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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Ashcroft Addresses Terror Arrests

Aired October 4, 2002 - 13:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Federal agents are charging six American citizens with operating a terror cell in the United States, and giving support to the al Qaeda terror network.
Our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena, has the details -- Kelli.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, three of those individuals were arrested in Portland, Oregon, one in Detroit, Michigan. We are told that two are at large. They are overseas, not in the United States and not in custody.

Sources tell CNN that the individuals actually tried to enter Afghanistan to provide aid to the al Qaeda terrorist network after September 11. The charges against them include, specifically, conspiracy to prove material support to terrorists, and conspiracy to contribute services to al Qaeda and to the Taliban. All are American- born U.S. citizens, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right. Kelli Arena, thank you so much. We'll continue -- with Mike Brooks (ph) there as we come through the scene -- we are going to be talking -- let's talk more about this situation in Oregon. What more you can tell us in addition -- I know it's very limited with regard to information. What about additional suspects? I know they have talked more about those overseas.

ARENA: Well, we do -- we don't have any information on the ones that are overseas right now, been trying to nail down exactly where the U.S. government believes they are, but we have not been successful in that attempt thus far.

We will be hearing from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is scheduled to begin a press conference momentarily with some information.

We'll actually get more information on top of that out of the Portland, Oregon FBI office, where most of this investigation took place, and this was a pivotal city in terms of making the arrests. Obviously, three people in custody in Portland.

We know that the director of the FBI has talked about, literally, as many as 200 people within the United States that have been under surveillance 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We do know that there have been other charges brought against U.S. citizens here in the United States in the same way as the charges being brought against these individuals, aiding and supporting terrorist organizations.

So the idea of what one U.S. official is now calling about these individuals a terrorist cell, sort of changing a little bit, Kyra. When we previously thought of a cell, we thought of a group of individuals that was here, just waiting for orders from the al Qaeda network to strike, or individuals like the 9/11 hijackers who were here with a plan in place and with a specific terrorist act in mind.

Now, the term terrorist cell is being used to describe individuals who are willing, sympathetic to the cause, willing to provide their bodies or their resources, and we'll hear more from the attorney general right now as you see him. He's saying his hellos right now, but I'm sure he will confirm everything we just told you.

Flanked by the head of the criminal division, Alan (ph) Chertoff, the deputy attorney general, Larry Thompson, FBI Director Robert Mueller, also present. Let's hear what he has to say.

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Thank you. Today is a defining day in America's war against terrorism.

We've neutralized a suspected terrorist cell within our borders. We've convicted an attempted suicide bomber, and an American pledged and trained and captured in violent Jihad is sentenced.

Earlier today, agents of the Portland and Detroit Joint Terrorism Task Forces arrested suspected terrorist cell members charged with engaging in a conspiracy to join al Qaeda and to join Taliban forces fighting against the United States and allied soldiers in Afghanistan.

The alleged conspiracy names six defendants, five of whom are U.S. citizens, including one individual with U.S. military training. Jeffrey Battle, Patrice Lumumba Ford, Muhammad Bilal, Ahmed Bilal, Habis Al-Saoub and October Lewis are charged with four counts: count one, Conspiracy to levy war against the United States; count two, Conspiracy to provide material support to foreign terrorist organizations; count three, Conspiracy to contribute services to al Qaeda and the Taliban; count four, Possession of firearms in furtherance of crimes of violence.

Four of the accused are currently in custody. Two remain at large overseas. If convinced of the crimes, the defendants will face up to life in prison.

Today's arrests follow the capture of suburban Buffalo, New York -- in suburban Buffalo, New York, of six individuals charged with aiding terrorism.

In addition, U.S. residents in other settings have been indicted for conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.

With today's arrests, we have charged more than 17 individuals since August the 28th.

The facts alleged in the indictment are these: Following the attacks of September the 11th, 2001, defendants Battal (ph), Ford (ph), Mohamed Belal (ph) and Ahmed Belal (ph) and Al Suhaub (ph) acquired various firearms and engaged in weapons training and physical training for preparation to fight a Jihad. In October 2001, as United States troops entered into battle against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the indictment charges that Battal (ph), Ford (ph), Mohamed Belal (ph), Ahmed Belal (ph) and Al Suhaub (ph) began to travel to Afghanistan to join forces with Taliban and al Qaeda troops battling United States and allied military personnel.

The indictment charges that the five defendants purchased airline tickets to Hong Kong with the intent of travelling to Taliban controlled Afghanistan via China and Pakistan.

On November 2, 2001, Battal (ph) told his ex-wife and alleged co- conspirator, October Lewis (ph), that the group had encountered difficulties crossing the border of China into Afghanistan. The indictment charges that on eight occasions, Lewis (ph) wired money to Battal (ph) overseas with the knowledge that the money would be used to support his attempt to reach Afghanistan to fight with Taliban and al Qaeda forces.

