Department of Justice Seal

Attorney General Transcript
News Conference - DOJ To Seek Death Penalty Against Moussaoui
Thursday, March 28 2002
Miami, Florida

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Let me just say that I'm sorry we were a few minutes late. We had a member of the Border Patrol color guard that fainted. We wanted to make sure he was in good condition before we began the news conference. I thank you for your patience.

   It's a delight to be here with Secretary Mel Martinez, who came to this country in search of freedom and a better life, and made this country a better place. And he is one of the outstanding contributors to the administration of George W. Bush, the president of the United States, and to the well-being of the United States of America. And I couldn't be more pleased than to have the opportunity of sharing this moment in Florida with him. Thank you very much.

   MEL MARTINEZ (secretary of Housing and Urban Development): Thank you, sir.

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: It's an honor.

   And I'm delighted that the administrator of the DEA, Asa Hutchinson, is here with me today. He's developed an aggressive effort at the Drug Enforcement Administration that is international in scope, and it is going to bear fruit. It will result in a diminished level of drug availability in this country.

   We've just come from a great celebration. In my 30 years of public service, I don't think I've ever had a higher honor than welcoming people as citizens of the United States, and to welcome a gentleman from here in Florida who is becoming a citizen as he is finishing his 100th year of life is an inspiration indeed. To embrace America's promise is to contribute to America's promise, and this land of immigration is a land that has been enhanced and strengthened because individuals have come from all over the world to contribute.

   I had the privilege of helping provide security for the Olympics just a few weeks ago. The Olympics are a set of games where people come from every quarter of the globe to achieve at the highest levels known to mankind. And when the Olympics come to the United States, they literally mirror what has been happening in the United States since our country began -- people coming from every quarter of the globe to achieve at the highest levels possible. That's the story of America. And being here was like winning an Olympic gold medal. It was to witness this refreshing of America, this re-energizing of America, and of course to stand next to Mel Martinez, in that respect, was a real honor.

   And now I have an announcement that I would make regarding the case of Zacarias Moussaoui. On December the 11th, 2001, a grand jury sitting in Alexandria, Virginia, returned an indictment charging Zacarias Moussaoui with six different conspiracy offenses for his role in the September 11th attacks.

   Four of the conspiracy charges are death-eligible charges, carrying the potential of the death penalty if Mr. Moussaoui is convicted.

   When I announced the return of the indictment, I stated that the Department of Justice would follow its well-established protocol and procedure before I decided whether or not to seek the death penalty in the Moussaoui case. The department procedure provides -- the protocol provides, among other things, for the submission by the defendant of any reasons why he believes the death penalty is not appropriate. Having completed the process set forth in the protocol, I announced today that I have authorized the United States attorneys for the Eastern District of Virginia and the Southern District of New York to seek a sentence of death.

   Following my instructions, the United States attorneys have filed a notice of intent to seek a sentence of death. In the notice we have alleged numerous reasons, called aggravating factors, which we believe indicate why the death penalty is appropriate. Among these reasons is the impact of the crime on thousands of victims. To that end, we remain committed not only to carrying out justice in this case but also to ensuring that the rights of the victims are fully protected.

   If there are questions, I'd be happy to answer questions. i will not be making very many additional statements about the Moussaoui case.

   Yes, sir.

   Q Mr. Attorney General, first of all, welcome to Florida.

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Thank you. It's always good to come to Florida. (Chuckles.)

   Q (Off mike) -- top of my mind, but first of all, this is a very nice ceremony. It shows that we have troubles to the world, but we're still -- (off mike). However, it's in the midst of a rather troubling period for the INS.

   What's up with the reorganization of the INS? How far have you gone, how far are you planning to go? Is it going to be broken, brought together? When?

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: The Immigration and Naturalization Service, under the direction of James Ziglar, proposed to the Congress a major reorganization plan last November. The Congress provided an endorsement of the opportunity to effectuate that plan last week. Now, it is not as if nothing were being done to renovate the INS, but the opportunity now to go forward with the plan that would separate the enforcement function in the INS from the service function in the INS really holds the great promise of improving the performance of this agency.

   This agency has an incredibly substantial job. There are about 550 million border crossings into and out of the United States every year. The United States of America welcomes more immigrants than all other nations of the world combined, and we have historically. The opportunity to renovate this agency, which is now made a reality by the willingness of Congress to provide authority and participate and authorize the plan to be carried forward, which was submitted last November, will help us substantially. James Ziglar, the commissioner of the INS, was the architect of that plan. He has the capacity to oversee its development, and it's being carried out, and we look forward to the improvements.

