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John Ashcroft on Fox News Sunday

Following is a transcripted excerpt from Fox News Sunday, June 2, 2002.

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS: I'm Brit Hume, in for Tony Snow. And this is Fox News Sunday.

The FBI gets an overhaul and news investigative powers. Will those changes help keep America safe and still protect civil liberties? We'll find out from Attorney General John Ashcroft.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are making it very clear to both Pakistan and India that war will not serve their interests.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUME: President Bush issues a stern warning. Now how will the two nuclear powers respond? We'll ask ambassadors to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi of Pakistan and Lalit Mansing of India.

And we'll get insights from our panel: Fred Barnes, Ceci Connolly, Bill Kristol and Juan Williams, on the June 2 edition of Fox News Sunday.

Good morning, and welcome in Washington.

In recent weeks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been in the center of a storm about what went wrong in the months before the attacks on September 11. This week FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a sweeping FBI reorganization and news expanded investigative powers. Here to discuss the changes in Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Good morning to you, sir.

JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good morning.

HUME: The Wall Street Journal went so far at the end of the week as to call for Robert Mueller's resignation as head of the FBI. What is you reaction to that, sir?

ASHCROFT: Well, Bob Mueller is a battle-tested veteran. You know, he was shot in the line of duty in Vietnam, got all -- he knows how to operate under fire. He is renovating the FBI in very significant ways to refocus that institution with prevention as its priority -- preventing war. And he's doing a good job. He's virtually -- well, totally reconstructed the counterterrorism unit. He has changed about 25 percent of the leadership there in the FBI totally, for the entire organization.

HUME: This is already done, you're saying?

ASHCROFT: Well, these things are already done. We announced the major restructuring in two stages, the second stage of which was this last week, designed to help us do what the American people really want us to do and what we need to do. And that's to focus on preventing additional terrorist attacks.

HUME: There are some who might suggest that nine months is a long time, after a terrible attack like that, to come up with a new plan. What would you say to that?

ASHCROFT: Well, this was the second stage of what we're doing. And we will continue to strengthen, as time goes forward. For instance, in the regulations which I proposed and, as a matter of fact, issued this week for FBI investigations, that was designed to help agents do a better job in the field. We needed those regulations because our other regulations, in some cases, tied the hands of individuals.

We had issued the authority to waive the regulations immediately after, and we're constructing the new regulations so that we're making changes as we move toward reinforcing this mission of preventing additional terrorist attacks.

HUME: Let me ask you about something that the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said about the change in your governing regulations there. And let's listen to Chairman James Sensenbrenner of the state of Wisconsin.

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U.S. REPRESENTATIVE JAMES SENSENBRENNER (R-WI): I get very, very queasy when federal law enforcement is effectively saying -- going back to the bad, old days when the FBI was spying on people like Martin Luther King.

We want to make sure that the FBI, that hasn't had a good track record lately, doesn't go on the other side of the line.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUME: Now, that was not some left-wing politician there, sir. That was the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee worrying about these expanded powers. How do you answer his concerns?

ASHCROFT: Well, we are at war. We have very serious challenges to address. And to leave us with agents who have their hands tied in the field so that they can't get the information that need to get, I think, is foolhardy.

Let me just tell you about what we're talking about, though. Here are the words in the guidelines that have been a source of controversy. And I'm quoting the guidelines now. "For the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities" -- very limited purpose -- "the FBI is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public on the same terms and conditions as the public."

ASHCROFT: That's it. Now, we're not talking about invading privacy. Alan Dershowitz, the liberal scholar and trial lawyer, says this doesn't offend any privacy laws. Lawrence Tribe, the liberal constitutional scholar, probably the most noted constitutional scholar, said this doesn't offend the Constitution.

We're talking about regulations that put the FBI on a parity with local police, county sheriffs, let the FBI go places that citizens go and that these law enforcement officials go on a regular basis.