The indictment further charges that while in Bangladesh attempting to gain entry into Afghanistan, Battal (ph) caused himself to be discharged administratively from the United States Army Reserve, in which he had enlisted in order to receive military training intended for use against the United States.

According to the indictment, three of the defendants, Battal (ph), Ford (ph) and Mohamed Belal (ph), returned to the United States in late 2001 and early 2002. They and alleged co-conspirator October Lewis (ph) are in custody of federal authorities at this hour.

I want to thank many local, state and federal law enforcement officers who worked together to bring about these arrests. Today's case is a textbook example of the central role that cooperation with local, state and federal enforcement officials -- cooperation plays in the prevention of terrorist attacks.

In December 2001, Portland authorities were contacted by a Skamania County, Washington, sheriff Charles Brian (ph) from Washington state, who recognized one of the defendants from news reports of an Oregon criminal case with possible terrorist links.

One of Sheriff Brian's (ph) deputies, Mark Mercer (ph), had come upon the defendant among a group of people shooting weapons while trespassing on private land.

The information provided by Sheriff Brian (ph) and his Deputy Sheriff Mercer (ph) helped lead Oregon authorities to the individuals arrested today.

In addition to these arrests, two self-confessed enemy soldiers in the war on terrorism meet justice in the United States courts today. In Boston, Richard Colvin Reid plead guilty to all counts in the indictment for attempting to ignite a bomb on American Airlines Flight 63 and to murder 179 passengers and crew.

This morning, Richard Reid confessed in open court that he is a member of al Qaeda, pledged to Osama bin Ladin, and confessed in open court that he is an enemy of the United States.

In addition, John Walker Lindh is scheduled to be sentences this afternoon in federal court in Virginia.

Today is a victory for justice and for the citizens who are vigilant in the pursuit of justice. Though he was captured on the other side of the world, allied with terrorists who loathe our freedom and mock our justice, John Walker Lindh was brought to America to answer for his actions.

It was the heroic efforts of the citizens aboard American Airlines Flight 63 that stopped Richard Reid in the midst of his attempt to kill hundreds.

Thank to the outstanding work of our prosecutors, in less than a year, both cases have reached resolution. Both criminals have been brought to justice here in the United States. I want to thank Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson for his outstanding help on a continuing basis in pursuing these matters, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff, who heads the criminal division. Each of these individuals has been important in the Department of Justice in securing justice in these cases.

In specific, I want to extend my appreciation to the United States attorney in Portland, Oregon, Mike Mossman (ph), for his leadership.

I want to express my gratitude to Portland FBI Special Agent in Charge Charlie Matthews (ph) and all of the agents in the bureau who have been so diligent and who have been successful in this matter.

Today is a day of justice for the citizens, the soldiers and law enforcement officers who defend our nation and our values and defend them each and every day. It is a day both of victory and a day of resolve; of well deserved thanks for a job well done coupled with a rededication to the job that lies ahead.

And today is a day of vindication for the nation and President Bush. Over one year ago, we pledged to expend every effort and devote every available resource to intercept terrorists and defend our nation. And in the words of President Bush, "We will not relent until justice and done and our nation is secure."

He put it this way, "What our enemies have begun, we will finish." The president was right. And we will continue to work to achieve these objectives.

I'm pleased now to call upon the director of the FBI, Bob Mueller.

Bob?

ROBERT MUELLER, DIRECTOR, FBI: Thanks, General.

ASHCROFT: Congratulations to you. MUELLER: Good afternoon, the work that was accomplished today in Oregon was not the work of just the FBI, it was the work of state and local law enforcement, and I want to today thank the cooperative efforts of the FBI's joint terrorism task forces in Portland, Oregon, in Oregon but also in Detroit, as well as our partners in state and local law enforcement throughout the country.

Also, I want to thank other government agencies for their extraordinary efforts as well as key foreign partners who have helped us in this global war against terrorism.

As we have often said over the last year, fighting terrorism is the FBI's primary mission. And those who support terrorists or engage in acts of terrorism will be brought to justice. And we come to this battle, I believe, well armed, with dedicated personnel, which are critical to the war on terrorism.

State-of-the-art technology helps, but in the end, we depend on the seamless partnerships with our partners here and abroad and the support of our citizens. And for that, I am most grateful. And let me assure you that the FBI will continue to take all steps that are necessary to ensure the safety and security of the citizens of the United States.

Thank you.

Thank you, General.

QUESTION: General Ashcroft or Director Mueller, (inaudible) the indictment shows that these men were trying to get to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban and then they had some small arms training here. Is there any evidence that they intended to do any harm to Americans in this country?

