Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials
The Briefing Room
2:14 P.M. EST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon. We were reminded on Sunday, with the appalling bombing at Beit Lid in Israel, which took 19 lives, of a whole series of terrorist attacks aimed directly at undermining the Middle East peace process. And the new executive order and the accompanying package of strengthened counterterrorism legislation are designed not only to strengthen our overall arsenal of legal tools to fight terrorism, but to strengthen our efforts to reduce this threat to the peace process.
We have been aware for some time that the terrorist organizations which are working to destroy the peace process thrive on funds from overseas. The majority of these funds we think come from foreign sources, but we have reason to believe that some funding has also come from donors in the United States.
On October 24th, at his speech at Georgetown University on the peace process, Secretary Christopher mentioned our concern about this and said that we are looking at a number of options to address both the funding threat and to strengthen our counterterrorism activities in other ways. And this executive order and the package of laws are a result of that.
These are only part of a much larger effort that the administration has been making to counter terrorism around the world. The executive order will also support the efforts which we have been making now for a long time to encourage similar efforts by foreign governments to prevent funding from their countries to these terrorist organizations. By blocking transfers to these terrorist groups and individuals and by freezing accounts, while we are not certain about the volume of funds that we will seize or stop, we know that we are sending a very powerful message to potential donors by criminalizing this activity.
The executive order, as you know, designates 12 terrorist organizations. We have a very large body of public and intelligence information which documents terrorist acts by these organizations going way back. And it also designates 18 individuals who are associated with these groups. The process provides an opportunity to designate additional groups and additional individuals as we work our way through this.
I'd like to ask my colleague from Treasury to talk about some of the operational aspects of the executive order.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control is the agency that is actually responsible for carrying out the blocking of the assets specifically. And at 12:01 a.m. this morning, notice went out to about 5,000 financial institutions throughout the United States listing these organizations that you have in your package here, and the individuals named, as well as pseudonyms of the organizations or other names that, through working with State and Justice, Treasury's identified that these organizations operate under, and freezing or blocking any assets or movement through those U.S. financial institutions and channels.
We will not know for a number of days, and anticipating an obvious question is, how much has been blocked, we will not know that for a period of time, for a number of days while the institutions respond back to the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control.
The intent here is obvious, as my colleague just stated, is to essentially another "arrow in the quiver," if you will, to deny on two fronts, both access to legitimate U.S. financial institutions for these organizations to move, launder or transmit their financial assets to support terrorist activities and, two, to also deny them access to diverting funds that were donated for charitable purposes, or people believing that they were going for charitable reasons in the tradition of widows' and orphans' funds, or other mechanisms like that that we're aware of, but that are actually being diverted and subverted for terrorist purposes and used by these terrorist organizations to fund their operations.
So this will essentially sever that lifeline that keeps those organizations going, we hope, and will help to deter their backing in the future. I think we'll, in the interest of your time, I'll save -- you'll probably have more detailed questions, but let me turn this over now to my colleague from the Department of Justice to talk about the legislation.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. Good afternoon. The legislation that has been drafted is designed to strengthen our ability not only to deter terrorist acts, but to also punish those who engage in such terrorism. It is a comprehensive bill that we have compiled. It is still being worked on. We will be working closely with the Hill to perfect it, and it has multiple provisions, but I'd like to highlight, at this point, essentially five broad areas, many of which are designed to ensure, among other things, that this country is not used as a base of operations for terrorist acts abroad.
To begin with, it creates a new federal statute which would provide clear federal jurisdiction for any international terrorist act committed in the United States. As many of you know, this has been a particularly critical point, especially in light of various events in the United States and highlighted the question of the existing scope of federal jurisdiction.
We also have provisions in the draft criminalizing conspiracies in the United States to engage in terrorist acts committed outside the United States. This is an extension of the Material Support Act and is critical, I think, for ensuring that the United States is not, as I said, used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks anywhere in the world.
Another provision which we think is critical is to provide expedited deportation proceedings for aliens who engage in terrorist activities and to expedite their removal from the United States.
The fourth provides a comprehensive mechanism for preventing fundraising in the United States in support of international terrorist activities overseas.
