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Attorney General Ashcroft Transcript

Attorney General Ashcroft Announces Responsible Cooperators Program
November 29, 2001
DOJ Conference Room

ASHCROFT: Good afternoon. This afternoon I am announcing a Department of Justice initiative to reach out to freedom-loving people of all nations in the war against terrorism. The title of this initiative is the Responsible Cooperators Program.

Under this new initiative, the Department of Justice will provide immigration benefits to non-citizens who furnish information to help us apprehend terrorists or to stop terrorist attacks. We are asking all non-U.S. citizens who are present in the United States or who seek to enter our country to come forward to the FBI with any valuable information they have to aid in the war on terrorism.

In return for this information, the Department of Justice will assist nonresident aliens in obtaining what are called S visas, which are available when the information provided is critical and reliable and the person is placed in danger as a result of sharing that information. S visa holders may remain in the United States for up to three years, and during that period visa holders may apply to become permanent residents and ultimately to become United States citizens.

Aliens who provide useful and reliable information but are not technically eligible for S visas will receive assistance in seeking either parole or deferred action status, which would allow them to reside legally within the United States. They may then apply for a work authorization, permanent residence and eventually citizenship under the normal immigration rules.

The United States will be grateful to responsible cooperators who help us protect American lives.

ASHCROFT: We are at war with a fanatical terrorist network that claims to have nuclear weapons, and wants to slaughter innocent Americans citizens. We have clear evidence that bin Laden and Al Qaeda terrorist network killed nearly 4,000 Americans on September 11.

We believe Al Qaeda continues to operate within the United States. These enemy operatives are trained to disguise their appearances, to memorize false personal documents, to evade electronic and physical surveillance, and to avoid trouble in their neighborhoods or at work. Al Qaeda teaches them thoroughly how to hide from the police, and to hide from the authorities, to lie to authorities, during any encounters using elaborate, pre-planned cover stories. In short, law enforcement is tracking a trained enemy that poses a deadly threat to innocent American lives.

However, terrorist activity rarely goes entirely unnoticed, and non-citizens are often ideally situated to observe the precursors to, or early stages of terrorist activity. Information of such activity is critically important to our war against terrorism.

Some visitors may be hesitant to come forward with their information because their immigration status. They may rest assured that the United States welcomes any reliable and useful information that they can provide to help us save lives in the future. In return, we will help them make America their home.

We need continued help from every responsible individual within our nation's borders. People who have information about terrorist activity must make a choice: either they will come forward to save American lives, or they will remain silent against evil. The people who have the courage to make the right choice deserve to be welcomed as guests in our country, and perhaps one day to become fellow citizens.

I have had a series of meetings with representatives of Arab, Muslim, Sikh communities, over the past several weeks. On October 16, I met in my office with leaders of these communities to hear their concerns in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Most recently, on Tuesday of this week, I visited the mosque at the Islamic Center here in Washington D.C. I spoke at length with the imam, Dr. Al-Kuj (ph), and many others in my continuing dialogue with the Muslim community. And they have expressed a sincere desire to support America in the war on terrorism. And they have asked, ``How can we help additionally?'' The Responsible Cooperators Program is an important way for those who are non-citizens to assist in preventing future terrorist attacks.

ASHCROFT: Freedom-loving people everywhere in the world are our greatest allies in the war on terrorism. Today, we call on those individuals who share our love for freedom to make a contribution to defend that freedom.

America's greatest asset is the privilege of living in America and enjoying the liberties of America, and it costs us nothing to provide those to responsible individuals who would seek to help us defend this land.

I may cost us nothing, but it is priceless to the recipient. For many people, a visa that provides a pathway to American citizenship is worth its weight in gold. It provides access to the freedoms and opportunities, to the dignity and integrity that defines this culture.

Our message today to people who share our love for freedom is this: If you have any information you think might assist the federal government in its efforts to fight terrorism, please contact your local FBI office; or if you're abroad, contact the nearest United States embassy. If the information that you provide is reliable and useful, we will help you obtain a visa to reside in the United States and ultimately become a United States citizen.

The second item that I have today is a request by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Marshal Service for help in providing information leading to the arrest of self-described anti-abortion warrior Clayton Lee Waagner, whom the FBI considers to be a primary suspect in the series of anthrax hoax letters sent to women's reproductive health clinics. Waagner is one of the FBI's most wanted fugitives and has been the subject of intense investigation by the U.S. Marshal's Service, which also list him on its most wanted list.

