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Transcript of Attorney General John Ashcroft's Interview with VOA's Jim Malone

Jim Malone: Attorney General Ashcroft, thank you for joining us on Voice of America Radio and Television. We appreciate speaking with you.

Attorney General Ashcroft: Delighted to be with you.

Jim Malone: You recently talked about you believe that some Al Qaeda members are in custody at this point. Are there others operating in the United States? Do they pose a terrorist threat at this time?

Attorney General Ashcroft: Well, we believe that there have been Al Qaeda and that there are Al Qaeda members. We didn't know of specific Al Qaeda members prior to September 11th, but it's pretty clear to me that we know of a group that boarded airplanes, used those airplanes as weapons against innocent people in this country, caused massive destruction and injured the culture and society substantially. We have no reason to believe that the entirety of the membership of Al Qaeda was exhausted on that one day and have reason to believe that there are others who are in the culture.

In sum, we believe that there is Al Qaeda membership in custody. But we believe that the threat of terrorism is not over. We've seen the taunts of additional terrorist activity that have come from Osama bin Laden via tape recording, videotape. And the direction and effort that he makes to incite individuals to kill innocent American citizens leads us to believe that we had best guard against terrorist activity.

Jim Malone: There's been some threat that with the end of Ramadan later this week, it could provide an opportunity for more attacks. Do you have any credible evidence to suggest that that's a possibility?

Attorney General Ashcroft: Well, I believe that we believe in a time where terrorists are active, and there has been every indication from Osama bin Laden that he has instructed his terrorist followers to remain active. In that context, it is very important that we remain alert and do everything we can to disrupt terrorist activity in order to save lives of innocent individuals, not just Americans. But, you know, there were dozens of countries represented in the deaths of individuals, innocent individuals in the World Trade Center bombing, with not just the bombing, pardon me, but with the airplanes used against the World Trade Center. The bombing some people refer to as the 19 - early 1990s' bombing incident. But these deaths represent people of a lot of different cultures and communities.

Jim Malone: Let me turn to the case of this young American, John Walker, who was captured fighting with the Taliban. Do you believe he's a traitor? And since the fate, his fate may rest with the Justice Department, what do you think should be done with him?

Attorney General Ashcroft: Well, first of all, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on any specific cases or any case pending before the Justice Department. I can say that the United States does not look favorably upon those who join forces with enemies of the country, who participate in conspiracies, if one does, to kill the innocent American population. And I would just indicate that history has neither - neither has history been kind to individuals who have been so deposed. But I won't make any comments about this specific case. I don't know the facts of this case with any sense of completion. And if it is appropriate for the Department to act, the Department will act.

Jim Malone: Let me turn to the issue of civil liberties which has been raging in this country. You testified before Congress last week. And if I can just read a bit of some of your prepared testimony, you were warning those who "scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty," saying that their tactics "only aid terrorists; they erode our national unity, diminish our resolve and give ammunition to America's enemies."

Who were you referring to there? And some have criticized you for saying that basically you're trying to muzzle those who would criticize.

Attorney General Ashcroft: Well, if you read the entirety of my remarks, you'd know that I encouraged reasoned debate, that I encouraged the kind of discussion that undergirds real liberty. But the charge that liberties are being lost without specifying how, or by ignoring the facts and refusing to provide the details that show how liberties are being safeguarded, some individuals can do a disservice. And frankly, we need good discussion. It's the basis for the strengthening of and reinforcement of American liberties. But for those to say that liberties are lost when the liberties aren't, when there are safeguards, when liberties are as highly regarded, or more so now than they've been in the past, does a disservice.

Jim Malone: Many members of the administration, President on down, Secretary Rumsfeld - many people have been getting kudos for their performance since September 11th, including yourself. But you also seem to be somewhat of a lightning rod for criticism. Does this bother you personally? Do you think the attacks have been personal? How do you feel about this?

Attorney General Ashcroft: Well, I feel that I'm privileged to have the opportunity to trying to protect American lives. To disrupt terrorism is an honor. Innocent women and children, innocent men shouldn't have the threat of terrorism that would impair their ability not only to live in freedom, but to live at all. And we'll do everything we can to both protect the American people and respect the Constitution and the rights which guarantee the freedoms of the American people. That's what the responsibility of the Justice Department's about. And that's all Americans. That's why we have launched about 250 investigations of alleged violations of the rights of minority Americans, or Arab-Americans, or Middle Eastern Americans. And it's very clear that we've got to make sure that all Americans' rights are protected and that we not allow any Americans to be the victims of discrimination or an effort to treat them in disrespect as a result of what this group of terrorists has done.

Jim Malone: Attorney General Ashcroft, thank you very much for joining us.

Attorney General Ashcroft: Thank you.