Department of Justice Seal

Attorney General Transcript

News Conference - National Security Coordination Council
Tuesday, March 5, 2002
DOJ Conference Center

ATTY GEN. JOHN ASHCROFT: Good afternoon. Next Monday will mark six months since terrorists awakened America to the defense of freedom. For six months, the men and women of the Department of Justice have joined with their colleagues in state and local law enforcement in a campaign to mobilize the vast resources of our justice system and the awesome moral force of to defeat terrorism.

The president has charged us with a critical mission: to protect our nation and its citizens from serious, immediate, ongoing threats. To fulfill this mission, the Department of Justice has launched the most comprehensive criminal investigation in world history. We've embarked on a wartime reorganization of the Department of Justice, putting the prevention of terrorist attacks at the center of our law enforcement mission.

Outside Washington, we have forged new relationships of cooperation with state and local law enforcement. We have organized federal, state and local law enforcement into regional anti-terrorism teams. Hundreds of thousands of leads, many from concerned and responsible citizens, have been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Over 100 individuals have been charged.

Among the most important lessons we have learned is the lesson that countering a threat as vast and as complex as international terrorism requires unprecedented cooperation and coordination. No single individual, agency, department or government can succeed alone. We have instead sought to weave a seamless web of prevention, involving not just government but businesses and communities, state and local governmental operations, citizens in a united effort to identify, disrupt and dismantle terrorist networks.

Within the Department of Justice, we recognize the concomitant need to marshal our formidable resources to fight terrorism in the most effective manner possible. Accordingly, today I amannouncing the creation of the National Security Coordination Council of the Department of Justice. The principle mission of the National Security Coordination Council will be ensure a more seamless coordination of all functions of the department relating to national security, particularly our efforts tocombat terrorism.

The National Security Coordination Council will complement and build on the Department of Justice efforts to protect the nation from terrorism and other national security threats. It will also be the department's voice on these issues to other federal agencies. Chairing the National Security Coordination Council will be an undertaking that requires leadership, principled commitment to justice, and an expert understanding of the threats facing our nation, and the large tools at our disposal to defeat those threats.

I can think of no better nor more qualified public servant than Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson to fill this role. Since September the 11th, he has worked tirelessly both within the Department of Justice and in cooperation with other government agencies to pursue every avenue within the law to identify and prevent terrorist attacks on Americans. He is and has been a courageous leader in the Department of Justice. He is a very valuable, faithful servant to the president of the United States and a dogged advocate of justice.

Personally, I have learned to rely on Larry Thompson to the highest level possible. Each morning we receive the reports together about information developed in the previous day's work by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. He shepherds the responsibilities related to the Justice Department's role in national security in relationships with other agencies of the federal government. He has been an active leader among deputies of various departments in coordinating the responses of these departments to make sure that we offer the American people the most secure effort that we could possibly offer from the federal level. He has worked aggressively to build relationships with state and local authorities so that we have the kind of vertical integration of law enforcement and information, including intelligence that can be gained from those at the local level and sent to us at the federal level.

And it's with a sense of great confidence that I call upon him to fulfill this responsibility. I know of no person anywhere inside government or out who could undertake this responsibility with a greater likelihood of success than Larry. And I am grateful that he has accepted the responsibility of chairman of the National Security Coordination Council of the Department of Justice.

Now, before I turn this even over to the deputy attorney general, I would like to mention and discuss the DNA samples being taken from detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Currently, the United States government is collecting and using the collection of DNA samples as a standard identification tool of these detainees. And as we discussed yesterday, the FBI oversees the combined DNA index system, or what is called CODIS. That's the national DNA index. While the law does not currently allow law enforcement to collect DNA samples and use them, the law --pardon me, let me just start that again -- the law does allow law enforcement to use DNA samples.The law does not allow these samples to be entered into the DNA database because the samples do not fit categories currently housed in CODIS. What I'm saying is that the samples collected from detainees in the war effort are not among the categories that would currently fit in the CODIS system. We believe that this law should be changed.

The Department of Justice is currently reviewing a legislative proposal that would allow these samples to be entered into the CODIS system, and that would assist law enforcement officials in the identification of those who might seek to harm the United States and U.S. interests through terrorism, either now or in the future.

Let me just go over that one more time. Law enforcement uses DNA to identify those who have been convicted or charged with various law enforcement offenses, and there are categories for those kinds of collections to be included in the CODIS system. There is no category in the CODIS system for inclusion of detainees in a war or conflict, and we believe that that would be an appropriate amendment in the interests of the public safety of the United States and we will seek that.

We are also obtaining fingerprints from detainees. Those fingerprints will be added to the criminal law enforcement database for the United States and the database used to screen entrants into the United States.

Now, back to the major reason for this opportunity to speak with you, and that's the introduction of Larry Thompson, whose responsibility it will be to chair that national security council for the Department of Justice. And I'm delighted that he's agreed to be involved in getting that job done and doing it well. Doing it well and getting it done will not be strange enterprises to Larry. He's been acting in that role with great skill and with a tremendous degree of success over the last several months, and I'm delighted to be able to introduce him to you at this time.