He has been previously convicted on charges of possession of a firearm by felon and interstate transportation of a stolen motor vehicle. He escaped from the Dewitt County jail in Clinton, Illinois, on February 22 this year, where we was awaiting sentencing a facing a term of 15 years to life.

Authorities received information over Thanksgiving that Waagner has claimed responsibility for sending more than 280 letters purporting to contain anthrax to women's reproductive health clinics on the East Coast in the second week of October. A second series of letters also falsely containing to contain anthrax was sent to more than 270 clinics in the first week of November.

The Department of Justice considers Waagner's threats and all anthrax hoaxes to be serious violations of federal law. Perpetrators of anthrax hoaxes and those who threaten abortion providers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

We are committed to identifying, tracking down and prosecuting those domestic terrorists who threaten the lives and welfare of innocent Americans. As just a moment of personal privilege, I had hoped that Tom Pickard would be able to be here today, the deputy director of the FBI. Tom, tomorrow, terminates his active service as a member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He has served as the acting director of the FBI and, obviously, now as the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

ASHCROFT: His service has been faithful, his service has been valuable, and it has been complete. He has served the FBI well, he has served the president of the United States well, he has served the Justice Department well, and he has served his fellow citizens in a notable way, giving over a quarter-century of his life in the effort to make this society one which is secure and one in which the risks of crime do not invade the opportunity for liberty and freedom that Americans enjoy.

And I'm pleased to just have this opportunity to thank him publicly, even in his absence, for his outstanding service to America, to the Justice Department, and to me personally. When Director Freeh left office in June of this year, Tom Pickard stepped nobly into those leadership responsibilities and conducted himself with distinction.

I'm pleased to introduce Assistant Director for the Criminal Investigative Division of the FBI Reuben Garcia to give you more information about the anthrax hoaxes. Reuben? GARCIA: Thank you, Attorney General.

Given this announcement by the attorney general, it is more imperative than ever that we locate and arrest Clayton Lee Waagner. The FBI, in concert with U.S. Marshal Service and other local, state and federal authorities, have been actively searching for Waagner since his escape from federal prison in February. We placed him on our top 10 most wanted fugitives list just two months ago, on September 21.

He has proven very resourceful in eluding law enforcement over the past nine months. We consider him extremely dangerous. He has survivalist skills and may be heavily armed. The FBI's most wanted list has been very, very effective--has been a very effective law enforcement tool for over half a century. A total of 467 dangerous criminals have been put on the list since 1950; 438 of these fugitives have been captured, a success rate of nearly 94 percent. Of that number, nearly one-third, or one in three, have been apprehended through a tip from a private citizen. Obviously, we hope to repeat that success once more.

This investigation once again proves the determination of the FBI and the Department of Justice in protecting civil rights of American people and ensuring the safety and well-being of this nation during this unique moment in history. GARCIA: We are absolutely committed to identifying and prosecuting anyone who tries to intimidate or frighten the American people or to violate our civil rights.

We call upon the American people, as we have done so in the past, to lend their eyes and ears in helping us track down Clayton Lee Waagner, so we can bring to an end this violent crime spree and his wanton disregard for the rights of our citizens.

Thank you. At this time I'd like to introduce Don Gambatesa, the deputy director of the Marshals Service. GAMBATESA: Thank you. As the attorney general and Mr. Garcia said, Mr. Waagner has been a wanted fugitive by the Marshals Service for a number of months. After his escape in February, we put him on our most wanted list and what that does is puts all the resources of the Marshals Service and a number of federal and local fugitive task forces throughout the country and the world after this man and others who are on the list.

We have devoted all of our resources to him. He is a very resourceful person, has eluded capture over these last several months. But we hope with the public's support out there that we'll be able to locate him soon and bring him into justice. He's an avowed anti-abortionist and we're fairly certain that he has mailed many of these hoax letters to abortion clinics and others.

Thank you. QUESTION: Attorney General, when you refer to an immigration violation, the message (OFF-MIKE) since September 11 was that government would deal very harshly with you. How can you now expect those people to come forward even when there's, sort of, a bonus on the table for... ASHCROFT: First of all, this is for any individual who is in the country, regardless of their immigration or visa status, and there are many people legally here on student statuses or on business statuses or on tourist statuses as a visa that might to have the opportunity to become permanent residents with a more lasting status.

The second item is that the instruction is to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and to the embassy offices that they're not to inquire as to the immigration status of the person bringing the information.

