WEEKLY MEDIA AVAILABILITY BRIEFER: ERIC HOLDER, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE WASHINGTON, D.C. THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 18, 1999 9:31 A.M. EST
MR. HOLDER: I'd like to start with a statement -- by saying good morning -- and I'm joined this morning by Jonathan Rush (sp), who is the special counsel for fraud prevention in the Department's Criminal Division. With just over six weeks to go before we reach the year 2000, more and more people are talking about Y2K and the Y2K problem.
Now, most people think of the Y2K problem in terms of fixing programming in computers and electronic devices to make sure that they'll continue to run smoothly once we reach January 1st of 2000. But there is another kind of Y2K problem that law enforcement is also watching very closely, and that's Y2K fraud.
Law enforcement and regulatory agencies, as well as consumer groups, have been hearing from consumers that people are using the Y2K issue to try to defraud them, and here's how some fraud schemes use Y2K fears to get information from their victims: They may say things like, "I'm with your bank. We've got Y2K problems here at the bank and we need your account number so we can move your money into a special account or bond fund to protect it while we fix the problem." Or, "I'm from your credit card company. Your credit card's magnetic stripe isn't Y2K compliant and we need your credit card number for verification so we can send you a new magnetic stripe to put over the old one." Or, "I'm with the IRS and we're conducting a computer test because of Y2K problems. We need your Social Security number to confirm your identification."
Now, we may be entering the 21st century, but these schemes are just dressing up old-fashioned telemarketing fraud in high-tech clothing. But old-fashioned or high-tech, telemarketing fraud is a federal crime with very stiff penalties.
Department of Justice has an outstanding record in going after telemarketing fraud of all types, and we are prepared to extend the record by going after all fraudulent schemes that may use this kind of Y2K scare tactic.
Yesterday, the attorney general participated in the announcement of a massive public-service effort aimed at educating the public about telemarketing fraud. The No-Fraud Initiative will send a postcard to every household in America, explaining how to identify telemarketing fraud and advising what to do about it. Today, I want to give consumers another and even more in-depth tool.
The Justice Department has posted a set of web pages on Y2K fraud, prepared by the Fraud Section of the department's Criminal Division, on our Web site. And that's www.us.doj.gov. The Web site has information about many types of schemes; how they operate, how consumers should deal with calls like the ones that I have described, and where they can go for more information.
I want to be clear: We have not seen a major upswing in the numbers of complaints about Y2K fraud. But we are anticipating that, as we get closer to the end of this year, more criminals will try to con consumers, and want consumers to know what to look for and how to respond to it. Working together, we can help put fraudulent telemarketers out of business, once and for all.
I'd be glad to respond to any questions that you might have.
Q The examples you just gave us of people with the IRS or credit-card companies, these are actual things that people have said have happened to them?
MR. HOLDER: That's right.
Q How many of these complaints have you had, roughly?
MR. HOLDER: It's hard to quantify because we know some people who may have gotten these calls, who didn't fall for it, may not have reported them. What we can say is that we have heard from a variety of sources, from law enforcement, consumer groups and other sources, that this is one of the trends that some telemarketers are trying to pursue.
Q Are they particularly targeting the elderly or is it just anyone that they can --
MR. HOLDER: We haven't seen clear evidence yet that they are targeting just the elderly. But certainly, some telemarketing outfits will have lead lists, mooch lists, that are heavily focused on the older population; you know, people who have been scammed before. And that may give them more of a vehicle to target the elderly.
Q If I could switch subjects, on Waco, Mr. Holder?
A couple of weeks ago, a Department of Justice spokesperson said that the department was considering a request by Special Counsel Danforth to conduct a reenactment. What's the latest on that?
Does the Justice Department support the request? And also, will it support his recent request to conduct ballistic tests on some of the weapons that were at the site?
MR. HOLDER: Clearly we'll work with Senator Danforth to the extent that we can. And with regard to the turning over of the weapons, that's really not, I don't think, any big news. That's something that I think you might expect to have him ask for, and those weapons will be turned over.