Larry, thank you.

MR. THOMPSON: He left me alone. (Laughter.) I want to thank Attorney General Ashcroft. Iespecially want to thank him for the confidence that he has in me and in the men and women of my office.

The first priority of the Department of Justice, bar none, is combating the threat of terrorist attacks. The attorney general's creation of the National Security Coordination Council adds a significant weapon to our arsenal in that battle. The council dedicates the leadership of the department to ensure the participation of all elements within and outside the department that can enhance our counter-terrorism efforts. The council will assemble knowledge, intelligence, and expertise from every corner of the department. We will better coordinate policy, planning and operations, and more efficiently allocate resources in our paramount mission to prevent, defeat and disrupt terrorist attacks before they occur.

The council will frame national security issues for resolution by the attorney general or me,ensuring that we make decisions with the benefit of the wealth and breadth of counter-terrorism experience in the department and throughout government.

Joining me on the council will be the director of the FBI with the participation of the executive assistant director for counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence; the commissioner of the INS; the chief of staff of the attorney general; the assistant attorney general of the Criminal Division, with appropriate participation of the Terrorism and Violent Crimes Section and the Office of International Affairs, as well as other components of that division; the assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice programs; and the counsel of the Office of Intelligence and Policy Review.

Other department officials as well as representatives from other agencies, such as the CIA and Department of Defense, will be invited to attend council meetings and participate in council deliberations and discussions as necessary and appropriate. For example, the interconnection of the war on terrorism and our anti-drug efforts may occasionally require the participation of DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson. The council will convene at least biweekly and more frequently asevents dictate.

This new structure will help us marshal our wide ranging resources to develop, direct andexecute our counter-terrorism strategy to eliminate terrorist threats before they develop into terroristacts. While counter-terrorism coordination and emphasis have been a way of life for us sinceSeptember 11th, today's creation of this council marks a significant advance, in my opinion, in thedepartment's fight against terrorism. No other enforcement priority of the department has garneredthis intensity of focus. No other enforcement priority of the department has ensured this degree ofseamless leadership coordination. And no other enforcement priority of the department hascombined this breadth of multi-disciplinary participation, reflecting our counter -- excuse me,reflecting our comprehensive and united counter-terrorism effort.

The department's unity in this important effort mirrors our own nation's unity. Ours is one people dedicated to one goal -- to protect our country against the threat of terrorism. Through this new structure, we firmly declare our purpose, to draw on every legal weapon at our disposal to accomplish our common aim.

Thank you. And I'll be happy to try to answer any questions you may have.

Q Larry, when you create a council to coordinate things seamlessly, it kind of implies that things have been coordinated seamlessly before. Was there a situation that drove the creation of this council?

MR. THOMPSON: Quite the contrary. Since September 11th, and especially September 11th,we have been working very hard to do everything that we possibly can to be as efficient, as effective, and to react in as a rapid response as we can to the terrorist threats that we face. We've considered some things that make a lot of sense to us, and, quite frankly, we've considered somethings that didn't work out. This council effort, today's announcement, marks the creation of what we believe, after the experience that we've had since September 11th, what we believe works, and what we believe we need to have to move forward as a department in our important counter-terrorism efforts.

Q There have been some questions as to whether you can handle the counter-terrorism and the Enron investigation. Do you think that at this point you're going to have to step down?

MR. THOMPSON: No, I don't think so. As I mentioned, I have confidence in the attorney general and the fine men and women in my office -- and, quite frankly, the fine men and women in this department. I am one of the leaders of the department, but I'm confident that with the effort, the expertise, and the hard work of the other men and women of this department that we can handle diligently and responsibly all the things that are on our plate.

Yes sir.

Q Two quick questions. One is, what will happen now that this council is in effect that is not happening before this? I mean, obviously coordination, and communication, and officials are meeting. What exactly will be done that won't -- that hasn't been done before? And on the DNA, some critics have said that it's not fair, these people have not been convicted. It's not -- it's a violation of civil rights to use the DNA. What's your response?

MR. THOMPSON: Let me respond to the first -- your first question. The council has some budgetary implications, and so hopefully when this new council is reviewed and approved by Congress we will have more resources -- seven additional positions to help us in our fight against terrorism. And secondly, it provides more of a structure and more of a formal -- formal focus on how we are going to coordinate our counter-terrorism efforts. And I think it's something that we have done, but not in a formal way. And I think it's appropriate and good to do it -- to establish amore formal mechanism at this time.

Q There are some reports recirculating today that the U.S. has supposedly broken an Israeli spyring. These are reports that have come up and been denied in the past. I'm wondering if you could put this to rest finally, or tell us if there anything to it.

MR. THOMPSON: I'm not going to comment on that.

Q Does this replace EONS (ph)?

MR. THOMPSON: The function of EONS (ph) will be incorporated into the new council, Deborah.

Q How much of a budget are you requesting?

MR. THOMPSON: It's seven new positions. I'm not certain as to how much that amount would-- Okay.

Q Can you address the DNA question? Can you reply to the question?

MR. THOMPSON: I'm sorry, I have to go to another meeting.