Transcript: Ashcroft, Mueller news conference
Thursday, May 27, 2004 Posted: 0019 GMT (0819 HKT)
(CNN) — Intelligence from multiple sources indicates that al Qaeda intends to attack the United States in the coming months, according to U.S. officials. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller made the announcement Wednesday afternoon. The following is a full transcript from their press conference:
U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN ASHCROFT: Good afternoon. Today, Director Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Comey and I want to announce developments in the war on terror.
First, credible intelligence from multiple sources indicates that al Qaeda plans to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months.
This disturbing intelligence indicates al Qaeda's specific intention to hit the United States hard.
Beyond this intelligence, al Qaeda's own public statements suggest that it's almost ready to attack the United States. Just after New Year's, al Qaeda announced openly that preparations for an attack on the United States were 70 percent complete.
After the March 1st attack in Madrid, Spain, an Al Qaeda spokesman announced that 90 percent of the arrangements for an attack in the United States were complete.
The Madrid railway bombings were perceived by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to have advanced their cause. Al Qaeda may perceive that a large-scale attack in the United States this summer or fall would lead to similar consequences.
Several upcoming events over the next few months may suggest especially attractive targets for such an al Qaeda attack. These events include the G-8 summit, hosted by the United States in Georgia; the Democratic Party convention in Boston this summer; or the Republican Party convention in New York City.
A vigilant public
Second, in addition to making this announcement on the war on terror, we are seeking help from the American people. We ask our fellow citizens to be on the lookout for individuals, and in specific, for each of these seven individuals that are associated with al Qaeda.
They all are sought in connection with the possible terrorist threats in the United States, they all pose a clear and present danger to America, they all should be considered armed and dangerous. And if anyone has any information about any one of them, please report it immediately to law enforcement.
Adnan Shukrijumah, for example, could be a future facilitator of terrorist attacks for al Qaeda. He speaks English well. He lived in the United States for years and has tried to get back into the United States using various passports.
We know that he has been involved in terrorist planning with senior al Qaeda leaders overseas and has scouted sites across America that might be vulnerable to terrorist attack.
We also ask for public assistance as we conduct interviews nationwide to gather intelligence to disrupt potential threats.
Now, a similar FBI-led interview program that was launched prior to the Iraq war developed valuable intelligence that protected American lives.
In addition, we ask citizens to be aware of their surroundings. Public awareness may cause terrorists to change their plans or targets, or cause terrorists to disrupt or delay their plans. If you see suspicious activity, report it to your local police department sheriff's office or to the FBI.
Changing face of terror
Third, let me say that the face of al Qaeda may be changing. It is possible al Qaeda will attempt to infiltrate young Middle Eastern extremists into America, as they did before September 11. Al Qaeda is a resilient and adaptable organization, known for altering tactics in the face of new security measures.
Intelligence sources suggest that ideal al Qaeda operatives may now be in their late 20s or early 30s and may travel with a family to lower their profile.
Our intelligence confirms al Qaeda is seeking recruits who can portray themselves as Europeans. Al Qaeda also attracts Muslim extremists among many nationalities and ethnicities, including North Africans and South Asians, as well as recruiting young Muslim converts of any nationality inside target countries.
Fourth, the FBI has established a 2004 threat task force to focus on this developing threat over this summer and fall period.
The task force will coordinate our intelligence, analysis and field operations.
Analysts at FBI headquarters and in every field office are reviewing previously collected intelligence to re-analyze it and determine what additional information we need to collect in order to be best positioned to disrupt attacks.
We have asked the 84 joint terrorism task forces, that is our partners with state and local law enforcement, to collect specific information, to develop additional intelligence sources and to report that information to the 2004 threat task force for further analysis.
Director Mueller and I review personally the threat intelligence daily and it is shared throughout the government.
When intelligence is properly collected and shared, government agencies can then act to prevent terrorist acts to protect the American people.
Specific intelligence is the foundation for effective counterterrorism strategies such as hardening targets, intercepting terrorist communications, disrupting cells, elevating threat levels and alerting state and local law enforcement.
'A tough business'
May I be clear on this: We seek unprecedented levels of cooperation with state and local law enforcement in collecting intelligence to enable America's entire terror-fighting apparatus to act decisively to disrupt any al Qaeda presence in the United States.
And we will appropriately share unprecedented access to precisely what our intelligence needs and findings are.
It is imperative that all law enforcement and intelligence agencies be enlisted to assist in identifying Al Qaeda operatives and activities; activities such as surveillance of buildings, bridges, tunnels, ports of entry, et cetera.
For 32 months now, we have not had a major terrorist attack on American soil. We are winning the war on terror, but we should never forget that it is a war.
Fighting terrorists is a tough business. I have faith that Americans will continue to be equal to the task. Thank you.
FBI DIRECTOR ROBERT MUELLER: Good afternoon, everyone. This summer and fall, our nation will celebrate a number of events that serve as powerful symbols of our free and democratic society.
As the attorney general has pointed out, they include the 4th of July celebrations, the Democratic and Republican conventions, and the November presidential election amongst others.
