The Justice Department yesterday circulated to federal prosecutors nationwide a list of 5,000 foreigners authorities want to question concerning the September 11 attacks on America.
Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said the list, compiled with the help of the State Department and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, contains the names of persons “who might have information” about the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks that killed nearly 5,000 people.
No one on the list was identified, although department officials said they are males, ages 18 to 33, who entered the United States on nonimmigrant tourist, student and business visas after Jan. 1, 2000, from a country in which a terrorist might be likely to plot possible additional attacks and then enter the United States.
Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden is the prime suspect in the September 11 attacks. He is hiding in Afghanistan, with the help of its Taliban militia.
At least nine of the 19 hijackers involved in the terrorist strikes in New York and Washington were in the United States legally at the time of the attacks. All had obtained visas to visit this country. At least six others had overstayed their visas and were not legally in the United States.
The interviews will be voluntary, Miss Tucker said, adding that none of those being sought has been identified as a suspect in the FBI’s ongoing investigation.
Those on the list have been identified as individuals who may have information helpful to the investigation or to the Justice Department’s effort to disrupt potential terrorist activity, she said.
“They are not suspects, they are simply people who we want to talk to because they may have helpful information,” she said. “They could be witnesses, we won’t know until we talk to them. We’ve allowed them to come into this country and we expect them to help.”
Attorney General John Ashcroft, during a speech yesterday to anti-terrorism task force coordinators from U.S. attorneys offices in 94 jurisdictions across the country, said he ordered the questioning to determine whether the interviews would be “helpful to our investigative and prevention efforts.”
“By necessity many, if not most, of these interviews will be conducted by members of state and local law enforcement,” he said. “We recognize that this will be a time-consuming and complicated task, but it is critical we expand our knowledge of terrorist networks operating within the United States.”
Mr. Ashcroft also told the terrorism coordinators that the September 11 attacks had redefined the Justice Department’s law enforcement mission.
“Defending our nation and its citizens against terrorist attacks is now our first and overriding priority,” he said. “We are engaged in an aggressive arrest and detention campaign of lawbreakers with a single objective: to get terrorists off the street before they can harm more Americans.
“We will arrest and detain any suspected terrorist who has violated the law. But make no mistake: Terrorists who are in violation of the law will be convicted, in some cases deported, and in all cases prevented from doing further harm to Americans,” he said.
Last week, Mr. Ashcroft announced a sweeping wartime reorganization of the department that placed a high priority on cooperation and coordination among federal officials in Washington, and state and local prosecutors and law enforcement. The plan calls for a refocusing of the department’s core mission and responsibilities with the understanding that it “will not be all things to all people.”
“We cannot do everything we once did because lives now depend on us doing a few things very well,” he said, adding that the department will refocus its resources on front-line positions including the transfer of 10 percent of current headquarters-based positions to the field offices across the country.
On Sept. 17, Mr. Ashcroft directed the 94 U.S. attorneys to establish anti-terrorism task forces to bring together federal and state and local anti-terrorism officials.
The task forces are designed to serve three distinct purposes: To gather information from and disseminate information to federal, state, and local agencies; to use swiftly and intelligently such information to prevent future attacks from occurring; and to ensure an efficient, effective, and coordinated response to any future terrorist incident in a particular district.
Mr. Ashcroft also ordered that $9.3 million be made available to support state and local participation in the anti-terrorism task forces.