ASHCROFT: I'm not going to make any comment beyond the facts alleged in the indictment at this time and this case.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

ASHCROFT: That is, I'm not going to make any comment beyond the facts of the indictment -- I'm not going to comment on evidence -- or, what is alleged in the indictment is the limit of what I'm going to say about the facts of the case.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Does the United States have any idea which country the two missing individuals are in?

ASHCROFT: We're not going to comment further about the potential location of the individuals who have not been arrested at this time.

QUESTION: Well, let me try this.

(LAUGHTER) QUESTION: Could you comment on timing at all? It seems each time there is an announcement of this kind, we wonder whether there might be value in continued surveillance of these individuals for more information as opposed to conducting the arrests. In the case of Buffalo, there seemed to be a message or something that triggered the arrests. Is there anything you can explain here...

ASHCROFT: I would just say this, our efforts in this respect are made with an awareness that is -- that seeks to balance all of the national security interests of the United States.

And when we make arrests, we do so with a full range of those considerations in mind.

QUESTION: What was the nature of the weapons training that these people actually received?

ASHCROFT: For me to go beyond the limits of the indictment would be inappropriate in commenting on the evidence of the case. the case.

Yes?

QUESTION: Have you had assistance from China in this matter?

ASHCROFT: We are not going to go beyond the limits of the indictment in commenting on the evidence of the case.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: You say these gentlemen had some training out on private lands out in Oregon. Is this is in any way connected to the Ujamaa case out of Seattle?

ASHCROFT: We're not going to comment on evidence beyond those items which are included in the indictment.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Well, you said in your opening remarks that, "we've neutralized a suspected terror cell in our border," yet there's not an allegation that they were acting as a cell here and preparing acts here. Is a superseding indictment possible? Or is that maybe a mischaracterization of what...

ASHCROFT: Well, we will continue to investigate matters that relate to terrorism, not only in the country generally but in this area.

But for me to comment beyond the limits of the indictment wouldn't be appropriate here in terms of describing evidence.

QUESTION: Is this still ongoing or...

ASHCROFT: We continue to investigate although we are prepared based on what we have achieved in an investigation to support the allegations in this complaint. QUESTION: Do you have any reason to believe that there are other associates of these people now in Oregon or Washington or the northwest?

ASHCROFT: I'm not going to comment on whether there would be additional evidence.

Obviously, if additional inquiry on our part develops additional things that would merit indictment, we would proceed in that direction.

Mike, your hearing me comment a lot on your case, and I -- Mike Mossman who is the U.S. attorney has been working diligently on this matter for quite some time, because I've been personally involved in my awareness for quite some time.

Mike, if you want to make additional comments in that respect, I'd be pleased to have you do so.

MIKE MOSSMAN, U.S. ATTORNEY FOR OREGON: I'll just echo what's been said so far. This represents an extraordinary amount of work by state, local and federal law enforcement officials.

I've had a number of years as a prosecutor and never have seen before the level of cooperation and trust and vigilance exemplified by this investigation, so I'm proud of the people who are involved -- from a deputy sheriff of a local, rather rural county in Washington to the many FBI agents and police officers and state police and others who helped.

So I express my gratitude to them for their efforts. I think if the public were aware of how much time was spent and how much sacrifice was made, they'd be proud of the people involved.

QUESTION: Is there any more detail you can give us about how the sheriff and his deputy came upon all of this information.

MOSSMAN: No, not at this time.

QUESTION: Can we expect court appearances today?

MOSSMAN: I believe there's a court appearance in Detroit at one o'clock, and we expect a court appearance in Portland also this afternoon.

QUESTION: Mr. Mossman, what threat do you think this group posed on U.S. soil?

MOSSMAN: I'm sorry, I couldn't hear your question.

QUESTION: What threat do you think this group posed as far as targets on U.S. soil?

MOSSMAN: Again, I'm going to limit my comments to what's in the indictment and leave it at that.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Two kind of related questions: One, why weren't they charged with treason, since it seems pretty treasonous to travel and fight against U.S. forces after September 11th? Second question, why are they being treated in the criminal justice system and not as enemy combatants?

MOSSMAN: I think I'll answer the first one and defer to the attorney general for the second one. Treason is a very specific charge with very specific elements, not only in the federal criminal code but in the Constitution.

MOSSMAN: And we believe, based on a lot of consideration by various people, that these charges best fit the facts we have in this particular case.

ASHCROFT: I think the response I made earlier that we try to consider these cases with an awareness of a broad range of possibilities -- the Justice Department has authority for criminal charges and doesn't have authority for any other ways in which individuals might be detained or otherwise treated as participants in this war against terrorism.

We have what we believe to be a sound basis, obviously, for what we're doing here. It's reflected in the indictment.

But I would say to you that we don't operate in a vacuum, and we feel that this is the best thing to do in the national interest.