With regard to the re-creation, as I understand it, there's supposed to be a conference in Waco in front of the judge, I guess, on Monday, I believe. I think news reports that indicated that the judge has actually ordered that the re-creation take place were not quite accurate, but I think there was supposed to be some discussion of that next week.
Q What's changed, though, in the Department of Justice's position, because this request was apparently made by the Branch Davidians several years ago, and the Justice Department adamantly opposed it?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I mean, it's obviously something that'll be difficult to do. We want to make sure that we cooperate with Senator Danforth and obviously follow whatever the court orders us to do. And we'll have to wait and see what happens after Monday in the -- in Texas.
Q If the main reason for the re-creation is a federal judge really seems to want it, is there any way to get out of it?
MR. HOLDER: I've prosecuted most of my life in federal court, and I've found that once federal judges tell you to do something, you generally have to do it. And of course we would comply with any order that any federal judge entered.
Q Can you really re-create this thing? I mean, the FBI says that now there's a different camera, that the camera that was in use that day apparently is no longer around. I mean, is it possible to re-create exactly what happened that day?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I suppose it's impossible to re-create anything in exactly the same way that any event has occurred. But to the extent that we are capable of doing it, we'll follow the directions of the court. And if we are ordered to re-create the situation, we'll do the best job that we can. But hopefully --
Q (Off mike) --
MR. HOLDER: -- hopefully the people understand, though, that as I said, you know, re-creating something in an exact way is, I think, virtually impossible.
Q Would the tests be fair or accurate or legitimate?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I mean, you know, as I said, we will look at the court's order, we'll work with Senator Danforth, and we'll try to do the best we can, given the concerns that are expressed by them.
Q If it's impossible to re-create exactly the same conditions, what is the value of this exercise?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I mean, I guess, you know, that's a question you ought to ask Senator Danforth, the court, if that in fact is ordered. I mean, I think there's some value in trying to get something close to the conditions that existed at the time of the incident. But I think, in trying to evaluate the results of any tests that are performed, one always has to keep in mind that the tests are not going to be exact re-creations. So there's -- you know, I think there will be some value.
Q Mr. Holder, on EgyptAir, is the decision to move ahead with a criminal investigation contingent on the support of the Egyptians?
MR. HOLDER: I'm not sure I'd say that. We are certainly going to be working with the Egyptians. I think the cooperation that we've had with them over the past days has been really excellent. We need to have some further discussions with them before any decisions are ultimately made. But I would not say anything is contingent upon the approval of the Egyptian government -- (not in that regard ?).
Q In that case, why do you need to have further discussions with them?
MR. HOLDER: Well, because it seems to me that it's an appropriate way to proceed. We are proceeding in this matter as partners. We have done that up to now. We will continue to do that. There are -- you know, we'll be -- they can help us with regard, for instance, to translations -- that happened in the cockpit. You know, this is a matter that is ongoing. This is an investigation that is still, in my mind, in its early stages, and all the assistance that we can get from our Egyptian partners is appreciated.
Q Does it complicate the relationship that the Egyptian government, a valued ally, is also the owner of the airline?
MR. HOLDER: No, I'm not so sure. I mean, I think -- I don't think that there's anything to indicate at this point that anybody who is involved in this investigation desires anything less than getting at the truth. That is certainly what the NTSB is doing, what the FBI is doing. The FBI has been working, obviously, on this investigation. And in our interaction with our Egyptian partners, I've seen no indication that they want anything other than that themselves.
Q But the NTSB was obviously ready a couple of days ago to turn the case over to the FBI. Do you think it's just a matter of working out the diplomatic sensitivities and that you will ultimately turn it over to the FBI, or do you think there's any question left about the evidence and whether or not there's a suggestion of criminal activity?
MR. HOLDER: Well, as I said, I think it's an early investigation, and there are still things that need to be looked at and need to be listened to, need to be understood before any final decisions can be made.
Q Don't the foreign policy pressures make it a little more difficult for y'all to make an independent judgment?