ASHCROFT: They are only to receive the information and to evaluate it. And that evaluation will be the basis upon which an individual would receive the benefit that would flow from the receipt of useful and reliable information that helps us either detect and prevent terrorist activities, or gives us the opportunity to convict those responsible for the activities.

QUESTION: On that standard, what is the criteria that would be used? Would the information have to lead to the apprehension? Would they be allowed to enter in lieu of an investigation of that information? What more can you tell us about that? ASHCROFT: Well, the criterion is that it has to be useful information to us, and reliable information. It does not necessarily have to lead to a conviction, and it doesn't have to be comprehensive. It might be that it's a missing link in a chain of evidence that allows us to actually do something.

And so we're asking that individuals be, sort of, generous minded about how they view the information they have. They should give it a try, because frequently other people will have provided other aspects of the information.

So the criterion is useful and reliable, the judgment to be reached will be reached by those offices that receive the information in conjunction with the efforts to either disrupt the terrorist activity or to prosecute those involved in terrorism. And the recommendations then will be made to main Justice and INS.

QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, do you have any idea how many people might possibly be interested in this kind of a program? Do you think, for example, the majority might be from overseas rather than from people who were already in this country? Do you have any... ASHCROFT: You know, I really don't. You know, we could sit here and muse about this. I think there are a lot of people who come to this country who decide having lived here that this is a worthy placed to be, because of its respect for individuals, and because of the opportunities that are seen here. I know that many who come--and I spent some years teaching before I got into politics, and that's a long time ago, but many students decided they wanted to stay here at the expiration of their visas.

They know that a student visa doesn't provide that opportunity, but an S visa would provide that opportunity, and so would the other accommodations that are built into this program. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) 5,000 people that you've pinpointed for in the first round of... ASHCROFT: This is not limited to any population of individuals, except to non-citizens. So literally the world, except for American citizens, is offered this opportunity to be a participant in a visa which could lead to citizenship, and would provide a basis even for working in the United States prior to becoming a citizen, if they choose to be responsible and to provide reliable and valuable information in this arena.

QUESTION: Are you hoping that this will lead to more of those 5,000 people coming forth and talking to the... ASHCROFT: Well, obviously, we would like for all individuals who have information to come forward. We expect Americans who have information to come forward.

The crimes of September 11 were not merely crimes against America, they were crimes against humanity, they were crimes against civilization. The people of 86 different nations died in the World Trade Center.

And individuals, I believe, have a responsibility as citizens coming forward. And this is just an added incentive to a population of individuals, some of whom might be situated in a way to have access, either by their capacity to understand language or by their involvement in various communities, to be able to be helpful to us. And we want to signal to them our desire to get that help. STAFF: Last question. QUESTION: It sounds almost... ASHCROFT: Make it good, will you? This is the last one.

(LAUGHTER) QUESTION: I'll try. ASHCROFT: I'll do my best.

QUESTION: But in a way this sounds almost desperate, Mr. Attorney General. It sounds like you're desperate for people to come forward. Does this, sort of, underscore the fact that there were massive intelligence failures?

ASHCROFT: No. The answer to that is no. This underscores the fact that we want to do everything possible to prevent further loss of American life as a result of terrorism. And we are seeking every avenue.

And frankly, we are delighted that to date we've been successful, but we don't want to arrest on a laurel of success to the exclusion of other items which might assist us in achieving this goal of making sure that other Americans, innocent civilians, don't die in terrorism.

And so you've seen a progression of things happen. We've strengthened our security around a variety of assets in the country. We've warned and trained law enforcement. We've created task forces to integrate the efforts of law

enforcement around the country. We have interviewed groups of individuals we thought might be situated in a way to help us develop information. And now we're welcoming individuals to self-select on the basis of some benefits to them their opportunity to come and assist us achieve this noble goal and objective.

ASHCROFT: And I hope that we can think of more good ideas as time goes on. The president of the United States has made it very clear to me and to, I think, the American people that this is a long-range effort to fight terrorism, and the Al Qaeda network is a very important part of that. But the president's indicated that terrorists and those who harbor terrorism should expect that we're going to be in this for the long haul.

And I expect that we'll be looking for additional ways and additional ideas. And, frankly, we'd be willing to accept them from any quarter, including those of you who might want to counsel us as to good ideas and ways that we could additionally protect the innocent lives of Americans from terrorist attacks.

Thank you very much.