ATTORNEY GENERAL NEWS CONFERENCE
March 1, 2001 2:00pm
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, let me thank you for coming. I'm delighted to be with you again. This makes the third time in the last three days, so it's nice to see you, and I'm pleased to be with you.
During 1999, in my work on the Constitution Subcommittee of the United States Committee -- Senate Committee on the Judiciary, I had the happy privilege of working with Russ Feingold, senator from Wisconsin, toward legislation which would help us develop an understanding about the impact of racial profiling on American citizens.
In that responsibility, I held a hearing on Senator Feingold's legislation regarding traffic stops and the relationship of those stops to the race of the individuals populating the vehicles. The testimony there galvanized an opinion of mine from the sort of philosophic to the tragic. I had long believed that to treat people based solely on their race was in violation of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution.
But when Rosano Gerald (sp) came to the committee and told of what had happened to him and his 12-year-old son in traveling across one of our states, and being stopped twice in the same trip, and the second time his car literally being disassembled and he being left, with his 12-year-old son, on the side of the road, as I said, it changed theory into tragedy and indelibly marked me with an understanding that racial profiling has really human consequences.
From the very first conversations I had with the president of the United States about my opportunity to serve as the attorney general, we had the opportunity to speak of this mutual concern that we shared. And so when the president of the United States, in his first address to the Congress of the United States, elevated this issue into the consciousness of those who were to be carrying forward on legislative agenda during this next year, it was very pleasing to me, and I was eager to respond to the president's remarks not only to the Congress, but to the president's directive to me.
The president, on February the 27th, in a memorandum to the attorney general, the subject of the memorandum being racial profiling, wrote the following words:
"I hereby direct you to review the use by federal law enforcement authorities of race as a factor in conducting stops, searches and other investigative procedures. In particular, I ask that you work with the Congress to develop methods or mechanisms to collect any relevant data from federal law enforcement agencies, and work in cooperation with state and local law enforcement in order to assess the extent and nature of any such practices. I further direct that you report back to me with your findings and recommendations for the improvement of the just and equal administration of our nation's laws," signed, President George W. Bush. And I think you all have a copy of this directive; I hope you do.
Today I want to announce that I am taking two actions in order to fulfill the directive of the president of the United States, and to work toward this laudable goal that each of us should share of justice that is not dependent upon racial profiling. And the first of those items I want to mention to you that -- is a letter sent to the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate committees. This letter indicates that I want to work with them in the next six months to produce a legislative product which will help us achieve what the president has indicated to us, especially as it relates to the development of data regarding state and local officials, and in regard to measures similar to the measure sponsored by Senator Russ Feingold and Representative Conyers last year, which was a traffic stops measure.
I believe that the Congress can and will respond constructively. And I will work with them to make sure that they do respond constructively. In the event that the Congress of the United States does not produce a legislative output, direction from the Congress -- which I think is the superior way for us to handle these issues is to do it in conjunction with the Congress -- at the conclusion of a six- month interval, I'll simply launch a study of my own, because I think this is an issue of such importance and magnitude that we should proceed with it to make sure that we do what's necessary to correct any abuse and to inventory the nature of this problem.
Secondly, I will issue today, for release this week, a directive to the acting deputy attorney general regarding the implementation of the president's directive of reviewing the nature and extent of racial profiling of any law enforcement agencies of the federal government. And there will be four major components of this directive that I intend to issue today and should get to you this week, and that is I would hope that we would be able to develop a summary of the types of contacts that exist between federal law enforcement officials and the public, to estimate the extent of such contacts, the numbers of them within specific timeframes.
And number two, I would hope that we would be able to develop an understanding of the current policies of the federal law enforcement agencies as they relate to racial profiling, including what efforts we have to eliminate any indications that a practice would exist; what rules we might have regarding such practices; what kind of guidance, instruction or training programs we have so that law enforcement officials understand that there are ways for us to conduct the law enforcement responsibilities that are absent these problems, and what kind of disciplinary rules exist in relation to any detected inappropriate use of these techniques or practices.
Number three, if there are currently records that relate to any such practices, that we would be able to collect those and summarize them as they might have occurred in other agencies.
And number four, if there are pending inquiries or actions taken that relate to such allegations of racial profiling by federal law enforcement officials, to develop an understanding of what the numbers of those actions would be.
Let me just indicate that I believe that these are a series of first steps to implement the directive of the president of the United States in an effort to assuage what I consider to be -- is an important -- and a challenge -- to meet an important challenge of our culture, and I look forward to it.
