Transcript: John Ashcroft on Fox News Sunday

Following is a transcripted excerpt from Fox News Sunday, March 24, 2002.

TONY SNOW, FOX NEWS SUNDAY: This week, the Justice Department plans to expand its interviews with Arab males who recently entered the country. Joining us from Springfield, Missouri, to discuss the war on terror and more is Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Mr. Attorney General, a number of Arab-American activists are saying that these interviews with Arab males who have come to visit our country are just a waste of time and resources, and that if the FBI and the Justice Department were truly serious, they would stop doing general interviews and start following real and concrete leads about terrorists in our midst.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, let me say, first of all, that we believe that following true and concrete leads is very important. We're doing that. We're doing it very aggressively.

But these interviews have been extremely valuable to us in a number of ways. We've gotten specific leads from these interviews. For example, we've heard about people who could lead us to people who were associated with the terrorists. We've learned about individuals who were involved in the development of fraudulent documents. And, of course, the framework of fraudulent documents that allows people to get into the country or to live in the country when they shouldn't be here, that's a very important challenge that we're facing.

But more importantly, we're learning about how to relate to a number of people in the communities of individuals that we're interviewing. These are people who are chosen from — as visitors who come here from nations that have a high level of Al Qaeda presence in them.

And by talking with these individuals — and they've been very cooperative, very helpful to us — they're providing us with good information. They're volunteering, in many cases, to be translators. They're asking how they can help. They love freedom like we do.

And, frankly, I think any terrorist should be aware of the fact that individuals in this setting are helping us, and it should send a little chill through the terrorist potential.

SNOW: Has it led to any arrests?

ASHCROFT: There have been some arrests that have been occasioned by this activity.

We got overwhelming cooperation from the community once they understood what it was about. Many of these individuals come from cultures where you can't really be friendly with police. And, frankly, they've learned that a good relationship with American law enforcement is a healthy part of defending liberty and sustaining the values that they really came to America for and admire in America. So it's been a win-win situation.

Even in cities where we had very serious challenges originally — like in Detroit there was some misgiving early on. I went to Detroit. We had about 313 requests in Detroit for people to have interviews with us. All but eight individuals agreed to the interviews, and it was a very good situation. Many of them responded merely when we sent the letter out saying we'd like to talk to you because we want you to participate in helping us thwart terrorism.

SNOW: Mr. Ashcroft, you dropped a phrase in the answer to my first question that I want to follow up on. You said communities where they know that there's an Al Qaeda presence. Do we know where Al Qaeda has its presence in the U.S.?

ASHCROFT: Well, I'm talking about international communities. We're identifying and focusing on certain individuals. You, in your intro, talked about Arab men, but that's really not the way we make the judgment. We make the judgment based on the country of origin in terms of their passport. And when people come from any — it's quite a number of countries who have passports from those countries, and we know there's a significant Al Qaeda presence in that country, that's what I'm talking about.

SNOW: Yes, but it's — we know, for instance, that there's been significant Al Qaeda presence in Great Britain. As a matter of fact, Osama bin Laden placed most of his phone calls, it appears, on a satellite phone to England, but we're not hauling off every Englishman who lands simply because they've got an Al Qaeda presence.

There is a bit of racial profiling going on, is there not? That's part of the design of this program.

ASHCROFT: We really think that racial profiling is not the number-one way for us to get to our target. So we look for commonalities, common characteristics that people had with the terrorists or with the countries from which the terrorists came. And we interview individuals that we feel can give us information and share in the responsibility of fighting terrorism.

SNOW: So, all right. I'm chasing...

ASHCROFT: Racial profiling we don't feel is the way for us to move forward. We don't profile people based on either race or religion. But we do look for common characteristics that can identify what we consider to be a rich-target environment for information, not necessarily...

SNOW: All right. So when you're doing interviews, what are the guidelines? Who are you talking to?

ASHCROFT: Well, we're talking to individuals, they're males predominantly, who have come during a certain time frame, and who are within a certain age frame, so that we're not interviewing the grandmother who comes from...

SNOW: Right.

ASHCROFT: ... the setting.

So we are looking to focus on what we consider to be a high- return population.

SNOW: The high-return population would be predominantly Arab males of Muslim backgrounds coming from nations that have an Al Qaeda presence, would that be accurate?

ASHCROFT: I don't think it's appropriate for us to say that the racial characteristics and the religious characteristics are part of any set of commonalities. We drive our law enforcement effort based on commonalities that are not race-based or creed-based.

SNOW: Zacarias Moussaoui, you've got to make a decision in the next few days about whether to seek the death penalty for him in federal court for his participation or at least advance knowledge of what was going to happen on September 11.

And now there has been talk that, if the United States pursues the death penalty, the French and perhaps other nations will simply stop cooperating with us out of protest to our policies.

Is it really worth the price, going after the death penalty for one person, if we'd lose cooperation from nations that are an essential part of the fight in the war on terror?

ASHCROFT: Well, frankly, I've traveled to Europe to talk to leaders in the justice systems there about this situation. We work on a case-by-case basis to make a determination about how we should proceed. The French have been very cooperative to help us, the Germans, the Italians, the Spanish, and the English, basically all of our friends in Europe.

