U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says al-Qaida members still at large in the United States continue to pose a terrorist threat. Mr. Ashcroft made the comments in an interview with the Voice of America.
Mr. Ashcroft says recent statements from Osama bin Laden instructing his al-Qaida operatives to remain active is reason enough to keep the United States on high alert for more terrorist attacks. "We believe that the threat of terrorism is not over," he said. "We have seen the taunts of additional terrorist activity that have come from Osama bin Laden via tape recording, video tape, and the direction and effort that he makes to incite individuals to kill innocent American citizens, and this leads us to believe that we had best guard against terrorist activity."
The Attorney General says U.S. law enforcement officials will continue to do everything they can to disrupt terrorist activity and save lives.
Mr. Ashcroft would not say if any decision has been made yet as to how to deal with the case of John Walker, the young American captured while fighting for the Taleban in Afghanistan.
Some members of Congress have urged that Mr. Walker be tried as a traitor. But the attorney general indicated that any decision on that is still a ways off. "It would not be appropriate for me to comment on any specific cases or any case pending before the Justice Department," he said. "I can say that the United States does not look favorably upon those who join forces with enemies of the country, participate in conspiracies, if one does, to kill the innocent American population. Neither has history been kind to individuals so disposed."
In the interview, Mr. Ashcroft also defended himself against critics who charge that he has trampled on civil liberties in the domestic crackdown against suspected terrorists.
The attorney general says he welcomes what he called "reasoned debate" over the issues but rejected those who he says are making false claims that some civil liberties have been eroded by the arrests of hundreds of non-citizens in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks:
"Frankly, we need good discussion. It is the basis for the strengthening and reinforcement of American liberties. But for those to say that liberties are lost when the liberties are not, when there are safeguards, when liberties are as highly regarded or more so now than they have been in the past, does a disservice," he said.
The attorney general says he feels privileged to protect American lives from further terrorist attacks while at the same time respecting the freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.