Unfortunately, we currently do not know what form the threat may take.
And that is why it is so important that we locate the seven individuals shown to my right. Though we do not have any reason at this time to believe that they are working in concert, we will not take any chances.
And in light of the March terrorist bombings in Madrid, we must be prepared for any plans to launch attacks in the next several months.
Now, let me take a moment if I could to review why we are interested in each of these individuals.
Abderraouf Jdey appears in a martyrdom video that was seized in Afghanistan. His tape and the tape of four others is the last will and testament of five possible jihad martyrs.
He was reportedly selected to get flight training in preparation for a second attack in the United States. He is a Canadian citizen born in Tunisia.
Adnan Shukrijumah, as has been mentioned by the attorney general, is a trained operative who poses an operational threat to the United States.
As was pointed out, he's English-speaking, spent 15 years in the United States, left the United States when he was led to believe that we were interested in his activities. He was born in Saudi Arabia and carries a Guyanese passport.
Adam Gadahn is a U.S. citizen who converted to Islam, is associated with Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan, and he attended the training camps in Afghanistan. He is known to have performed translations for al Qaeda as part of the services he has provided to al Qaeda.
Aafia Siddiqui is an al Qaeda operative and facilitator, she attended colleges in the Boston area, and is believed to have left Boston in January of 2003.
Amer El-Maati, an Al Qaeda member and a licensed pilot is believed to have discussed hijacking a plane in Canada and flying it into a building into the United States. He is a Canadian citizen of Egyptian and Syrian origin.
The last two individuals are Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani. These individuals were participants in the 1998 East Africa bombings. These individuals were indicted in the Southern District of New York and have been fugitives since.
They are known to have participated in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and have the wherewithal, the skill, the ability, to undertake attacks both against American interests overseas as well as in the United States.
These are the seven individuals whom we are seeking. Each of these seven individuals is known to have a desire and the ability to undertake planning, facilitation and attack against the United States whether it be within the United States itself or overseas.
Now, in reissuing these "be on the lookouts for" — also known as BOLOs in trade — we want to emphasize the need for vigilance against our terrorist enemies, particularly Al Qaeda.
The FBI and the entire intelligence community continues to seek information as to the whereabouts and activities of these seven individuals in connection to possible terrorist threats or attacks in the United States or against American interests overseas.
Now, we in the FBI have established a task force. We are operating around the clock to increase our collection of human intelligence, to identify any gaps in our knowledge and to develop new information sources.
We also need the support of the American people.
First, we ask for your cooperation as we launch a nationwide series of interviews to gather information and intelligence on these potential threats and on these individuals.
And second, we need the public, both in the United States and — I'll emphasize — overseas to be on the lookout for these seven individuals. We want to know whether you've seen them in your communities, or that someone might be hiding them. If you have any idea where they might be, we need you to come forward, whether it be here or oversees.
And finally, we ask you to simply be aware of your surroundings. Remain vigilant. Take note of any suspicious activities. And if you do observe anything suspicious, please contact your local police or your local FBI office.
I want to thank you for your continued support, and rest assured that there are thousands of FBI agents, Homeland Security agents, other law enforcement and intelligence officials who will be working day and night over the coming months to ensure America's continued safety. Thank you.
QUESTION: Gentlemen, for either of you. What is it about these seven? There are clearly other people that are on your seeking information list or on your most wanted terror list.
Is there intelligence that indicates they might be involved in any pending attacks, or is it more analysis of who'd be the most likely? And is there any information you have that any of them are in the U.S.”
ASHCROFT: Well, we know some of them to be very adept at the variety of things that are necessary for the achievement of an attack in the United States. Some of them are very familiar with the United States. Obviously, several of them by having lived here, been educated here, speak English well, understand the country well. Those are very important things.
Other of the individuals would have other core competencies, so to speak, that they would bring to an operation.
QUESTION: You mentioned that two of them hold Canadian passports. Is there any reason to think that, like the Ressam cell, that this effort is being originated in Canada?
ASHCROFT: We do not have specific information about the origin of a specific terrorist plan. We do believe that Al Qaeda plans to attack the United States, and that is a result of intelligence that is corroborated on a variety of levels. But we are not aware of details of a plan.
QUESTION: You've been looking for these folks for some time. What makes you think that re-issuing these alerts will make a difference; and why the timing, today, in particular?
ASHCROFT: Well, we believe that the public, like all of us, needs a reminder.
Secondly, we have gone out, as the director indicated, to every FBI office. And we're going to law enforcement authorities across America at every level of law enforcement to ask them to renew their efforts.
As I indicated in my remarks, it is to re-invigorate and revitalize our contact with all our sources of information, to query those sources to generate additional intelligence that would provide us the kind of information upon which we could take further action to defend.
QUESTION: I notice that Secretary Ridge is not up there with you. I'm wondering if (inaudible) are all on the same page, but there's some sort of disagreement about how to interpret this recent intelligence?
ASHCROFT: I believe we're all on the same page. We work together.
The director and I met with Secretary Ridge this morning, as we do every morning, regarding the threats. When I indicated that the director and I share intelligence reports daily, we do, and then after we share them with each other, we go and share them with Tom Ridge.