Let me -- I should mention again what I think is very important, that effective law enforcement has to be one of the primary goals of a culture, and I don't believe anything that seriously undermines the trust between significant components of the culture and the law enforcement authorities can be a part of effective law enforcement.
I believe we'll enhance law enforcement to the extent that we can build and expand upon the trust of individuals, and it's with that in mind that we understand the real value, not only in terms of the equities of our culture, but to the law enforcement community.
And let me indicate one final point on this particular issue. I believe that the law enforcement community in the United States is the best law enforcement community in the world. I believe that it is populated by individuals who are literally making sacrificial devotions of their lives to achieve an objective in which they believe. That's a secure society in which the persons and property of individuals, those persons and property, are guarded. And I believe that's important, and I believe they want to do this in a way which is effective and respectful of the rights of individuals, and I believe this study will be a way of assisting the law enforcement community in a project and a set of endeavors to which they have given and are giving their lives.
It's with that in mind that we are very eager to move forward on this directive of the president of the United States and to participate in its fulfillment.
Yes? Let's start over here this time.
Q Can you tell us why you want to wait for Congress to pass legislation when you could very well begin initiating a study of your own right now?
ATTY. GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, I think the Congress has been working on this and considering this. They have contact with the entire population of the country. They obviously, I think, will respond constructively in a setting where they have a sense of ownership in that which is developed by way of study.
I think the study is, as I indicated, one of the first steps, and if there are steps that are needed to be taken legislatively, I think moving with the Congress, which has indicated a willingness, especially the affected individuals whose legislation that I signaled in my remarks today, I think that's the right way to do this.
While those are benefits, I don't think they are benefits worth waiting for indefinitely, and that's why I've indicated if we have no real output in the next six months or so, I would expect to just -- to conduct items on my own.
Q On the federalism issue, can you talk a little bit about the voluntary nature of -- if you're not looking into any possible requirements that the federal government is placing on state and local agencies at all, how would this work in terms of developing data on state as well as federal agencies?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, there are a growing number of organizations and institutions of law enforcement around the country that are sensitive to this situation that are collecting data. And the ability to share that data, to develop national conclusions, and to benefit from the information, I think is the focus and has been of the Conyers-Feingold measure, which was proposed last year. And it's a good starting place for us to begin in this respect. I respect their awareness of the relationship between the federal agencies and the state agencies. The president has respected that in his order. Read it carefully. Has the idea that we should be respectful of the responsibility of states. I think it's in that context of mutual respect for those rights that we can ask people to be respectful of the rights of individuals and develop the data which will allow us to make real progress here.
Just go right down the list.
Q Having chaired a hearing on this, do you go into this first step with any preconceived notions of how big a problem this is? Do you have any beginning information on the nature of the problem in numbers, any of that going into this first step --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: What the hearing did for me was to make it clear to me that this isn't a problem that can be quantified just in terms of statistics. For Resano Gerald (sp) and his 12-year-old son, this was as big a problem as you could get. And if you're an affected individual here, the statistics about how many it affects or doesn't affect somewhere else in the culture don't mean much to you because for you it's 100 percent. It's like the guy who is unemployed; the unemployment rate for him is 100 percent. For people who have been the victim of racial profiling, the statistic is 100 percent.
So it's -- I don't -- it's wrong. And we're going to find out. I think the kinds of inquiries that we're proposing and we're working toward, in my judgment, will help us ascertain the nature of it and the extent of it. But the truth of the matter is, if the kind of thing continues to happen that happened to Resano Gerald (sp) and his 12-year-old son, that is a hundred percent offense in that setting, it's too extensive, and it needs to stop.
Q General Ashcroft, what would you say is the current state of the relations between minority communities and police since racial profiling sort of colors that?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, I think every American has a right to look to law enforcement officials to protect their rights. And in those instances, regardless of how rare they might be where a law enforcement institution instead of protecting rights violates rights, you have a compound fracture. You disrupt the trust, but you inflict an injury at the same time. And I think that's why you have a lose- lose situation in that circumstance. You lose the potential for the underlying trust that should support the administration of justice as a societal objective, not just as a law enforcement objective, because frankly, law enforcement is too important a role in the culture to leave to professionals alone. We'll only have good law enforcement in the country to the extent that the people participate. As soon as you start to peel off groups of people and say "We're not going to participate with law enforcement, we don't trust it," we erode the fabric of justice that's necessary to sustain a free culture.