And the fifth is designed to facilitate the investigation of matters involving explosives, and implements recently concluded international convention for ensuring that explosives contain "taggets," if you will, insertion of chemical agents into plastic explosives, which will make them more detectible and facilitate investigation.
As I said, there are other provisions of the bill, which are critical. They're more of a technical nature, and would, in fact, greatly facilitate investigation, prosecution and enhance the range of the sanctions that can be applied.
At this point, we'd be glad to take questions.
Q: I have no understanding at all of how you are going to implement this. I mean, there are perfectly innocent people in mosques all through the U.S. who are contributing to what they think are charitable -- and most of the money does go to charity. Now, I mean, they don't write checks to Jebril or to Abbas or to Hamas or to Hezbollah. So, frankly, you listed a lot of names, and it makes great headlines, but I don't understand the mechanics -- how somehow -- I would only be repeating myself -- how you can possibly intercept money where the checks are not made out to the Party of God.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The initial focus and the initial targets -- if we could look at this in two phases, for example, the initial targets are not going to be going after Mr. and Mrs. Smith donating to their local mosque for charitable purposes. It is going to be seeking to sever the tie from the financial institution in New York. Let's assume, for a second, that the charitable institution that they had donated to in South Texas was diverting funds to a terrorist organization.
Q: How do you know -- let's stop right there, please. The money goes into an account at the federal bank of Dallas, Texas, all right, it doesn't say for the PLO -- it used to say for the PLO; of course, they're okay now -- it doesn't say Abu Abbas. Now, how are you going to get at that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: When it is transferred, the first focus of target of attack is going to be phase one. We're going to be seeking to intercept the funds from the Dallas -- let's say the Dallas independent savings and loan or financial institution to seek -- before they would transfer it overseas to an organization that we know through the listing that you have on the list here and other organizations or pseudonyms or persons that we'll sever. In other words, the first target of attack -- our primary focus is to obviously stop funds from leaving the country. So, if you will, the first phase of our focus is there.
A second --
Q: Why would you think that they would transfer it to Abu Abbas instead of some phony other --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's happened --
Q: Dallas is a good example, but how would you know that they're transferring it to Abu Abbas?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All I can tell you is that it is being transferred and that this will stop it, and that we will be able to successfully interdict it and prevent it from being transferred.
Q: You have evidence that they are openly transferring money to the groups on your list?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Their is belief that funds are leaving the country in support of terrorist organizations, and this will stop and interdict them.
Q: We all know that. But how, mechanically -- we still don't know how you're going to get it. It's pretty well documented that some money is being collected here for terrorist organizations. But people -- even the bank doesn't transfer the funds to the Party of God; how are you going to get it then?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, they're transferring it to someone, and it's the someone -- and it's stopping -- and there are ways of identifying working with the Department of State and the Department of Justice of organizations that we know they're being transferred to that are becoming and being made available to terrorist organizations; we will be able to stop and interdict those funds.
Q: Can you give us any example of some trace that you have done that actually shows money moving out of the country to one of these organizations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely. The Office of Foreign Assets Control has since World War II -- I mean, this office was created to essentially stop funds from going to the Nazi organization in World War II. I mean, since then it's been used --as recently, it's been used to stop diversion of funds for Haiti and property in Haiti. It's been used in Libya, during the Libyan activities to stop and divert transfer of funds of any of Libyan assets or of organizations of Libya and others --
Q: Are we talking about terrorist organizations that operate in a highly secretive manner and are completely unlikely to have bank accounts in their names. There were lots of individuals in Haiti who thought that they were perfectly free to operate by themselves. These are terrorist organizations. You're telling us that they have banks in Switzerland or other countries where the name on the account is Abu Abbas or Hamas?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They are organizations and individuals that, if they are using financial institutions, this will shut that down. They will not -- one, it will sever what is occurring; and two, it will prevent it from occurring in the future.
Q: And you were going to give me an example of how that works? Is there someplace where you have done that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In terms of today, I mean, the activity as of 12:01 a.m. this morning, it will block --any of the assets of any of the organizations or names or associated agencies that we have to those individuals are stopped.
Q: Assuming that they exist.