It seems to me that the American people expect us to be allowing and providing -- you know, we've been hearing from the field that FBI agents have suggestions. One of their suggestions is, give us the authority to listen to what's happening in public places in our community, to surf the Net, for example.

The FBI, previously to this renovation of the regulations, didn't have the authority to surf the Net and look for bomb-making sites on the Net. Any 12-year-old child can do it. The FBI ought to be able to do it.

HUME: Well, that said then, let me ask you the question from the opposite direction then. Are you confident that these steps are enough?

ASHCROFT: Well, these steps are appropriate steps that will strengthen our position significantly, and we will always be looking for ways to improve our position. The one thing we learned is that living in statically in the past is not a productive way to do things.

So we will continue to look for ways to improve our performance. We'll listen to the field. We've been getting people from the field making suggestions, and we're welcoming those suggestions.

HUME: Are you contemplating any further steps that you have in mind now, and if so, what are they?

ASHCROFT: No, this was a comprehensive -- that's one of the reasons it took a while, while we provided an authority for waivers so that action could be taken as needed. This was a comprehensive renovation of the investigative guidelines for law enforcement in the FBI and in the Justice Department.

HUME: Let's assume that these guidelines have been in place. Go back, if you can then, to pre-September 11, intelligence that you had or that other agencies had. What difference would they have made?

ASHCROFT: Well, let me just say this, that we've got the joint committees of intelligence that are assembling all the information. And that information is coming in. Tens of thousands of documents from the Justice Department and the FBI, from other agencies as well.

They're the right agency to make that, but I'm not sure it's productive for us to speculate about what information there was or what information we would have.

HUME: Right. I'm just asking you, though, as a practical matter. I mean, you now have -- presumably you designed these new guidelines with...

ASHCROFT: To give us more information.

HUME: Yes, in light of what happened prior to September 11. So surely you must have had that in mind. There must have been some things, just generally speaking, that you might have been able to do if you'd had these guidelines in place. That's all I'm asking.

ASHCROFT: Well, these guidelines allow us to surf the Web without having the previous leads. They allow us to go to public places without having a previous lead.

HUME: Right.

ASHCROFT: They give us an increased capacity to use human sources for intelligence. All of these things strengthen our capacity to prevent terrorist activities.

HUME: Let me try some something else. Much of the conversation in this town the last couple of weeks has concerned memos that have come to light about what FBI agents were doing and what they thought they should have been able to do and so forth.

How confident are you, if at all, that these pieces of paper are not going to continue to surface? Are you confident you've found out there what else there is?

ASHCROFT: Well, I think that's the process that I've talked about with the joint Committee on Intelligence, that we are gathering and providing documents, tens of thousands of documents. And that this agency's not only looking at what comes through the Justice Department and the FBI, but through a variety of sources. And when that mosaic is finally assembled, we're going to know even more than we know now.

Our job -- we're at war. We have 550 million people crossing our borders back and forth every year in the United States. We know that they train tens of thousands of people in the Al Qaeda camps.

We've got to take steps to do what we know we can do. We've known that we've needed better communication between the various intelligence agencies. And from the Patriot Act, which was passed very shortly after that event, to the fact that we now do a number of reports jointly that we used to do independently, to a variety of things, we have improved our communication. We've got to improve the ability to assemble information, that's why we strengthened the hand of the agents.

And last week's announcements of reforms at the bureau relate to the ability, once information is in the bureau, to be able to put it together rationally, and that's the analytic component.

HUME: I understand. I understand also that the congressional intelligence committees are investigating. But are you aware now, sir, of other memos not unlike the Coleen Rowley memo, not unlike the so-called Phoenix memo, that have come to your attention since September 11 that would suggest where other intelligence failings or shortcomings or lapses may have occurred?

ASHCROFT: I don't have other memos in my awareness that I could offer that would help us. But I'm confident that, in assembling this information and digesting it, we'll learn more than we now know and we'll learn about things that'll help us improve.