So when you get into the lose-lose situation, you lose trust that comes, and you also have injury that comes as a result of it. That's very -- that's significantly bad. I can't tell you how extensive it is. That's really the purpose of the president's directive to me to try and develop an understanding of the nature and extent, and then, based on what we learn, to act appropriately to eradicate it.
Q Is racial profiling not banned already by federal law enforcement agents? And second, does your directive reach that issue?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, the directive in regard to the -- and thank you for this question. There are two parts to what I'm doing.
I'm asking the Congress to make -- to act, to design, to help us move forward on a study that would include the data. And secondly, in the federal arena, I want to find out what different agencies are doing, law enforcement agencies. And you know, there are dozens of federal law enforcement agencies, and we need to find out what they're doing, how they're handling allegations; what they do by way of training; if they find items that merit discipline, what kind of discipline is imposed. And there may be other things we learn in this survey.
As I've indicated to you, the four-step memo that I'm developing is a series of first steps. And we hope to be more conversant about this as we develop the data that we're using.
Q When you use the term "race," are you using it broadly to include -- (inaudible) -- country of origin? There are some problems in drug cases where -- (off mike).
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I think we'd like to have it apply to race. And when race is used as an indicator or marker of individuals so that they are in one way or another apprehended or dealt with by law enforcement based on their race, that's what we want to know about. That's why we're studying this, to learn about those circumstances. And if there are -- and by and large I believe that to be inappropriate. So I think we want to -- in the information that we are gathering, we want to be very inclusive about that information.
Q Do you believe that there are appropriate steps that the federal government could or should do on this issue beyond the collection -- (inaudible) -- of data?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I think that's one of the things we would try to determine, and I think there may well be. What the appropriate steps would be, I think, would be one of the things we might learn. And I think what we want to do is we want to aid the law enforcement community in doing its job well. I want to emphasize again that I believe that racial profiling is not doing the job well because it involves us in this compound injury. It injures the trust that communities need to have in order to participate in law enforcement, and it injures as well the individual. That's a lose-lose situation. We want to help law enforcement move to win-win.
Q Mr. Ashcroft, you're the highest law enforcement office in the country. Beyond whether it was inappropriate -- (off mike) -- do you believe racial and ethnic profiling violates existing civil rights law? If so -- (off mike) -- present law. If not, you'll need some legislation beyond this -- (off mike).
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Any violation of the existing civil rights laws that we develop an understanding and learn about, and with evidence of, we will prosecute and we will enforce.
Q But does racial profiling per se -- when someone is stopped solely on the basis of race, singled out solely for prosecution and investigation solely on the basis of race, does that violate existing civil rights law?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Let me just say this: that if we come to the conclusion that anyone has violated the civil rights law, with credible evidence, we'll take action to correct that violation and to prosecute it.
Q Do you intend to use the language in the '94 pattern and practice law as a weapon to take on instances of racial profiling --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We will continue to enforce the 1994 law. It is my responsibility to enforce that law. And I believe that the law is an opportunity for us to promote the concept of people being free from unwarranted, inappropriate activities by law enforcement officials.
Q You don't have any problem with the idea I believe the president expressed during the campaign -- that it was federal meddling in a state or local affair?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: You know, I believe that there are circumstances that warrant the enforcement of that law. And when we find those circumstances, we will enforce the law.
There are ways to help law enforcement agencies do their jobs well. That's another opportunity of the Justice Department. We are law enforcers, but we can also provide assistance to departments in saying, "Here are the ways that you can avoid difficulties in this area that will help you be better servants to your public." And I think that's one of the objectives of this department.
And there are times when various communities invite the department in. Literally, we don't go in on the basis -- and I won't talk about individual cases or instances, but the department is currently in settings where it's been invited in to help departments achieve the objectives of even, fair, equitable, compassionate law enforcement that elicits the trust and cooperation of the citizens and results in better outcomes. That's one of the roles and functions.
There are other times when it's simply that it is our role and function to enforce the law as a way of helping to get us to that objective. And both of those things we want the department to be adept at and to devote resources to. And we'll continue - try to work on both of those tracks. We'll work with both carrots and sticks, if that needs to be the characterization.
Q The president's budget proposal calls for a $1.1 billion reduction in the department's budget -- (off mike). And I understand there's also a billion-dollar increase -- (off mike). How do you plan to reconcile the department's operations with that budget? Will there be any cuts in existing programs?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, we believe that the president's budget will allow us to have about the same kind of spending that we've had previously.