   I would add one other fact. President George W. Bush campaigned on a promise to renovate the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The submission of the plan last November was a major step forward in achieving that promise. And now that the Congress has made it possible to move forward with that plan submitted last November, we are even more steps taken in the direction of the appropriate service to America by the INS.

   Q Sir, regarding the Moussaoui case, how difficult of a decision was it to come to that decision to seek the death penalty?

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: The process of the department includes review at a number of levels and -- so that the decision is a decision shared by professionals who are in the criminal justice system and supervised by individuals a part of the process all the way up to and including the attorney general.

   We don't discuss the way those decisions -- or the give-and-take of those decisions. But I think, for my part, the aggravating factors in this setting, which are required to be a part of our considerations, which I cited in my statement, were important.

   Q Sir, are you aware that -- (off mike) -- here in Florida, they want to implement a plan which gives authority to certain -- like the local police for some of the INS duties, potentially dealing with illegal immigrants. I wondered what kind of assurance you can give this community that they're not going to be mistreated, that those police officers are going to perform their duty accordingly, and there's going to be a new mechanism -- (off mike).

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Thank you for that question. As we secure America, and as we provide the basis for the safety and security which is important to all people in America, whether they be guests of this country or whether they be residents of this country or those who are actually citizens of this country, we need the cooperation and help of law enforcement agencies who can work together to get that job done.

   The governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, has entered into negotiations with the Justice Department to develop ways of making sure that we have this kind of integrated and coordinated effort, so that the safety and security of our citizens is assured in a context that respects the dignity and rights of individuals. Frankly, Florida is a leader in this respect, and we have been working on an agreement, between the state of Florida and the Justice Department and the INS, which is sensitive to the concerns that you have raised, because I think it's fair to say that the right kind of training and the right kind of coordination between the local and state law enforcement agencies, if we're able to reach and effectuate this agreement, will characterize a relationship that is accountable and provides a basis for respecting the rights of individuals while we ensure the safety and security of individuals.

When the president of the United States addressed the issues that are the subject of your question, he said that we welcome people to the United States who come here to do the right thing, but people should beware if they are coming to the United States to do the wrong thing.

   This administration is committed to providing a safe and secure environment so that those who come to America to respect the opportunity, industry, work, creativity and vitality of this culture have a chance to do so in safety and security.

   In the back, sir.

   Q Mr. Attorney General, has the French government communicated with you on the decision about the death penalty? And have they, in fact, sent some letter that said they would not cooperate in a prosecution that would result in capital punishment?

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: You know, there are a number of governments around the world who have reservations about capital punishment, so that, in individual cases where capital punishment is a possibility, they do not participate in those cases. The United States of America is a sovereign nation whose representatives in the United States Congress have chosen to mark the seriousness of certain crimes indelibly by indicating that they -- those crimes should be death- eligible in certain circumstances. We ask our counterparts in the international community to respect our sovereignty, and we respect theirs. And to the extent that they can cooperate and help us, we welcome that cooperation. And we respect their views. But we understand that when the United States Congress speaks, they speak the voice of the people of this country, and it's clear that America is so concerned about the safety and security of its citizens that certain crimes against the people of this country have been designated as death-eligible by the Congress of the United States, signed into law by presidents.

   Q Mr. Attorney General, this week it was revealed that a Pakistani national, 19-year-old Imran Mandhai, had been detained by the INS here in Florida amid suspicion of conspiring to blow up power plants and attack military bases or whatever. And they are going to initiate deportation proceedings against him. Why would you send a suspected terrorist who you believe to have plotted against the United States home to plot again?

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, let me indicate that there are lots of reasons for us not to want individuals like that in the United States. These are not the kind of people we welcome in the United States, who seek to destroy the United States. And the initiation of deportation proceedings does not exclude or make impossible other proceedings in cases such as that.

   Yes, ma'am.

   Q Mr. Attorney General --

   Q Mr. Ashcroft, good morning.

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Good morning. Thank you.

   Q INS inspectors at Miami National Airport, as well as other airports, have expressed worries about unintentionally allowing a terrorist or some other criminal into our borders, because they say they've been told to -- (off mike) -- process, even when computer systems frequently go down. What are your concerns about this, and what are -- (off mike)?

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, I'm delighted that the employees of the INS have that kind of concern about the safety and security of America.

   We want them to be people who care and understand the seriousness of the jobs they have, and I commend them. And we will do everything we can to make sure that the systems that support them are systems that work effectively.

   We are developing new systems to support the endeavor of the INS. Recently, for example, we have developed a way for the INS to be recipients of State Department documents that contain pictures of people applying for visas. In previous years, we haven't been able to match the person who appears with the picture of the person who made the application. Being able to do that helps us improve.

