Attorney General Ashcroft News Briefing
ASHCROFT: Good afternoon. This morning, I had the pleasure of attending the swearing-in ceremony for Governor Tom Ridge as the head of the Office of Homeland Security. The tragic events of September 11 show how critical it is to have a coordinated and a comprehensive national strategy to protect the United States against terrorist attacks. I welcome Governor Ridge wholeheartedly and I look forward to working with him on the difficult tasks that together we face and of course in the challenges that he faces.
Yesterday, the president ordered the United States military to begin strikes against Al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Consistent with this development, I have instructed federal law enforcement to be on the highest level of alert to strengthen America's protections. We are taking strong precautions and other appropriate steps to protect the American people while we win this war.
The FBI, through the National Threat Warning System, has contacted 18,000 law enforcement organizations and 27,000 corporate security managers, advising them of this highest state of alert. We get some multiplier affect out of those notifications, particularly in the corporate system, because many of the corporate individuals and institutions on the alert sheet have call lists which they undertake and share information with others. Similar warnings have been sent to information sharing and analysis centers. All law enforcement agencies have been asked to evaluate whether additional local security measures are warranted in the light of the current threat level.
In addition, authorities in telecommunications, electrical power generation and distribution, banking and finance, oil and gas, information technology, water service providers and railroads have been similarly advised and are the subject of regular communication.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service has implemented a heightened border security plan, and all United States Attorneys' Offices continue to be on heightened alert.
To safeguard our nuclear facilities, all have been placed at the highest state of alert and have increased the physical security in and around the facilities. Thorough screening of all employees and of individuals with access to those facilities is also being undertaken.
Similar steps are being taken in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency with regard to industrial, chemical and petrochemical facilities.
The FAA will continue restrictions implemented to protect populated areas and sporting events and certain critical infrastructure components of our industrial base.
I believe, as the president does, that the best defense against terrorism is a multi-front offensive. And since September 11, we have arrested or detained 614 persons. We continue to look for 229 additional individuals. Our national law enforcement network, involving millions of Americans, will continue working around the clock to find the people who were involved in the September 11 attacks and to disrupt any future plans for terrorism in America.
I encourage all Americans to continue to have a heightened sense of awareness of their surroundings. I ask for them to report suspicious activity to our partners in law enforcement at every level of law enforcement, from local law enforcement to state authorities to federal authorities. Every American should be vigilant, and we're counting on each American to help us defend our nation in this war.
I also encourage the Congress to pass quickly the anti-terrorism legislation proposed by the administration so that law enforcement may have at its immediate disposal all appropriate anti-terrorism tools to fight this war.
Osama bin Laden broadcast a message yesterday celebrating the attacks of September 11. He glorifies the terrorists who kill thousands of innocent men, women and children with no warning and no mercy. He distorts religion to promote death and to destroy life. He seeks fear, chaos and terror for the American people, and he swears to steal our sense of security in America. This is the face of evil.
After hearing his chilling words, there can be no doubt that America's actions of self-defense are justified.
Although we must be aware of the heightened risk, we must not let that risk affect the freedom that makes America great. While we must be attentive to the threat, we must not yield to fear. The president pledged that America would not waiver, would not tire, would not falter, would not fail. Americans will rise to meet the president's call and our response which will reinforce liberty. I'd be pleased to answer questions.
QUESTION: Attorney General Ashcroft, a second man, as you know, has inhaled anthrax spores in Florida. What can you tell us about this case, and is it clear at this point that this is a deliberate criminal act or is there still a possibility that it is an accidental exposure?
ASHCROFT: Let me try and state carefully what I know. And I believe that from the nose of an individual the bacillus anthracis was found--don't know whether it's accurate to say he inhaled it. This indicates the exposure of a second person, at least. We take this very seriously. Together with local authorities and health authorities, we have sealed the building. We are relying on the Centers for Disease Control and health authorities to provide expertise which we do not have. And, very frankly, we are unable to make a conclusive statement about the nature of this, as either an attack or an occurrence absent more definitive laboratory and other investigative returns.
QUESTION: Is the FBI approaching it, though, from an investigative--criminal investigation standpoint?
ASHCROFT: We are working very diligently, together with health authorities, to learn all we can and we are seeking to contain, by virtue of sealing the building, this situation thoroughly. The CDC has issued a statement regarding this matter which I found instructive and I hope you have it. I have read it carefully and it is--I think it states matters pretty clearly.
QUESTION: Is this a criminal investigation at this point?
ASHCROFT: We regard this as an investigation which could become a clear criminal investigation, and we are pursuing this with all the dispatch and care that's appropriate, relying on the expertise of the Centers for Disease Control and health authorities, which obviously is an expertise that's nontraditional in the Justice Department.
QUESTION: Do you regard it as something that could potentially become a terrorist-related investigation?
ASHCROFT: We don't have enough information to know whether this could be related to terrorism or not. There are, according to my understanding, and which is very limited, various strains of anthrax. Some are naturally occurring and some occur only having been generated in laboratories.
QUESTION: Sir, because of how close the site was to one of the flight training schools, where Mr. Atta had been several weeks ago, do you regard Mr. Atta as a potential suspect in this case?
ASHCROFT: I think it's fair to say that we are taking the matter very seriously. The kind of examination which we are conducting is very thorough. It includes the steps that are necessary to safeguard the area totally. But we haven't ruled out--on the basis of the investigation, we haven't ruled out anything at this time.
QUESTION: Since our retaliatory strikes yesterday, have you received any new threats or anything that's more alarming?
ASHCROFT: I'm not prepared to, nor will we, I believe, get in the situation where we try to outline all the threats that may or may not come to the United States on a regular basis.
QUESTION: On not yielding to fear, do you believe that the American people should continue to do things, like go to sporting events, like using mass transit? Is there any threat that you would specifically warn people about, at this point?
ASHCROFT: Well, I just think people ought to be alert. Now we have had the most massive investigation in the history of America, the development of an arrest of over 600 individuals, the pursuit of additional individuals, the alert to the entirety of the law enforcement community cross America is just one of those steps.
My nephew happened to be the person kicking-off for Air Force against Navy in the football game this last weekend, and I went to watch my nephew propel the ball through the end zone, I might add, on several occasions. So I do not think that Americans should avoid sporting events or should avoid undertaking their lives in a way which is appropriate to American freedom. If you'll listen to Osama bin Laden this last week, and it was a little bit painful to do it, but it's clear that he wants America to be intimidated away from liberty and paralyzed so that we would be fearful instead of free. I reject that, I believe the American people reject it and I believe there's reason to reject it.
We are taking very serious steps. We are using every possible avenue to disrupt, interrupt, defer, delay, impede, impair, prevent terrorism in any number of settings. And I believe we'll provide and do have a context in which America should have a heightened level of awareness, but we should be free people and we should act with an understanding of that liberty.
QUESTION: When you talk about the infrastructure protection, are you encouraging all the large companies that ship various materials to just not ship anything for a while, either via rail or on the roads?
ASHCROFT: I think it's pretty clear that we're not encouraging all companies not to ship. We're asking companies to develop security plans which are reasonable and which provide a way to secure cargo and facilities but not to cease operations. We want secure operations. We do not want to cease operations. We want people to have preparations and not panic. We want people to be alert, but we do not want people to forfeit the liberties which America stands for. And I believe that we can do that together with the kind of unified effort--and I have to commend--the last time I believe we met in this room, there were a lot of local law enforcement individuals, and we have gotten great cooperation from individuals at every part of the law enforcement ladder. And I think, together with the American people, we have an opportunity to win this war effectively and not lose our liberties in the process.
Thank you very much.