And we believe that that will allow us to focus on some very important objectives which I've outlined for the Department; objectives like the reduction in violent crimes through a focus on reducing gun violence, a reduction in the traffic that we have and the utilization and supply of drugs, and obviously an effort to continue to do whatever we can to end discrimination. And we believe that the budget, which provides for an equivalent amount of spending that we've had this year, is one which will provide a basis for our doing that.
Q Some people in the minority community, including some in the Black Caucus, see this racial profiling proposal as kind of a window dressing, an attempt to kind of mollify the minorities who have been opposed to you and President Bush in the past. And that while they're hopeful something may come out of it, there's sort of concerned skepticism that there's nothing really behind it or underneath it, there are other things that would -- (inaudible) -- follow their concerns there.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, it's unfortunate, first of all, to characterize the measure that was sponsored by Congressman Conyers and Senator Feingold as somehow insubstantial -- I think underestimates not only the content of their effort and the content of the legislation, but the nature of these individuals. And my own involvement with this over time, and the president's expressed displeasure with racial profiling over a substantial period of time, I think suggests a far different conclusion.
This is a matter of serious concern to me. And I know from both public utterances of the president, and private statements that he's made to me, that this is a matter of very serious concern to the president of the United States.
I skipped over you earlier.
Q Many experts feel that community policing helps break down barriers between law enforcement and the citizens. How will the Justice Deparment support its expansion if at all?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, I like the concept of community policing. I had the opportunity when I was governor of the state of Missouri several lifetimes ago -- I was starting that program in the state of Missouri. I've personally ridden on the bicycle patrols with the policeman and I understand the increased, sort of, intimacy between the police community and the community generally that exists when a person's on a bicycle or walking the beat and you get the exchanges.
And obviously we want to enhance the capacity of law enforcement to have this cooperative participation with our culture because I do believe that law enforcement is too important to leave to police alone. It is something that requires us all.
So, to the extent that our programs can encourage that and assist localities in choosing to do that, they'll do that.
I think the president has made very clear, and it's my position as well, that it's not appropriate for us to try to run local police operations from Washington and to specify how many of your officers have to be in police cars and how many on bicycles and so many on snowshoes or what have you. I mean, that's the kind of thing that can be decided locally.
Q Okay, after all the data is collected, how long do you think it will take to make recommendations on ending racial profiling?
ATTY. GEN. ASHCROFT: You know, I don't know, and if I could tell you, I would. We will work promptly. My sense of urgency here, I think, is reflected in the fact that if the Congress doesn't move to direct the nature of a study, we willassemble one on our own, after a reasonable interval for the Congress to act; certainly during -- within this year. And it's my view that we should act quickly. We may be able to do things that will be helpful in advance of that, because I have described a two-track approach. One track relates primarily to the federal law enforcement agencies. We may develop information from that track that allows us to take action even before the Congress would act, as it relates to the other things.
I've been trying to do this in an orderly fashion, and I was coming down the row this way. Yes --
Q On the Hanssen case, do you think that polygraphing would have done much to have caught Hanssen any earlier, and are you ready to commit to having the FBI do required testing of its agents, as many members of the intelligence community seem inclined to do?
ATTY. GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, let me just say that -- (pause) -- I have to try and sort out what I'm -- there arecertain things regarding intelligence questions that I -- It's my understanding that there have been cases in the past that polygraphing did not work on. I think you could name them.
So the polygraph is not a sure way. The polygraph is said to have about 15 percent false positives and has an impact on the way an agency operates.
Nevertheless, I believe that there are applications for polygraph that are important, and the director and I have agreed that because of the national security involved and the risks involved and the very important consequences of breaches, that we should elevate the use of polygraph in certain cases as it relates to the Bureau.
And secondly, that we would take another interim measure, and the other interim measure would be to have a different way of auditing access to information in the agency, particularly on computers, so that individuals with an inordinate or an inappropriately inquisitive mind might be understood for what they are and inquired of.
Now, none of these things is expected to be conclusive, and each of these things is subject to the review, which we expect to be very comprehensive, which we have asked Judge Webster to conduct. He's a person who has a very thorough understanding of the intelligence community, having both been the director of the CIA and the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and had a wide variety of roles. And it's our expectation that he will assemble a broad group of -- or "group" is the wrong word -- a broad array of expertise to try and help us make whatever decisions we can to elevate security.
I have to say that this incident was probably one of the most troubling things I could imagine. This is a long-term penetration, undetected for a long series of years. It is the kind of thing that we must not -- well, we simply must minimize those kinds of risks wherever possible.