   But we have many things that we need to do to improve our capacity to provide the right kind of security in this flow of 550 million people a year that crosses the borders of the United States of America. The president's commitment to improve the INS, the program to divide the agency into a sector which will have the service aspects, and another sector which will have the enforcement aspects, will allow us literally to have an INS that we won't recognize from today's INS. We're in the process of working toward those objectives. Our job is a very big one. We are working hard. We don't purport to be where we ought to be, but we do know that we're moving in that right direction.


   Q Sir, when you split up the INS, would the service remain INS, would the enforcement be part of -- (off mike) -- Customs, is that --

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: That is not the proposal. The proposal is to divide the agency into these two capacities so that the culture of enforcement will be strong in the enforcement agency and the culture of service will be strong in the service part of the agency. I know of no proposals that would allocate either of those to different departments of government.

   In the back, please. Thank you.

   Q (Off mike.)

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Prevention is the number one responsibility and objective of the Department of Justice. It has taken a culture shift in the department. We used to be prosecution oriented, and while we still are very concerned to prosecute criminals, we also know that if you wait until something very bad has happened, the costs are too high. So prevention is at the top of our list of priorities.

   And a large number of things are being done. To give one example, we have begun interviews last year of about 5,000 individuals who come from nations where there is a significant al Qaeda presence. Those first 5,000 interviews were conducted very successfully, provided us with a number of leads which we think to be very important, and helped us establish relationships with individuals in a number of communities in this country that can be helpful to us in terms of information.

   In Florida we had a large number of these interviews and found the people very responsive, people willing to help with the security of the United States by providing information, providing interpretation and other things that would facilitate our effort.

   Last week I announced that we would extend the program by adding 3,000 new names to this list. This is just one of the strategies to help us gather and be sensitive to information that can provide a basis for our detection of proposed acts against the United States and our prevention of those acts. It's very important to us.

   Yes, sir --

   Q Can I follow up on that? Can you just sort of outline if this Mandhai person was part of the interviews that you had done --

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I'm not going to discuss any of the facts of that case at this time.


   Q Are you considering any --

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I was -- this gentleman I had pointed to earlier, and I owe him --

   Q Hi, General --

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I owe this side a few questions, anyhow.

   Q I have a question for you. You just spent a couple of days in Colombia with the administrato from the DEA. I noticed outside we had a huge group of Colombians that became American citizens -- (off mike).

   The Justice Department and the DEA -- you know, I think it looks like a uphill battle down there. But can you kind of give us an idea, from the highest levels of the Justice Department, how important the issues in Colombia are right now in the government's -- (off mike) -- drug problem -- (off mike)?

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, these are very important issues, and the situation in Colombia dramatizes in unmistakable capital letters the linkage between terrorism and narcotics. The FARC there and members of the FARC were the subject of an indictment recently developed in the Justice Department. And the directors -- the administrator of the DEA's recent visit there has gone a long way toward developing the kind of cooperation -- additional cooperation that should assist us. Most individuals assess Colombia as being the source of a vast majority of the cocaine that comes to the United States of America. I think that's the fair figure.

   And so our ability to cooperate with Colombian authorities to interdict the supply of cocaine and to interdict the supply of money to terrorism that comes through the narco-terrorist connection is a very important part of our strategy not only to erode and undermine the drug supply to the United States, but also to undermine the financial underpinnings of the terrorist community.

   You'll remember that in Afghanistan, the primary source of revenue there was the selling of heroin into Europe. And I believe 80 to 90 percent of the heroin that reached Europe came out of Afghanistan.

   The director is similarly involved in working to make sure that Afghanistan doesn't reemerge as a primary source of this drug, and we do whatever we can to curtail this because the support that the narcotics community provides to the terrorist community is now pretty clearly linked, and we need to do everything within our power, both in this hemisphere and elsewhere, to interrupt that linkage and to undermine that deadly combination.

   MODERATOR: Last question.

Q Are you considering any change in the visa system for foreign visitors of the visa waiver program, under which Zacarias Moussaoui entered the country, or limiting visa length of stay? There was a report of maybe limiting it to 30 days instead of the usual six months.

   ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Without getting specific about things that we are doing, virtually every aspect of the security of the United States and its welcoming of individuals to the United States is subject to review. And as has been already in process in a variety of other announcements we've made, when decisions are made in that respect, we'll be making those announcements as time goes by.

   Thank you for your warm welcome to Florida. It's a pleasure to be with you in Miami again,

   particularly to be accompanied by Secretary Mel Martinez, who is obviously a great citizen of Florida,

   but he's a proud servant of the United States of America, and it's an honor to serve with him, as well

   as Asa Hutchinson.

   Thank you. (Applause.)