We believe that the kind of work that we are undertaking and the kind of effort that we are reinforcing and accelerating here today is the kind of effort that we hope will provide the kind of information that would be of assistance to not only our own agencies, but to Homeland Security as well.
QUESTION: You mentioned there will be a number of people interviewed in the coming months. You mentioned it will be similar to the lead-up to the Iraq war. As I recall, there have been several thousands of people interviewed for that.
Can you describe any further who's going to be interviewed and what type of information you will be seeking from them?
ASHCROFT: I can describe what I've already described, and that is that we will be going back to sources that we have across the country and we will be re-evaluating and asking them to update any information they have.
There will be other interviews that are conducted. I'm not sure exactly how those populations should be defined, at least at this moment. Do you?
MUELLER: The interviews we will be doing will be driven by intelligence. As to particular persons who we interview, information that we have that makes it worthy for these individuals to be interviewed.
What we're seeking for is often intelligence information, information about persons that may have moved into the community recently, persons who seem to be in a community without any roots, persons that could be either facilitators or those who are willing to undertake an attack.
MUELLER: If you look back at September 11th, the movement of the hijackers through our various communities — what we're asking for is a higher level of vigilance, so that we look at persons in our communities, and when we do so, if there are suspicious activities, that is brought to the attention of either state and local law enforcement or the local FBI office.
QUESTION: Is this threat information causing you to go to specific cities and ask them to heighten their procedures? And also, are you taking other additional extraordinary measures surrounding the G-8 or the World War II Memorial ceremonies or other events that are taking place beyond what had already been planned?
ASHCROFT: Well, this is intelligence that is developing intelligence. It continues to be a subject of our interest. I think it's fair to say that this is intelligence that has come in over time. So this isn't a one shot or other thing. And as we have intelligence, we adjust our behavior.
I want to address the first aspect of your question, though. You asked about specific cities. And I think it's fair to say that we do not have intelligence that leads us to specific location in regard to this threat which we see this summer and fall.
QUESTION: General, can you give us more of a portrait of Adam Gadahn? How was — when did he convert to Islam, by who, where did he grow up in the U.S….
ASHCROFT: I cannot. But it may be that the director wants to provide more information.
MUELLER: The West Coast, grew up on the West Coast, converted to Islam fairly — in his youth. And that's about as far as I can go right now. We can provide you additional information.
QUESTION: When was the last time he was seen in the United States?
MUELLER: I'd have to check on that. That was several years ago, I believe.
QUESTION: Do you seek criminal charges against him given that he's apparently gone to al Qaeda training camps?
MUELLER: We would evaluate the evidence to determine whether or not charges are appropriate.
QUESTION: Would it not make sense for people in Boston and New York to get out of those cities during the conventions?
ASHCROFT: We certainly don't come to that conclusion.
QUESTION: General Ashcroft, with all of these events this summer, I'm wondering if you are planning any series of periodic announcements such as this? And how do you balance the need to discuss a serious threat with the inevitable criticisms that you're scaring people unnecessarily and that you're covering your own bases for purely defensive purposes?
ASHCROFT: Well, we don't have a specific plan. We plan to make announcements whenever they would be in the national interest to make announcements.
And one of the reasons we make announcements is that the American people can help us reduce the risk by participating in an aggressive approach to disruption.
Over and over again in the intelligence which I read on a daily basis, I find it said that activities in law enforcement and by an alert population disrupt and prevent and cause the discontinuance of terrorism.
These are statements that are part of the intelligence we receive, and it indicates to me that the activities, both of the American people and of the American law enforcement community, can be very valuable in saving American lives by virtue of disrupting terrorism.
So we do not have a specific schedule. We don't have any next planned announcement at any time, scheduled or unscheduled, except to say that whenever — if it's later this afternoon or if it's later this month or next month or later in the summer, whenever it becomes in the national interest for us to make an announcement, we would make such an announcement.
QUESTION: But there are inevitably skeptics who say you're overdoing it or you're scaring people or you're just protecting your behind, or what have you. Do you worry about those?
QUESTION: You can't overdo it, in other words.
ASHCROFT: Well, no. I just don't think my job is to worry about what skeptics say.
My job is to do everything I can to protect the American people and to help the American people protect themselves.
In a country as substantial, as large and as free as the United States is, it takes the coordinated effort of law enforcement officials with their feet on the street, 670,000 state and local law enforcement officials, and an alert American population and everything we do, I think, to preserve that liberty and that freedom by being alert.
And so, my job is to do that. My job isn't to worry about whether someone will be second guessing. I'd far prefer that they second guess a plan which led us to safety than a plan which somehow provided us with risk.
QUESTION: If there's credible intelligence suggesting the United States is going to be attacked between now — there is a plan to attack the United States between now and the election, why not raise the threat level?
ASHCROFT: We believe that the kind of activities that are engendered in this task force kind of information which is developed.
And the Homeland Security Council, led by Secretary Ridge, would make such a decision, and for me to try to speak for them at this time would be inappropriate. Thank you very much.