Attorney General Ashcroft Transcript
News Conference - FARC indictment
April 30, 2002
DOJ Conference Center
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Good afternoon. This afternoon I am announcing the indictment of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish language acronym FARC, for the terrorist murder of three United States citizens: Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok, Lahee'Enae I -- pardon me, Lehee'Enae Gay. These are three individuals who were working to improve the environmental and educational conditions of the U'wa Indian tribe in Colombia when these three Americans were kidnapped and brutally murdered in 1999. Today's indictment charges the FARC, a designated foreign terrorist organization, with targeting these Americans, physically surveilling them, abducting them at gunpoint, and murdering them with multiple gunshots to the head and body.
The grand jury charges the FARC, FARC Eastern Bloc commander German Briceno Suarez and five other FARC members with the following terrorist offenses: One count of conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree; Three counts of murder in the first degree; And one count of using a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence.
Now, Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff and U.S. Attorney for the District of Colombia Roscoe Howard and the FBI Executive Assistant Dale Watson join me in announcing this indictment. I want to thank Dale Watson and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for their dedication and professionalism in pursuing the killers of these three Americans. I thank as well Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff and U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard, who will jointly prosecute these cases. For all of you, I want to mention that your service to the American people and to the cause of justice is deeply appreciated.
Despite its attempts to portray itself as a band of revolutionaries or of freedom fighters, today's indictment describes the FARC as a fiercely anti-American terrorist organization. Since its inception in 1966, the FARC has targeted United States citizens as well as Colombians for acts of terrorism, including hostage-taking and murder. Pursuant to the statute, we have certified that the acts of extra-territorial murder charged against the FARC today were intended to coerce, intimidate or retaliate against Americans.
Today's indictment follows the indictment last month of three FARC leaders for trafficking in cocaine bound for the United States and exchanging cocaine for weapons and material. The indictment marked the convergence -- that indictment -- pardon me -- marked the convergence of two of the Department of Justice's top priorities: the prevention of terrorism and the reduction of illegal drug use. Today's indictment reminds us in no uncertain terms of where the path of terrorism ultimately leads -- to lost lives, and families decimated. Today the United States strikes back at FARC's reign of terror against the United States and its citizens. Just as we fight terrorism in the mountains of South Asia, we will fight terrorism in our own hemisphere.
Among other overt acts, the grand jury charges, that in March 1998, the FARC declared U.S. citizens to be, quote, "legitimate military targets," close quote. Less than a year later, according to the indictment, German Briceno Suarez, also known as Grenobles (ph), ordered FARC members to seize and detain Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok, and Ms. Gay and to take these individuals into their custody.
On February the 25th, the defendants, as charged in the indictment, kidnapped the Americans at gunpoint, and Grenobles (ph) informed his co-conspirators that, quote -- and I'm quoting now -- "Those who don't pay get their heads chopped off," close quote.
On March the 4th, 1999, after having been held hostage for eight days, the indictment charges, that the three Americans were tied with nylon cords, blindfolded and shot.
Their bodies were deposited in Venezuela just north of the Colombian border. In the following weeks, according to the indictment, the official spokesman for the FARC claimed responsibility for the murders on behalf of the FARC.
These three workers went to Colombia to do good, and instead, met with great evil. For their families, today's indictment is a step toward justice, and for all Americans, today's action is a step toward ridding our hemisphere of the narcoterrorism that threatens our lives, our freedom and our human dignity.
I'd be happy to respond to questions or to refer the questions to Roscoe and Mike, who jointly will, with their respective staffs, be the guiding lights of the prosecution.
Q Mr. Ashcroft, are you going to ask the Colombian government for their extradition?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Yes, we will be working with the Colombian government for extradition in these matters as we have in other matters.
Q I wanted to ask you about a case in Chicago today -- Illinois -- the arrest of the gentleman there. Given the -- what appears to be an abundant amount of evidence that you all have collected in Bosnia, I was curious about the charge of perjury; why don't you just go ahead and charge this guy as a terrorist?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, there are some things that I would be able to say about that item in Chicago, and I will say that I'm not going to speak expansively about that. The prosecution there is being undertaken by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. And -- but we do know that the executive director of the Benevolence International Foundation -- and that's a charity organization based on Palos Hills, Illinois -- was arrested today by the FBI, and both he and the foundation were charged with perjury for lying in federal court -- in federal court documents about links to international terrorism.