QUESTION: Does the indictment charge that any of the defendants ever actually fired a shot on behalf of the Taliban?

ASHCROFT: I think I'll just leave the indictment as it is. You have copies of the indictment. You'll be able to draw conclusions on your own.

QUESTION: General, there's a named unindicted co-conspirator in the indictment, somebody who is actually named in the indictment. Can you or Mr. Mossman give us any idea what that's person's status is? Is it somebody in custody, cooperating...

ASHCROFT: That individual, I believe, is in -- is serving time pursuant to another sentence in a federal institution.

QUESTION: Sir, while we have you, there's great public concern in the Washington region about the sniper and the several deaths that have resulted. I wonder if you or Director Mueller could comment for us at all about any federal role or assistance that you'd have in that matter.

ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, we are greatly concerned, and obviously want to provide whatever assistance we can. And I believe that assistance have been offered early in this setting, and it's a continuing offer.

The director may want to provide any details that would related to it.

MUELLER: No, immediately after the events of yesterday, we offered to Montgomery County Police all of the people, assets, lab and the like, and we are assisting upon the request of the local police where it's important to give them a hand.

And we will do whatever is necessary to provide what support is requested to augment the good work that's being done by the Montgomery County Police Department.

QUESTION: General Ashcroft, on Mr. Battal (ph) was there -- is there concern about how he was able to get into the Reserves? Was the proper vetting done, or were there any violations of policy allowing him to become a Reservist?

ASHCROFT: I don't have a capacity to comment on that at this time.

Thank you.

Thank you all very much.

PHILLIPS: Attorney General John Ashcroft at the Department of Justice announcing breaking news out of the department there, federal agents charging six men, five of whom American citizens, with operating a terror cell in the United States.

Kelli Arena also monitoring the developments out of there -- Kelli, quite a coup for these gentlemen.

ARENA: Well, the thing that struck me, Kyra, is that one of these individuals is actually a woman, at least one. There is -- I'm not sure about the other five, but he did say she, ex-girlfriend, and I thought, Wow, that's the first time we've actually heard about a female that has been involved within the al Qaeda terrorist organization, or allegedly involved in the al Qaeda terrorist organization.

That pretty shocking. Another thing that came out of the press conference was that one of these individuals was actually a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, someone who had pledged to defend his country, and now allegedly tried to go over to Afghanistan to fight against the United States. Another interesting development.

We also heard a lot about local cooperation, this was, in fact, sparked by a sheriff, a local sheriff, who had passed on information to federal authorities, and we heard a lot about wonderful cooperation on the state, local, and federal level. I'm not quite sure you would have heard that pre-9/11, sort of a testimony to some changes put in place, and a whole new attitude and psyche that it has evolved within the joint terrorism task forces around the country, Kyra. So, some pretty startling stuff there.

PHILLIPS: Two of these individuals still at large overseas. They didn't really talk a lot about that. They don't want to release specific information, right? ARENA: Right. And I believe that's probably because they don't want to tip off these people to the fact that they know where they are, or could know where they are, and so even -- even before the press conference on the sourcing level, as you know, we had been working this story throughout the morning, and we're not able to definitely get a location, even where somebody thought they might be for these individuals.

So, that is something that even if they do have a notion, they're keeping pretty quiet on. And again, what we talked about earlier, Kyra, is the whole definition of what is a terrorist cell, what is not a terrorist cell, and you heard a very direct question to the attorney general when he was asked, was there any information at all that these individuals were planning a specific attack here in the United States to do Americans harm, and he just basically said, I have no comment on that, I'm not going beyond the facts alleged within the indictment, and as you know in the indictment, it's just a -- charges of conspiracy to aid al Qaeda and the Taliban, and provide services, and then there were even waging war against the United States but nothing that suggests that these individuals were engaged in planning or plotting an actual terror attack.

So, again, that definition of a cell is broadening somewhat, at least in the official use of the term -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: And we talk about charges here, up to life in prison, is that what I heard the attorney general say?

ARENA: That's what I heard him say, yes, so either we're both crazy or that's what he said.

PHILLIPS: We are crazy, but that is another story.

ARENA: That's beside the point. But I have -- that's what I heard, yes, up to life in prison. Interesting question, though, that was raised, as well was why not classify these individuals as enemy combatants? I mean, here they were, they engaged in firearms training, according to the attorney general, physical training, and wanted to get over to Afghanistan, bought plane tickets to Hong Kong with the goal of getting over there to fight against U.S. sources (ph), so interesting that this doesn't fit into the enemy combatant statute, but rather goes through the civil process. Just interesting how these decisions are made -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right. Our Kelli Arena there, justice correspondent, thanks so much, and I apologize for those technical problems at the beginning, Kelli.

ARENA: OK.

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