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Attorney General Ashcroft

Jim Lehrer talks to Attorney General John Ashcroft about the anthrax investigation, FBI high alerts, and the progress of the al-Qaida investigation.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. Attorney General, welcome.

    How close are you and the FBI to knowing who's behind these various anthrax mailings?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    Well, this is an investigation, which is ongoing and obviously we are working very diligently in two respects: One, to try and anticipate — prevent any other incidents — the other to try and investigate. That's very difficult, and I don't think it would be fair to say that there are any announcements that are on the verge of being made. We have a lot of activity.

    We really only have a couple of incidents where we have confirmed anthrax. And we have similar delivery and there are a lot of things that are in common, but we are not in a position to be able to make an announcement about responsibility.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Are you convinced, or does it still remain an open issue as to whether or not this is a concerted effort by a group of people working in concert, or one or two, three, four, five people working independently?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    You know it may be that there is some of both here. All too frequently when we have ourselves either/or questions, we forget that it could be a combination. I'm certainly not in a position to rule out relationships between both the valid or the real anthrax situations, between them. And it could be that individuals involved in delivering or threatening or terrorist acts with real anthrax would also send out "so-called hoax items" because they might want to occasion the additional instability, the additional uncertainty with the hoax items. Both of them are very damaging. Obviously the health threat of real anthrax is substantially different.

    But our resources, our law enforcement resources, our ability to do the things we want to do — we have to treat all reports as serious. We've had several thousand of those in the last week. So I'd put it this way: I believe anyone who sends anthrax in the mail to someone else is a terrorist, although I'm not in a position to link specifically the terrorism of anthrax with the terrorist attacks of September 11, but we're certainly not in a position to rule that out. And I'm not in a position to say that there is no linkage between some of the real anthrax and some of the hoax, but there may in fact be some linkage. There may be that people would do both.

    It's pretty clear to me that there are individuals who have sought to be a part of this vulnerable time and have sought to take advantage of it, and we're working very hard to prosecute those individuals. This is not a time for a joke. This is not a time for personal vendettas, getting back at individuals. We have cases, and cases are being brought in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Ohio, and Albuquerque and across America because we simply cannot suggest to people that this is not serious.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    The anthrax that was in the envelope received in the office of Senator Daschle is said to be of a higher quality and clearly was designed to commit harm. Do you agree with that, that unlike some of these others, this was serious business?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    Well, I haven't received a final analysis that would come from that. Our preliminary analysis indicates that it's virulent, strong, very serious but whether it had been treated in any way that would make it especially more dangerous, our tests are not complete.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Have you reached any conclusion as to whether or not – whoever's involved in this is really aiming to kill people, or to just put fear in us and cause chaos?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    Well, it would be awfully hard to say that people who send you a letter with a virulent strain of anthrax, which is a deadly toxin, were not – that such a person is not trying to kill you would be a stretch.

    I think there's no question that sending anthrax in the mail is an attempt to injure, to kill, to hurt people. It provides a basis for a lot of other fear and terror. And the terrorists I think most want to interrupt our way of life, to deprive us of our freedom, and frankly, killing obviously makes that credible. I think there is an intention to kill. We're very fortunate that only one person has died. I really think it's important to note that we have been detecting other situations and treating and the treatment is very effective.

    The use of antibiotics, and the prolonged use will take some time because it has to be in your system when the disease begins to develop. The incubation or gestation period in people is quite some time. But it's very effective, and so the prognosis for the people where we've been able to help them is excellent.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Have you found any links – even small, firm links to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    We haven't been able to rule out relationships, but we cannot conclusively demonstrate those relationships.

    It's pretty clear, as the vice president said, that this is a suspicious setting, that these and the onset of these attacks with the sort of vile terrorism of anthrax comes in the wake of and in the circumstance and environment of the attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York, on the Pentagon in the United States, here in the Washington, D.C., area, in Virginia, and in the hijacking in Pennsylvania, but I think it would be inappropriate for us to indicate that we had a kind of conclusive determination either to say that we had made the linkage complete or that we had ruled it out.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But as we sit here right now, there are no arrests imminent on any anthrax case, is that correct?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    Well, we've made a number of arrests on hoax cases where –

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Sure.

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    — we have got the people who were –

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Playing games.

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    — playing games, lying to the police, threatening. It violates a federal statute to send a threat of biological nature through the mails — to make such a threat or to lie to law enforcement officials. But we don't — our investigation has not proceeded to an adequate focus to have solved any of these cases.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What about the link between the Daschle letter and the Tom Brokaw letter, is that now pretty sure that they came from the same people?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    Well, we have common postmarks, and we have – you — the American people have had a chance to see what the envelope looks like. I think a lot of people would say that that certainly looks like these could have been developed by the same individuals. Our investigation is ongoing with a view toward developing an understanding of who that individual – if it's one individual – or who the individuals are, but we're not in a position yet to be able to conclude definitively that that's the case.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    On the more general threat front, the FBI alert that — possibility of another major terrorist attack against the United States – that remains very much in effect, does it not?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    We want individuals to be at a high state of awareness and alert. In all of our lives we have learned how to reduce risks. If we are walking by the road in the evening, we try to wear light clothes, preferably light trousers, where we'll be seen if – if – just virtually everything we do includes risk reduction.