MR. HOLDER: No, I don't think so. I mean, I don't think that any of the people who have been involved in this matter from the Justice Department side are feeling any pressure in that regard. I mean, this is a -- it becomes complicated in that this is not simply an American investigation, and we have to work with our Egyptian partners. But you know, it makes it a little more difficult, but not -- it's not a burden.
Q Do you believe that a preponderance of the evidence points to the possibility of a criminal act having occurred?
MR. HOLDER: I wouldn't make a determination at this point. As I said, I think this is an investigation that is at its early stages, and I'm old enough to know and have been through enough cases to know that those decisions or those determinations made at this stage of an investigation frequently turn out to be wrong.
Q Well, wasn't that the standard that would have to apply for it to be shifted from NTSB to the FBI -- that there would be such a preponderance indicating the possibility of a criminal act?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I'm not exactly sure what the standard would be, but even if that were the standard, I would not say at this point, based on the information that I've had in front of me, that I'd be willing to say that. Now, that might change in the next, you know, day or so, depending on a whole variety of things, but at this point I would not be prepared to say that.
Q Mr. Holder? Mr. Holder, much of the information in the EgyptAir case has been leaked. You're generally hearing two groups of voices, one which says the particular focus is on a relief co-pilot. Another group of voices says, "Let's not rush to judgment here." In all fairness to the families of the flight crew and the families of the passengers, can you say publicly whether the investigation is focusing on Gameel al-Batouti or whether it's still wide open as to whose voice was recorded in the cockpit?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I think that's actually a good point. In fairness to the families of the people who perished on that plane and to anybody who might have been flying that plane, what we need to tell them is that this is an investigation that is at its early stages and we've reached no conclusions. And that until we've had a chance to do more investigating, had a chance to review those tapes perhaps a little more, look at some more physical evidence, it's simply too early to decide exactly what has happened here. These investigations take time.
Q So -- you've reached no conclusions, even as to who -- which individual is talking or which individuals were present in the cockpit?
MR. HOLDER: I don't -- let me not go much further than what I've said. I mean, this is an ongoing investigation. I don't necessarily want to get into all the details, but with regard to ultimate conclusions, we have certainly not reached that point.
Q Short of conclusions, there is a working hypothesis, and has been since the NTSB was prepared to turn this over to the Bureau and the Bureau was prepared to accept it. Has that working hypothesis changed?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I would not comment on any working hypothesis that has been developed.
Q One other question here. What difference does it make who the lead investigator is? If this is turned over to the FBI, as a practical matter, does it do anything differently, in terms of what's happening with people listening to the tape, pursuing all leads about anyone on the plane? Does anything really change when the lead of the investigation changes?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I mean, I suppose there would be some changes, but I really do think that, you know, the NTSB would obviously continue to be involved, bringing the expertise that they have, the FBI would be working with them. You know, there would be a change -- there could be a change in focus. A criminal investigation, as opposed to one that was perhaps simply civil in nature, you know, would be different. You'd have the FBI, I suppose, doing a greater number of things, although the FBI, as I said, has been intimately involved in this. It's kind of hard to tell exactly how it might change.
Q The NTSB -- I'm sorry, Egypt asked the NTSB to take the lead in this.
Could they, if the matter is turned over to the FBI, say: "Well, we no longer want" -- "we are no longer asking the FBI, the U.S. government, to take the lead. We rescind that offer"? What diplomatic effect would that have under our national law?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I guess that's another -- I guess the attorney general always says, "I don't do 'what ifs.'" I mean, I think that we have been working in partnership with Egypt, and I don't see any reason to think that that's going to change.
Q Is the FBI talking to people in Egypt already?
MR. HOLDER: I wouldn't comment on that.
Q Can you tell me what's going to happen in the next couple days? And is there a particular time by which you respect a decision to be made about whether in fact the investigation is going to go to the FBI?
MR. HOLDER: No, I don't think I have a specific amount of time. But I don't think that any decisions are going to take an extended period of time, and that's why I said a couple days.
Q We ought to know by Monday or by Friday, or when?
MR. HOLDER: (Laughs.) I would say in the not-too-distant future.
