Ashcroft: Threats Should Be Taken Seriously

Fmr. U.S. attorney general reflects on 10th anniversary of 9/11, new terror plot


NEIL CAVUTO, HOST OF, "YOUR WORLD": But, again, the scene right now in Lower Manhattan is one of getting ready for the solemn ceremonies commemorating 10 years -- hard to believe, 10 years -- since this event.

This gentleman was the attorney general of these fine United States at the time, John Ashcroft joining me on the phone right now.

Attorney General, very good having you. Where were you, General, at the time when you first heard?

JOHN ASHCROFT, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I was flying in a Justice Department plane with some members of my staff, or on a government plane, on the way to Milwaukee to an event there when we were alerted of the problem.

I was asked to call the command center back at the Justice Department. So, I was actually in the air at the time these assaults from the air struck New York, Washington and obviously, ultimately, the field in Pennsylvania.

CAVUTO: Now, that was then, as I say. This is now. A lot of years have passed. A lot of people are feeling more relaxed right now. Should they?

We have this new terror alert. And I -- New Yorkers are a hardened, crusted group and they tend to say, oh, here we go again. What do you say?

ASHCROFT: Well, I think New Yorkers should be credited with being alert, vigilant citizens.

It wasn't long ago that New Yorkers detected a vehicle that had the components or the stuff from which an improvised explosive device could be developed and engineered. And so while New Yorkers may appear to be sort of unaffected on the outside, it's clear to me that they're willing to participate as defenders of the freedoms that we enjoy in this country by being alert and reporting things that are out of line.

So I give New Yorkers a tip of my hat. It's something that we encouraged all citizens to be involved in 10 years ago in the aftermath, because we were so worried about the recurrence of terrorist event. And when we look at all the terrorist events that have been disrupted, the citizens have played a fundamental and vital role in almost every disruption.

So, I think they're to be credited. And by being alert, they help devalue the threat, meaning they diminish the threat. Any time we act as if there is no threat, we'll signal to the terrorists that this is probably a time when you might be more successful. And that's a signal that none of us want to send.

And so I take the threat seriously. But -- and I believe New Yorkers do. But they don’t take it in a way that has them caving in to the objective of the terrorist, which would be to suspend...

CAVUTO: Well, that might be so, but – you’re right. That might be so, John, but what happened today and what to make of this latest threat and piecing together what we know from Usama bin Laden's compound and his notes -- in fact, he had a lot of elaborate plans, we're told, for something on the 10-year anniversary of the attacks. New York would be a target. Washington, we're told, would be a target.

I know you spent the day in Washington, when you were with Eric Holder, the present attorney general. Is there anything you can share with us -- I don't want you to divulge secrets, of course -- that would prompt this heightened watch? I know they’re not calling it a heightened alert, but heightened watch. What was behind it?

ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, it’s consistent with the way terrorists operate to try and have high-value targets and also to have timing which would add to any disruption that they could cause in our culture.

So, I think we would want to be on a -- you know, to keep our antenna up. And I'm not privy to the kind of intelligence that provided the basis for this. But having been in the chair when you had to make a decision about whether to share such things with the American people, I think you err on the side of caution, particularly when you understand the maturity of the American audience as it now relates to terror, that people know not to suspend their activities, but they know that it’s also important that they could be especially alert.

I think that's exactly the right template for the conduct of Americans on this weekend. I'll be in New York Sunday. And I'm not going to suspend my activities. I'm not going to run and hide. But like other Americans, I'll accept the responsibility of participating in making sure we do our best to maintain America as a free -- free nation where the liberty and civil liberties of people are observed with respect.

CAVUTO: So you don’t find this as a bit of, as one senator put it, Senator Inhofe, who's a ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, a "just in case you know what" covering? If God forbid something were to happen, authorities could always be on record as saying, well, we did put out this warning.

ASHCROFT: Well, I certainly doubt if that’s the case. Maybe the senator has more information than I do.

But I -- when I was Attorney General, we didn't decide to put out warnings in anticipation that something might happen and we could later on engage in a case of retrospective I told you so. We reserved warnings for times when we believed the threat level or the traffic as a result of intelligence merited an awareness.

Now, there's an anomaly operating here. And that is, if people are very aware, even if there were -- had been a threat, it's likely to devalue the threat, displace it or disrupt it, so that...

CAVUTO: All right.

ASHCROFT: ... if you are successful in disrupting threats, it looks like there was no threat.

The truth is there may well have been a threat. And I always treat these things seriously.

CAVUTO: All right.

Thank you, Attorney General.

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