The complaint, which was filed today, alleges that al Qaeda has an established practice of using charities for terrorist purposes, and that that executive director, a Mr. Arnaout, has ties to bin Laden, including being trusted with the care of one of bin Laden's wives in Pakistan in 1989.
The affidavit also sets forth evidence that Arnaout was -- has a relationship with Osama bin Laden and may of his key associates, and that the foundation is an organization that al Qaeda has used for logistical support.
I would just say this: that Americans should know that we will use every tool to go after terrorist networks in the United States.
As I mentioned, U.S. attorney Pat Fitzgerald in Chicago will be making further announcements about this matter at a news conference of his own later today.
Q Is your continued detention of material witnesses in the September 11th investigation jeopardized by this federal judge's ruling in New York?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: The opinion of the one trial judge in New York represents an anomaly. We are studying our appellate options there. The department's use of material witness warrants is fully consistent with the law and long-standing practice. Numerous other judges have authorized the use of material witness warrants in the settings that we have been using them, and the use of such warrants has been validated at the appellate level.
Q Just on this case in Chicago, how significant is this guy and this organization in supporting al Qaeda? Do you have any sense of what kind of significance this arrest has?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I'm going to limit my remarks to what I've said about that case. The prosecutor is holding a press conference in Chicago at 5:00, Eastern Time. The contents of the indictment itself are instructive about certain relationships between the defendant and al Qaeda.
Q To the -- back to the FARC case, sir. If this is a symbol of an expansion of the war on terrorism or, I should say, a symbol of the government's willingness to prosecute terrorists anywhere, where will you be drawing the lines elsewhere in the world? There are a lot of terrorist organizations around the world, including the group in the Philippines that currently has two Americans hostage. You know, what -- I guess if you could give us some thoughts on how you're going to weigh prosecution of other groups or individuals --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, specific prosecutions always require the evaluation of specific facts. And this administration and this department is committed to defending the rights of Americans when the facts are available to support effective prosecution.
Q In order to go after the FARC on things other than drug- related offenses, don't you need some kind of -- haven't you asked for congressional help to have a law that will enable you to go after terrorists and kidnappers and so forth in Colombia?
And how is that progressing?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, at the fear of walking out in an area that is the specialty of these prosecutors, let me say that these prosecutions are based on a law that is focused on those who would terrorize by killing Americans, threatening Americans and intimidating Americans. And this is an anti-terrorist prosecution in that respect.
And it specifically charges and alleges not only a conspiracy to commit murder, three specific acts of murder as well as the use of a gun in the commission of a violent crime.
Q The murders, as you said, the FARC very quickly claimed responsibility for them. They occurred more than three years ago. Why did the investigation take so long to reach this point? And what is the importance of the timing now that you're announcing this indictment?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I don't believe it would be appropriate for us to discuss those kinds of issues outside the court.
Q You were saying that when it comes to material witnesses, that there is an appellate court ruling. Do you recall where that court may have ruled and when that might have come out in terms of --
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I believe that the appellate court that's ruled in that matter is in the 9th Circuit.
Q Yeah, besides the indictment, what else are you trying to accomplish, because FARC -- (these guys ?) with the FARC have been in Colombia for four years before not even being close to being captured. So I wonder, besides the fact that they have charges here in the U.S., are you planning any other type of operations with the Colombians to try to capture them, or are you going after -- yourselves after them, or what?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We will work with the Colombian officials to -- for extradition of those who when captured or in custody or those who currently are in custody.
STAFF: Last question.
Q General, your office disclosed today that you had actually sought fewer warrants, FISA warrants of the type typically used in terrorism investigations, last year than in the year before. In the wake of September 11th and with the expanded powers that you sought under the Patriot Act, can you explain why there would have been fewer warrants sought an approved?
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: One of the impacts of the Patriot Act was to extend the period of time during which a warrant could be effective so that it's not necessary to renew our applications for warrants. And when one can maintain a warrant in its operation, we don't have to do it over again. And that can effect the numbers. Our ability to follow individuals across jurisdictional lines rather than to be required in every setting to seek additional authority -- you know, I guess what I'm saying is, the Patriot Act provided some measures of efficiency that can be of assistance to us. And I think it would be fair to interpret the data in the light of that capacity.
Thank you very much.