him, and lured him to an isolated place where he was kidnapped at gunpoint. Also like the case of Daniel Pearl, Nuss was held in brutal isolation and photographed with a gun pointed at his head while Saeed and his co-conspirators communicated their demands to the media.

    At the time of the 1994 kidnapping, the indictment states that Saeed was a member of the Harakat ul-Ansar, which was implicated in several terrorist acts against United States citizens in India during the 1990s. The indictment charges Saeed with hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking.

    The United States has worked in cooperation with Pakistani and other authorities to build the case for the indictment of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh announced today.

    But we pursue this case, and we continue this investigation not merely to bring Daniel Pearl's killers to justice or to provide closure to Bela Nuss. We pursue this case to uphold and protect the values Daniel Pearl cherished and the freedoms he died exercising.

    The men who conspired to kill Daniel Pearl and kidnap Bela Nuss did not act at random but carefully chose their targets, their methods and their words. By killing Daniel Pearl and threatening other Americans, terrorists hoped to send a message of defiance. But what survives is an unmistakable message of their fear. Stunted by their hatred, imprisoned in their lies, even terrorists understand, as we understand, that unfettered speech and open inquiry are the bedrock upon which freedom stands -- what George Mason called "the bulwark of liberty" and Thomas Jefferson included in the creed of our political faith, the text of our civil instruction, the touchstone by which we try the services of those we trust.

    Where freedom is feared, men and women like Daniel Pearl will always be hunted. But where freedom is cherished, they will be forever defended. With today's indictments, we begin the process of securing justice for Daniel Pearl and Bela Nuss, solace for their families and vindication for the values they and all civilized people share. The department's investigation of this case is an ongoing one. And we will not rest until we do everything possible to complete an understanding of the entirety of individuals charging -- bringing to justice the entirety of the individuals involved.

    Thank you. I'll be happy to go with questions.

    Yes, sir.

    Q General Ashcroft, what is the earliest that Saeed might be brought to the U.S., and how will that process work out?

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Obviously, these indictments reflect a very serious interest that we have in him. We will be working with Pakistani authorities regarding any conveyance of the individual charged to the United States.

    Yes, sir.

    Q General Ashcroft, could you tell us why you decided to announce these indictments now? Is this a -- for example, an effort to put more pressure on the Pakistani government to turn him over to the United States? Or -- what was your thinking in making this action public at this time?

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, there are a variety of things. As you know, now that we are unsealing the indictment which was originally rendered last fall, and we have not had that as an open indictment at that time because if you open an indictment and people know you're chasing them, you reduce your likelihood of apprehending them.

    It's obvious we didn't apprehend him. But he is -- now clearly he understands that we are pursuing him.

    We think it's important to have the charges clear and in place so that in the event, for some reason he would in any way be released by other authorities, that we would be in a position to take him. We know that in the brutal kidnapping of 1994 he was being held by authorities outside the United States. And his colleagues hijacked an airplane and occasioned his release. And we didn't have charges pending in that setting. And we feel that it's important for us to have charges pending, so in the event of a release we are in a position to demand the individual's involvement here in the justice system.

    I'll just keep going down the row here. Yes, sir.

    Q Sir, are you prepared for an argument of double jeopardy if he is tried and convicted and sentenced in Pakistan?

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I don't want to discuss the legal ramifications of the case, but I think I can give you a short answer on that: yes. (Laughter.)

    Q General Ashcroft, two questions. One is, are there any co- conspirators currently under -- in custody right now? And then secondly, I'm curious why in November, why he was indicted then? That was seven years after the crime.

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We are going to continue pursuing leads to find other individuals involved in this matter. It's clear from our perspective the our indictment and the charges do not indicate that he acted alone.

    Secondly, last November is a time when the U.S. attorney and the grand jury in the District of Columbia confronted the evidence and decided to issue the charges and make the indictment at that time. To comment further on that would be inappropriate except to say that the indictment was sealed at that time because we considered the individual a fugitive and thought that not sealing it might signal our interest in his apprehension.

    Yes, sir.

    Q Attorney general, the Pakistanis are trying to build a case against Sheikh now. Do we have any assurances from the Pakistanis that if they cannot build a case or if they can't convict him, that they will turn him over to U.S. custody?

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We are collaborating with the Pakistanis and informing them of our interest, and we expect them to be cooperative.

    To say further at this time would be inappropriate.

    Yes, sir?

    Q Do you accept, then, that he goes on trial in Pakistan and then is sent to the United States? Would that be acceptable to you?

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I don't want to try and get into a wide range of hypotheticals. Obviously they have him in custody now, and we don't. We are signalling our clear interest in trying him on these charges and bringing him to justice in the United States.

    Yes, sir?

    Q There's another gentleman, Adnan Khan, who's reportedly in custody in Pakistan today, who is claiming responsibility for killing Danny while on board a boat in the Arabian Sea. Have you heard these reports? Is there any validity to them?

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I'm not able to comment on those at this time.

    Yes, ma'am?

    Q Your indictment charges Omar Saeed Sheikh with conspiracy to take Danny Pearl hostage. In your announcement, you said that he was charged with murder. I'm curious if you're planning to issue a superseding indictment that would include murder charges and if you just misspoke, or if you think actually is responsible for the murder of Daniel Pearl.

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I don't -- do you want to comment on that?

    (Off-mike conferral among participants.)

    MR. CHERTOFF: I can -- (off mike).

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Go ahead.

    MR. CHERTOFF: The charge is taking -- conspiracy and substantive taking of a hostage, with death resulting, which is really what amounts to murder. You do certain voluntary acts, and the person dies as a result.

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well said, Michael.

    Yes, sir?

    Q Can you elaborate a little bit on the timing of his death? You had indicated that on the 30th of January you believed he was murdered, before the demands were sent. And also, you suggested that the videotape of his -- the mutilation of his body -- does that -- does it mean that the videotape was filmed after he was already dead and they were just --

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I think, in the first instance, regarding your question, we believe that he had been murdered in advance of that last communication you mentioned. And I think our statement speaks for itself. To state further I would not -- (inaudible).

    Yes, sir?

    Q Sir, yesterday, to change the subject, an attorney for Arthur Andersen sent a letter to Mr. Chertoff arguing that a criminal felony indictment of the firm now would effectively put the firm out of business. Do you agree?

    (Off-mike conferral among participants.)

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I believe this is in reference to a case from which I have been recused for the last several months, and I would make no statement about that. If he does, I'll have to leave the news conference.

    STAFF: Last question.

    Q Mr. Ashcroft, the president has mentioned the investigation to the INS because -- this problem in regards with the visas, student visas for the hijackers.

    Can you tell us what you plan to do? Are you going to accelerate maybe the split of the INS? Do you think it is important now?

    ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Fortunately, I only damaged the television set in a minor way -- (laughter) -- when I got the news, which was rather infuriating, that the letter had been sent to the flight school. I've asked the inspector general of this department to investigate, to clarify this situation, and I will hold individuals accountable. I've discussed the potential of disciplinary action regarding individuals who are responsible and accountable with the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. A breakdown of this kind is inexcusable, in my judgment.

    Now, the INS has a very difficult job to do, and it's suffered from decades of mismanagement. But we will correct these problems. We proposed a major overhaul of the INS last November. We sent the notices that are necessary to the Congress for their approval, and Congress has blocked our reforms to date.

    Now, I hope that the Congress would let Commissioner Ziglar lead in reforming this troubled agency with a very serious set of challenges. And Commissioner Ziglar wants to move quickly and decisively, and he needs to have the authority and capacity to do that.

    Thank you all very much.