Q By 2:00 p.m. Friday? (Laughter.)
Q Do you think there are lessons that the FBI should take away from TWA 800 after some of the missteps, you know, given suspicions of terrorist activity there? Are there things that they should do differently this time versus TWA 800?
MR. HOLDER: We learn hopefully from every investigation, both in terms of how we conduct them, how we interact with the public with regard to the investigations. And I think that we learned some lessons from TWA 800.
Q Which ones specifically? What did you learn from it?
MR. HOLDER: I think some valuable lessons.
Q Are you worried that Mr. Batouti is, at such a preliminary stage, becoming a Richard Jewell of the Egypt Air 990 crash? Are you concerned that he may be falsely accused, and whatever happens later, his name, the family's name, has been irreparably harmed?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I am not sure I'd compare the situations to the one that you have described. But I think we need to be careful to make sure that we develop as much information as we possibly can, before we assign blame in this matter. And that's what we are trying to do, trying to really the bottom of this.
Q Are the Egyptians willing -- (inaudible) -- American investigators go to Egypt?
MR. HOLDER: I think that the Egyptian government has been cooperating with us in just about every way, and I would expect and hope that that cooperation would continue.
Q How long will Egyptian investigators continue to be -- as the investigation goes forward; I mean, whether or not the FBI takes it over, how involved and in what ways would the Egyptians themselves be involved, as well?
MR. HOLDER: There are a whole variety of things that could be helpful to us. If, for instance, there is a desire to talk to people in Egypt that could be facilitated, those conversations -- well, those interviews could be done with our Egyptian counterparts; dealing with the tape, in trying to figure out exactly what was said, who said it, familiarity that people might have with voices, trying to identify what person said what. I mean, there are a whole variety of ways, it seems to me, that they can be helpful and have been helpful.
Q It would be in that sort of a helping role as opposed to Egyptian investigators working side by side with American investigators in the same capacity?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I wouldn't want to say that, you know, anybody is taking a subsidiary role in this. I think we've worked together as partners in this.
Q Under international law, Egypt has the jurisdiction for the investigation of this accident or this event. However, a number of U.S. citizens were killed aboard this aircraft. If the investigation determines that this was caused by a criminal act, doesn't the FBI have a brief under U.S. law to investigate the event no matter what the Egyptians eventually decide?
MR. HOLDER: Well, again, we will seek to work with the Egyptian government and try to maintain this partnership that we have formed. But obviously, our law -- if in fact this were a terrorist incident, for instance, our law would cover that situation and give the United States government jurisdiction in that matter, and the FBI would likely be the investigative agency.
Q Doesn't the U.S. law cover it regardless of whether it's a terrorist incident?
MR. HOLDER: That's correct.
Q One of the things that's been missing from all of the --
MR. HOLDER: Given the facts that we have.
Q -- news reports and the official briefings -- you mention a possible terrorist incident -- is any real understanding for a motive. Putting Mr. Batouti aside for the moment, the NTSB has developed information that rules out mechanical failure, that rules out weather problems, that suggests the pilot -- a pilot took this plane down. Can you shed any light or make any comment on any possible motive that an individual could have had, might have had for doing so?
MR. HOLDER: No, I really wouldn't want to comment on that. But, you know, that's certainly, you know, a very relevant question if in fact that is what happened. If, in fact, there were some kind of voluntary action, the question would have to be why did that happen. And, you know, that involves a whole series of things, interviews, examinations of people's backgrounds, and those kinds of things take time. And that's why I said, you know, we should not rush to judgment here. Let the investigation proceed. We'll do this as expeditiously as we can but as completely as we can.
Q Isn't it correct that at this point there is no apparent motive?
MR. HOLDER: I really wouldn't want to comment on that.
Q Is there any harm done in allowing this to sit while the Egyptians look over existing evidence; I mean, not getting to people that you would probably move to talk to quickly under these circumstances?
MR. HOLDER: I wouldn't say that this investigation is at a stand-still now, pending any kind of discussions. This investigation is proceeding and I don't think anything -- the investigation has not in any way been put at risk.