    And we're learning to adjust our behavior to reduce our risks. If a letter comes in the mail from a source that we're not accustomed to receiving, no return address, it looks suspicious, it's – frankly, we're adjusting our behavior.

    In the things that the FBI has done when there is developed in our gathering of information a suggestion that there might be a special period of vulnerability, we've simply said we need to trust the American people to take the information and to adjust their behavior to reduce the risks.

    It's important to say that we're not suggesting that people not do things, that we cease being free, that we cease being American, but we take those little measures to adjust our behavior like wearing the lighter clothing by the roadside.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But the specific alert that went out last week from the FBI, do you now believe that – that this anthrax or these anthrax incidents – was not that, was not that threat that you all were warning about?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    You know I'm not able to make the kind of any real hard and fast conclusion. Very frankly, when you develop information about potentials and threats, if they are credible, if they seem to be corroborated by circumstances and facts, we try to share them in a way that will help the American people reduce the risk.

    But, you know, people don't send you an engraved invitation saying "Don't open the letter that you're going to get" or – because they obviously have a different purpose. And there are times when an elevated sense of alertness and the actions we take can actually disrupt or postpone or even defeat what would otherwise be an attack.

    I think shortly after the September 11 events, we developed information about crop dusters and noted that there had been an interest expressed in the dispersal of chemical agents by some of the individuals who had relationships with the hijackers and were the hijackers, and we asked those who were associated with the agriculture, chemical industry, and crop dusting to begin to be more careful, to lock their airplanes, to be aware of anyone seeking to adjust the kind of way in which the nozzles would be, which would maybe require a different approach. And frankly we may well have had a disruptive influence, but we can't know for sure.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    How many people are you now holding – detaining as a result of September 11?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    We have arrested and detained between six and seven hundred people in three basic categories: Individuals that the courts have agreed with us could have information that would be appropriate for use in grand jury and might otherwise flee, and they issue what's called a material witness warrant for those individuals. That's a court-supervised detention based on that need for information.

    Secondly, there are some people who are being held because they have violated state or local laws, and they are being held in the ordinary course, but we have an interest in them because of the relationships that we've detected or learned of with the hijackers or the groups that we feel were associated with and involved with the hijackers.

    Thirdly, there are those who we have asked be detained, who are illegal aliens, they are out of status, that they are violating the law regarding their presence in the United States, and while their case is being adjudicated in the immigration setting, because we know of an interest or a relationship or we feel that there may have been some connection between the hijackers and them we've asked that they be detained, and they have.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Are you holding anybody that you believe was geared up to commit a terrorist act in the United States, and you got them before they committed it?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    I can't say with certainty that we are. We are holding individuals who have a variety of things that we found. Individuals were detained who were, who had maps of airports, individuals were detained who had hazardous material licenses and – but we frankly – I think that those individuals – the kind of associations they have – being illegal in their status or having violated the laws, that they should be maintained in custody, until their cases are disposed of.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    In a general way, are you getting any level of cooperation from any of these people in trying to find out what happened on the 11th and what might be planned as a future act against the United States?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    We've not been overrun with cooperation, which is not to say that we don't have some capacity to improve our awareness of what happened, and what may happen, but we're still working hard.

    And our responsibility in the Justice Department is not just to prosecute, but we have a new priority, which is to prevent. And it's very important for us to develop information.

    That's why we've gone to the American people with a number of the things we have to ask them if they know as a result of association with certain individuals or of their just observation, if they know of things that can be helpful to us.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Are you comfortable as Attorney General holding these people, continuing to hold them for a long period of time?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    We are only holding those individuals that the law allows us to hold. We are holding the individuals in accordance with the Constitution; they're all being given a right to counsel; their rights are being observed.

    If there is any indication of abuse, I want to know about it. There have been people who have said, well, this is inappropriate, inordinate. Frankly, it's in accordance with the law, and it's my job to enforce the law; we will do so. We will be aggressive in seeking to disrupt, to interrupt and prevent any further acts of terrorism.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you believe that holding these people has, in fact, done that already?

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    We cannot say with a certainty, but we are grateful for the fact that we haven't had major terrorist acts and activities since the horrendous and horrific acts of September 11.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mr. Attorney General, thank you very much.

  • JOHN ASHCROFT:

    My pleasure.