We are a sovereign nation. We make judgments about crimes and the penalties that exist here. But each case is developed on an individual basis.

SNOW: All right. I understand that, but the French are going to base their entire policy on a single case if you go after the death penalty.

Again, the question is: Is it worth losing the French cooperation just to seek the death penalty against Zacarias Moussaoui?

ASHCROFT: Well, the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui is in the process of being evaluated in the Justice Department. I have to make an announcement on that by next Friday. And we'll consider the recommendations of the staff that'll be brought to me during this week with regard to this matter.

And obviously we will work on a case-by-case basis to make sure that we have the capacity to cooperate on additional items with our colleagues and counterparts overseas.

SNOW: Well, let me just ask this question. Zacarias Moussaoui was in jail on September 11, and he had been for some time. So, this is a guy who, in the days and hours leading up to the attacks, had no direct involvement. Why on earth would the death penalty apply to him?

ASHCROFT: Well, you know, people who are a part of a conspiracy and do everything they can to advance the conspiracy to kill Americans are appropriately charged with death-eligible offenses.

Now, whether the specific case will be the occasion for the imposition of a death penalty or the prosecution requesting a death penalty, that's a matter that is considered with all the facts involved in the case.


ASHCROFT: And that'll be brought to my desk this week.

SNOW: Would you be surprised then if he was involved in the most deadly attack on our soil ever, killing a lot of innocents -- it strikes me that that's kind of a no-brainer then. If you see him as part of that conspiracy, he ought to get the death penalty.

ASHCROFT: Well, that's the kind of basis upon which facts will be brought to me, and I'll make the final decision. It's obvious that he's been charged with a death-eligible offense, and the components of that offense are the kinds of things you've just outlined.

SNOW: All right. Is the director of the INS, James Ziglar, up to the job?

ASHCROFT: You know, he came on, was confirmed by the Senate in August, and that was about a month before this horrendous 9/11 tragedy.

He was building and is building a plan to renovate the INS so that the INS of the future won't even be recognizable. It's not the INS as we know it. That plan was submitted to the Congress. And it's an administrative plan to separate the enforcement function from the service function and to get clear lines of authority to renovate that plan.

I'm outraged by the INS, but his job is to restructure it. And just this last week, the congressional committees, whose approval we needed, signed off on the program so that we can move forward with that restructuring.

And I tell you, what's happened in the INS is enough to drive a man to drink, not me particularly, not given my habits.

But I would — Jim Ziglar's job is to carry this renovation forward, to reform it so that the INS is not what we've known it to be, so that it will be virtually unrecognizable. And this obviously is something that the president campaigned on, and that's why the plan was developed and proposed. And now that we have a green light to go ahead with it, we're going to do that.

SNOW: So Ziglar's job is safe.

ASHCROFT: Well, none of our jobs are safe. We're all doing the best we can. And I believe we have got to bring the INS into a place where it works effectively, and it's his job to do that. And, yes, he's doing that.

SNOW: OK. Now, about a week ago, four Pakistani nationals got off a freighter in Norfolk, Virginia. They had been granted what amount to visas to walk around, and now they have since disappeared. Turns out that they weren't supposed to be able to get those. Do you have any idea where they are right now?

ASHCROFT: We have launched a very substantial investigation. I'm not going to report on various aspects of the progress of that investigation.

Individuals are entitled to get visas from time to time, but I am not confident at all — as a matter of fact, I believe that these visas were granted in a way which violated the regulations, that appropriate precautions were not taken.

I have started an investigation in the INS. This is one of the maddening parts about this circumstance. An individual has been reassigned and not involved in those duties pending completion of the investigation.

I believe we will find these individuals, and I believe we will be able to correct this situation. But it's part of the need to renovate the INS, to change the Immigration and Naturalization Service, to have the kind of administrative changes.

And there may well need to be legislative changes. I don't mean to say that with this administrative agenda that we are precluding what the members of the Congress are trying to do.

SNOW: All right. Anthrax, do we have a new profile for the person or persons responsible?

ASHCROFT: I can't say that we have significant progress to report on the anthrax front. We continue to pursue individuals that were involved in laboratories. We believe that the kind of anthrax that was in the envelopes that were sent to the officials in Washington — Senator Leahy, Senator Daschle — that anthrax was so well refined and so highly developed that we believe it took individuals with real lab experience and technical capacity and facilities to get that done. So we're focusing our effort on individuals who have access to those kinds — that information and that kind of capacity.

SNOW: So here in the United States?

ASHCROFT: We believe that — yes, that's our primary focus of investigation continues to be domestic.

SNOW: Final question. U.S. News and World Report says that you are trying to make the Justice Department a "curse-free zone." Do you think you're going to be able to pull that off?


ASHCROFT: You know, don't believe everything you read in the papers.


You know, I've come pretty close lately with some of these stories we've had myself.

So obviously, I think the Justice Department ought to comport itself professionally, and I...


SNOW: OK. I'll let you off the hook.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, thanks for joining us.

ASHCROFT: Thank you.