Q Two years ago, 56 Western tourists were murdered at Luxor. There were many Western tourists on this particular aircraft. Is the investigation concentrating at all on connections between people who may have been aboard the aircraft and organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood or related groups in Egypt?
MR. HOLDER: I really wouldn't want to comment on that.
Q Mr. Holder, getting away from the specifics of this accident, if it turns out that the NTSB washes its hands and says there's no apparent mechanical problem and the FBI cannot find what you described earlier as conclusory evidence of a crime, who in the U.S. government says what happened on this plane? Is it just -- does the investigation simply stop and no agency of the U.S. has really anything to say?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I mean ultimately, if, for instance, the FBI decides there has not -- Again, and taken away from this crash, let's just -- we're talking hypothetically here.
MR. HOLDER: I guess I'm not supposed to do "what-ifs," but if the FBI decided that there were not -- there was not a criminal act that brought down this airplane, the NTSB, it seems, would then have the responsibility of coming up and trying to determine exactly what the cause of the crash. And I think, as we've seen in other crashes, these are the kinds of things that sometimes take months if not years and a determination is almost always made. Sometimes, you just say,"It's likely that" this was the cause of the crash as opposed to coming up with something that is conclusive. But there is an understanding, a responsibility on the part of the government agencies involved here to ultimately tell the American public, you know -- the world public -- as best we can what happened to that flight.
Q Is it possible we may never know exactly what happened?
MR. HOLDER: It's possible, but, you know, we have the best investigative agencies in the world involved in this matter, with adequate resources devoted to the examination, and we'll give them whatever resources they need.
And I would expect, I would hope, that we will come up with some answers.
Q In Egypt, there are all these conspiracy theories floating around. Do you think you'll ever be able to allay those kind of fears?
MR. HOLDER: Well, we'll do the best we can and try to develop the facts, as best we can, and then share those facts with the people of Egypt, the people of the United States. And hopefully, people will take the facts as we have developed them.
Q Even if the FBI takes over the lead in this investigation, the salvage operations will still go on, and they will still be trying to get as much of the wreckage out of the ocean as possible -- I mean, that phase of the investigation continues, looking for some possible mechanical problem that would have caused this, correct?
MR. HOLDER: Yeah -- I mean, again -- you know, the --
Q Not shutting off on any avenue, if the FBI suddenly takes the lead of this thing?
MR. HOLDER: To do a criminal investigation, you have to not only use a working hypothesis to figure out what it is you think happened, but you have to exclude things, as well. If, for instance, you are trying to determine, if there were a criminal act, I think you'd have to try to exclude the possibility that there was a mechanical problem that actually caused the flight to crash.
Q Are there any other scenarios that are even actively being considered at this point that you could tell us about?
MR. HOLDER: No, I wouldn't really want to comment on that.
Q You said the transfer of this, from the NTSB to the FBI, wouldn't be contingent on the approval of the Egyptian government. If this has become a diplomatic matter, what parts of the U.S. government would have to weigh in before Mr. Hall at the NTSB could exercise his independent judgment to pass this along? And what parts of government -- because it's clearly gone beyond just the NTSB's ability, even if they have the legal authority to do so, to transfer this?
MR. HOLDER: Obviously, the State Department -- the State Department actually gets involved in our interaction with the Egyptian government. And so there are a variety of parts of the U.S. government that are going to be involved in the ultimate decision.
Q Who else?
MR. HOLDER: State and other parts of the government.
Q You talked about resources being allocated. How much are we talking about? Have you done any preliminary estimates how much it might cost?
MR. HOLDER: No, I really have not. But the FBI certainly has put substantial numbers of people in the field. I don't have any idea as to what the costs are.
Q I just want to be clear on an earlier answer to a question, that you made: Was it your feeling that there was not a preponderance of evidence, or evidence, to suggest that this was a criminal act, at this time?
MR. HOLDER: I really wouldn't want one way or the other, other than -- I mean, as I said, I think it's -- we're very early in this investigation, and to take a legal standard and try to say that one thing or the other has happened, I think, at this point, is just a -- is a bit premature.