ASHCROFT: And that's a process that we ought to continue to regard.

HUME: Now, the New York Times reported yesterday that there was a request for an additional $58 million budget request that would have gone, at least, in part, toward the counterterrorism efforts that everyone now thinks is needed. It was on your desk or right before September 11, and that that got nixed. What about that?

ASHCROFT: Well, in the August-September timeframe, that's when preliminary budgets documents are assembled. And various negotiations and various questions are asked about requesting authorities and there's a lot of give and take.

The fact of the matter is that the budget reflects a substantial increase, a several-hundred-percent increase, in the Justice Department's capacity to deal with terrorism. And hundreds of millions of dollars of increase -- about 600, I believe -- in the FBI's ability to deal with terrorism.

And this increase in the budget is important and was merited. And I believe that the New York Times story substantially is misleading about our budget.

HUME: Well, about the $58 million?

ASHCROFT: Well, the $58 million was a preliminary figure. It was in the early deliberations on the budget. The budget took -- eventually took form and took shape after September the 11th. The kinds of things that are best needed and best appropriate or most appropriate, in order to prevent terrorism, are included in the $600- and-some-million increase, far bigger than the $58 million in question.

HUME: All right. Now, there's a very striking story in the new edition of Newsweek about two of the 9/11 terrorists, having been spotted by the CIA, tracked by the CIA into this country, where they lived in San Diego, and that their existence and their activities, including participation in the conference in Malaysia, was never made known to the FBI.

First of all, what's your reaction to that? And secondly, are you now confident that, should such a thing occur again, that the kind of communication that it appears to beg for will be?

ASHCROFT: Well, obviously, as we assemble information, we learn more and more about what was happening. And I haven't had a chance to digest this story. People have shown it to me this morning. I haven't had a chance to read it thoroughly and to get the details.

We are at war. We need to seize on every possibility for preventing additional attacks. That's our strategy, that's our responsibility. And we need to coordinate the activities between our agencies.

This was understood shortly after the attack. I mean, the Patriot Act includes special authority for talking between these agencies, we didn't have before.

HUME: So you're confident this wouldn't happen again?

ASHCROFT: We'd better do everything possible to make sure it doesn't happen again. That's my job, that's my responsibility. That's why I'm focused on the future more than I am on the past right now.

HUME: One last final question. There's a New York Post story that says that there is a serious shortage of Arabic language translators in the FBI and a very large cache of documents that's accumulated that haven't been read. Is that true?

ASHCROFT: Well, I do know this, that the FBI is seeking to develop agents with expertise. For a long time, an agent was an agent was an agent. We need people with -- and this is one of the reforms that Robert Mueller has put in place. Get the computer specialists, get the linguist specialists, get engineers, get people who have expertise in these fields of study, so that we can process things, not just by agents -- good people, agents. But we need agents with expertise and capacity, and that's the direction in which we're moving the instition.

HUME: So is there an accumulation of documents?

ASHCROFT: I don't know what the extent of any accumulation of documents. I know we need Arabic speakers. As a matter of fact, early after the assault on September 11, we asked for help in that respect. We're seeking to institutionalize our capacity. Those who are volunteering or those who are helping may not be able to be with us long term. We need a long-term capacity to process this kind of information.

HUME: And how long, in your judgment, will it take for the FBI to become the new agency that you're trying to create? And what about in the meantime?

ASHCROFT: Well, it's a process. I mean, we've taken dramatic steps, large steps. We're far better off than we were months ago. We'll be better off down the road.

I don't know if we're ever going to dust our hands and say, "We're through, we don't ever have to change again." We should understand that the way to be best prepared is to always be sensitive to the changing environment in directing our resources to preventing terrorism, based on our understanding of the environment.

HUME: Mr. Attorney General, it's a great pleasure to have you.

ASHCROFT: It's my pleasure to be here. Thank you.