Attorney General Addresses Threat Level Status Questions
Tuesday, September 24, 2002
Q General Ashcroft, just to change the subject for a moment. Earlier today, you and Governor Ridge lowered the threat advisory level. Can we read into that that the United States is any safer today than it was on September 10th? And then secondly, could you just talk about what role the arrests of the six Buffalo men played in your decision?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, we believe that the threat level should be at the -- what's called the "elevated" level. We believe that an assessment of all the intelligence information and the reporting that we have indicates that that would be the appropriate place for that level.
We had raised that level, and I think from this podium I indicated why, as a result of an overall assessment based on intelligence data, which factored in some very troublesome things, including as well the anniversary of the September 11th date.
Factored in were some threats overseas which were relatively specific, and the inference that if al Qaeda was to be active in variety of settings overseas, it might be likely that they would be active in the United States.
Obviously, factored into that was the fact that we also had an awareness of activity that demanded our attention in this country.
Now, since that time, we have asked the intelligence community on a regular basis, as we always do, as is our matter of course, daily to provide us with indications of what kind of traffic they are encountering, and what kind of risk or threat there seems to be. And it is clear that we have made arrests in Buffalo, we've made arrests in Bahrain, we've made arrests in Pakistan.
We had things that were disrupted in the Southeast Asia region. And it was based on those kinds of incidents and the information provided by the intelligence community that led us to say to the American people we will return from a high risk assessment posture to an elevated.
Now, I want to emphasize that we are not saying there is no risk. We still think there is an elevated level of risk. We still believe that al Qaeda is an international network; that it still has the reach that makes it global in scope and nature; that we know from them that when we work hard, we disrupt their activities, and when citizens are alert, we disrupt their activities.
We believe that based on the information as I mentioned, the activities I mentioned, the intelligence provided to us by the intelligence community, that it was appropriate to recategorize the risk at the elevated level rather than the high level. And yes, in part, that's a result of the fact that we have been having some success in our pursuit of those individuals who have been associated with the international terrorist movement.
But I just would again note that we consider the risk to still be an elevated risk; it's a very serious risk, and we ask for citizens to remain alert, and that people continue to try and work together with governments, not just ours, but around the world, to make sure that we minimize terrorist threats.
Q Attorney General, on that same topic, both you and Governor Ridge have said that the government believes there are sleeper cells of al Qaeda still waiting to get operational in the United States. Is that still true, or has this recent activity disrupted that --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We have no reason to believe that the United States is absent al Qaeda-associated individuals.
We believe it is an organization which is still bent on injuring America and Americans, that it is worldwide in scope. We have not lost sight of the fact that tens of thousands of individuals were trained by al Qaeda and that they are associated with, obviously, other individuals who didn't find their way to training facilities of al Qaeda in the Middle East. So I don't want anything that I have said to be misconstrued to indicate in any way somehow that there is an absence of al Qaeda threat in the United States. We don't believe that. We believe that it was appropriate to restate the threat based on the assessment of the current threat situation from a high threat to an elevated threat.
Q Do you still believe that there are sleeper cells in the United States waiting to go operational?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I believe that there are al Qaeda operatives in the United States who are assets to the al Qaeda network around the world. And if I, obviously, had specific information about an operation that they were about to carry out, believe me, I would be taking action in regard to those specific individuals.
Q Sir, today we heard from the JIC regarding the FBI. It painted a fairly dismal picture of the FBI in the runup to 9/11 of last year. Can you assure the American public that the necessary reforms have taken place at the FBI so they feel confident that the FBI and the Justice Department is doing as much as they can to combat al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: The walls that once separated the FBI from other intelligence agencies, for example, were walls created by the Congress and governmental entities quite some time ago. If you'll think back to when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was brought into existence, in the 1970s, there was a -- perhaps an unwarranted myth that somehow you could separate domestic matters from international matters and that intelligence gained at the international -- in the international arena wouldn't be relevant to things happening domestically and vice versa.
These walls that separated these agencies prohibited the kind of cooperation which we now know is essential. That's one of the reasons in the very few days after September the 11th we went to the Congress and said we must adjust this. We must pass the USA Patriot Act, which fosters communication across these agency lines. I have personally gone beyond that to say about the FBI that no longer are you restrained from doing what other law enforcement agencies are doing, you have a responsibility to keep your ears open, your eyes open, if need be, surf the web, go to public places. You don't have the authority to invade private spaces that are protected, but you must go to public places and think carefully about what we can do to prevent terrorism.
Obviously, at the FBI Director Mueller has stood up, has created a new intelligence or analysis aspect of the FBI with this in mind. So structurally, the Congress has helped us take aside those walls which had been put in place congressionally in the 1970s.
Now, some of those things are still being worked out. As it relates to the full implementation of the Patriot Act, the Justice Department is appealing a judicial ruling that might impair some of the collaboration and cooperation that would exist between these agencies when it relates to the use of this information freely for both preventative work to prevent terrorism, and prosecutorial work to send those who might be involved in terrorism into detention or punishment. We're going to continue to work that way as aggressively as we can. And I am grateful that the Congress has disassembled a wall once constructed in the Congress that provided a barrier or a blockage that kept the kind of information from flowing freely that we need to have flowing.
Q Do you support Senator Lieberman's proposal for a blue ribbon 9/11 commission?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: The administration has indicated that it endorses the idea of a commission to review and find out if there are additional ways that we can learn from what happened in 9/11 so as to improve our capacity to prevent terrorism.
STAFF: Last question.
Q General, you mentioned the indictment of the members of FARC last March. I'm wondering if any of these have ever been arrested or extradited, or we've made -- progress has been made on this issue?
(Off mike conversation.)
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Yes. Carlos Bolas I believe was apprehended in Suriname. And he remains in the custody of the United States pursuant to the indictments that were announced I believe last March -- did we say that?
MR. : Correct.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: -- regarding FARC.
Thank you all very much.