Q Can you tell us whether the entire tape from the cockpit voice recorder is recoverable, that you have been able to enhance or analyze the entire length of the tape, and that what was said in that cockpit has been completely captured?
MR. HOLDER: I don't think I should comment on that.
Q Mr. Holder, the NTSB did say -- the chairman did say in his statement on Tuesday that the NTSB has found no apparent mechanical problem that would explain the crash. Is that still the case, as far as you know?
MR. HOLDER: I don't have any reason to think that that is not the case now.
Q Mr. Holder, attorneys for James Riady have confirmed that they've been in some discussions with the campaign task force here at the Justice Department. Would you or the attorney general have to sign off to any sort of plea-bargain deal on that case?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I wouldn't want to -- let me not comment on the specifics of any ongoing matter, but the attorney general and I have both been very involved in the campaign finance matter, and I would expect -- well, and with regard to a great number of any agreements -- any of the agreements that have been reached with other people, the attorney general and I have both been involved.
Q As a matter of principle, if somebody, it turns out, has been the kingpin of laundering foreign money into the United States in an election cycle, do you believe that person ought to be able to get away with just a misdemeanor?
MR. HOLDER: Well, again, I don't do what ifs. But you know, in determining what an appropriate disposition is, in any case, you have to consider what the law is, what evidence you have developed, how likely you are to win if you try to charge a felony. There are a whole variety of things that you have to consider in making a determination as to what is an appropriate disposition in any particular case.
Q Mr. Holder, a Senate committee has voted to give subpoena power to subpoena folks on the Waco investigation, so this will be going on, presumably, at the same time as Mr. Danforth's investigation. Is this a welcome development?
MR. HOLDER: Well, you know --
MR. HOLDER: I mean, if you walk out in the halls of Justice, you could get by a subpoena at any moment. (Laughter.) They are really flying around here now. You know, any time you've got parallel inquiries going on, I mean that can be difficult. We always try, when we have civil matters going on, when we're doing criminal investigations, to try to do one or the other. We generally tend to the criminal. And it will be for Senator Danforth to try to work out something -- some way of dealing with the ongoing investigation that I guess the Senate will be doing.
Q Specter is not only looking at Waco but at campaign finance and China. And the subpoena list is pretty wide ranging, as some of the Democrats point out. What do you think that Senator Specter is up to, and what do you think of his effort?
MR. HOLDER: Well, you know, he's got subpoena power, and as we get the subpoenas, we'll answer them as best we can and try to cooperate with him.
Q Is this legitimate oversight or second-guessing?
MR. HOLDER: No. I mean, that's certainly -- it's within the power of Congress to do the kinds of things that they have authorized. It's our responsibility in the executive branch now to try to comply with those requests.
Q Any possibility of document gridlock, that you're going to be tied up so much in producing documents for various investigations that it's going to be detrimental to whatever else you're trying to do?
MR. HOLDER: Well, that is actually a very, very big concern that we have here, and we hope that we will be able to work out with the people on the Hill, with Senator Specter, you know, Congressman Burton, whoever is involved in these matters, to give them a sense of, you know, how broad some of these requests are. I know that with regard to one of the requests we got, I guess earlier in the week, we have about 800 boxes that we could give to them that would be responsive to the request.
Again, we want to comply with what is legitimately their ability to ask us questions, but I would hope that there would be an understanding that we need to continue the work of the Justice Department in addition to responding to their requests. And devoting substantial numbers of people to go through documents and get things ready for production, there's a cost that we pay here at the Justice Department.
Q "Final answer?" (Mimicking host of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?")
MR. HOLDER: (Laughs.)
Q Thank you.
MR. HOLDER: Okay, thank you.
Q Thank you.
Q "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" -- (off mike). (Laughter.)
MR. HOLDER: Oh, okay. I see. Okay. I haven't seen that show yet, but I understand it's a great show! (Laughter.)
Q You're busy watching Wizards games now, right?