On the other hand, as long as you have human beings involved with critical information, as Director Tenet of the CIA has indicated, you have risk involved. Our job is to minimize that risk and to shorten the intervals during which that risk is -- to which we are subject to that risk.
Q Just to follow up, how exactly will you elevate polygraphing? Has that started already?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I'm not sure whether the first have taken place yet. But I can assure you that it's an item about which we are serious, and the director and I have agreed that it should be commenced.
Q A number of the family members, survivors in Oklahoma City have asked for closed circuit access to the execution. Where do you stand on that point? And how will that decision ultimately be --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I'm having a little trouble hearing you. Could you suspend for a minute while they -- (Pause).
Q A number of the victims' family members in the Oklahoma City bombing have asked for access to a closed circuitbroadcast of the execution of Timothy McVeigh. Where do you stand on that point? And how will that decision ultimately be made?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I've asked the Bureau of Prisons to develop for me recommendations in this respect that would be sensitive to the fact that the family members of people in the Oklahoma City disaster have undergone a tremendous tragedy, and to try and be respectful of their rights in regard to this incident. And I will work with the Bureau of Prisons to reach an outcome which I believe respects their rights and reflects our sensitivity to the great loss which they've endured.
The -- I think the decision will be made in a timely way which will allow people to participate in the way they would choose to in regard to this matter.
Q Is closed circuit an appropriate venue for them to participate --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I've asked the Bureau of Prisons to consider a variety of options, and I intended to confer with them about it.
Q In the last month of the previous administration the Civil Rights Division had, oh, a dozen or so pattern and practice investigations underway. Will you be continuing those, and will you pursue them as vigorously, and, if you will, how might they change or have a different focus?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, it's not my practice to -- and nor is it the policy of this department, nor has it been - as a matter of fact, I'm sure my staff will tell that this is a very unsuccessful news conference because I'm to question number 31 before I've said that I'm not going to comment.
But we haven't made any changes in indicating that we're not going to investigate wrongdoing or that we're not going to carry out our responsibility to enforce the law. And I think the question was asked earlier about whether I would enforce the pattern and practice law, and we will. The Congress has directed us so to do, and that will be our responsibility, which we will discharge, and we'll discharge it faithfully.
Q Mr. Ashcroft, New York Governor Pataki came by to see you earlier this week. He said before the meeting that he was going to be talking to you about the need for federal support for DNA data banks, to help states with their labs, with other arrangements, and support, in essence, a national network, a national registry of DNA information. What were you able to tell him about that, and where do you stand on the issue in general?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: First of all, Governor Pataki was able to tell me a lot about that. And I was very pleased. He's had a very good experience in helping elevate the integrity of the justice system to provide a basis for not only correcting errors that have once been made, but assuring that we make fewer errors. And I have indicated to him that I think this and other scientific technologies are very important to us in the law enforcement community and that we ought to find ways to work together to make these advancements in technology a part of our legal system. And obviously, I'm very respectful of Governor Pataki because during his time of leadership the problems relating to personal safety and the integrity of property in his state have, I think, been addressed very beneficially. And so I'm glad whenever people come to me with ideas like that, and I'm eager to find ways to -- and I've indicated this to the members of the Judiciary Committee. Senator Leahy has expressed an interest in DNA and what we can do elevate the sense of certainty we have, and not just the sense of it but the real certainty we have in judgments regarding criminal matters.
Yes, ma'am. This one.
Q I have a question on immigration. Number one, is the Bush administration actively considering TPS for Salvadorans? The president for that country is visiting the U.S. for the following day because of the earthquake.
And number two, how do you foresee, for example, that the INS could be divided into two this year?
ATTY. GEN. ASHCROFT: First of all, the president, when he appointed me attorney general, or announced me, someone asked how I would advise him on things, and he swiftly strode to the microphone and said, "Privately." And so I would not communicate to you what I believe the president, if he chooses to communicate something, would later communicate. That's -- whether the president is going to do something is an announcement that the president would make, and I can't --
The second -- you question is how could --
Q No, do you foresee that INS could be divided into --
ATTY. GEN. ASHCROFT: Yeah, be divided into -- yeah. I can just tell you that there was a great deal of discussion over the last year into a way in which somehow the INS might be divided so as to have people who focused on service in one area and enforcement in another area. I think there will be a substantial debate on those issue. And obviously that kind of policy decision would probably be reflected in debate among the elected representatives of the people. And whatever they make a decision to do, I'll do my best to carry forward on.
I thank you all for coming today, and I look forward to seeing you again. Thank you.
Q Thank you.