Q: With all due respect, you're not sounding convincing. If an organization in the United States or individual sent a check to the Widows and Orphans Fund of Beirut, are you going to stop that? Are you going to say, look --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If there is evidence -- following your example -- if there is evidence that the Widows and Orphan of Beirut is a name that is a front that we have evidence, working with the Department of Justice and State, is being used as a mechanism to fund funds to any of these organizations or individuals that you have listed here, yes, it will stop that check and it will stop those funds from leaving the country.
Q: By that time, the conventional mind will say that organization has disappeared, they got the money and they're gone. Now we have a new organization. We have the "Orphans and Sons of Veterans" who are getting the funds. "When was it organized?" "Oh, it's been organized a long time ago." What are you going to do about that? What are you going to do about it when it goes to, say, Damascus?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You get to the point of phase three. They might be able to tell Mr. and Mrs. Smith in Dallas, for example -- our example -- that it was organized for a long time, but they're not going to be able to tell the New York institution who's assets were -- that they're moving the funds through that they've been organized for a long time. So that that's why I say our first focus is here.
The second focus is, we'll be working with Justice and State -- because we want to deter and dry up these funds, we'll be making available, we'll be making available the organizations and charitable institutions as we progress here that we are aware of moving the funds -- in other words, illegitimate charitable institutions that are moving funds to terrorist organizations -- and we will be educating the public so that they do not seek to make donations to those organizations, but instead to organizations that we're convinced do not divert their funds for terrorist purposes, and are truly charitable.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can I just add one thing? If you're looking for representations that this is a foolproof method for drying up any possible capability of diverting funds to these terrorist organizations, my answer would be, no, it is not foolproof. Obviously, it is capable of being circumvented through a variety of stratagems, if you will. Nevertheless, from an enforcement point of view, this has efficacy as just one of several methods that can be used for addressing the problem of having the United States be a funding source for these terrorist organizations.
The legislation we propose will contain other devices, if you will, to facilitate the investigations.
Q: Like wire-tapping?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A variety, yes. There will be certain provisions.
Q: Isn't that against the Constitution?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, no, of course not. I mean, appreciate that we have a variety of existing, statutorily approved mechanisms. We are trying to, consistent with constitutional requirements, be able to afford ourselves the widest range of enforcement opportunities. Now, that is not being designed to, in any way, circumvent or deprive people of constitutional protections. But on the other hand, to the extent that wire-tap authority would facilitate investigations in this area, yes, we would like authority. But I'm saying that this is just one opportunity, if you will, for dealing with the problem of fundraising.
Q: What are the other factors in the blocking of terrorism besides this flow of funds? By the way, there is a contention by a knowledgeable investigative reporter that says that about 50 percent of the money flowing to terrorists comes to the United States. Do you contradict that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me address that and talk about some of the other things that we're using to fight terrorism. We have elaborate exchanges with foreign governments through law enforcement channels and intelligence channels. We share information round the clock with scores of foreign government institutions. That cooperation in law enforcement and intelligence is really the lifeblood of our international counterterrorism strategy, and we invest a great deal of time and effort in this.
We also have a major training program for training law enforcement officials of foreign governments in counterterrorism techniques. We spend about $15 million a year in that. We have a large research and development program for developing counterterrorism technology, such things as the detection of plastics explosives are a product of that program. We have an immense effort to improve aviation security, designed to reduce the terrorist threat. And we have a very, very active diplomatic strategy to try to press other governments to enforce their laws and to use law enforcement as a weapon in counterterrorism.
Q: If we could just come back to today's announcement, though. You said that you can't promise that this is foolproof. But I think what we're trying to get at is is this any more than a public relations exercise? It would be as if you stood up here and said, guess what, we're going to go after anybody who forwards checks made out to the Cali Cartel, you know. I mean, how useful is this? How much evidence do you have that people are actually forwarding money for terrorism under these particular names of these organizations you've listed?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would suggest that it's not necessarily just a question of this list, if you will. This list can be augmented. This list can be expanded as the evidentiary base warrants it, as our enforcement evaluation suggests that we should put additional names on this list. This is an ongoing process, but it is, again, just an additional mechanism for addressing the problem. It is not the exclusive one, nor, as I've indicated, do I anticipate that it's going to be a foolproof one.
Q: It should be useful in any -- I mean, do you have evidence that there has been money leaving this country going into bank accounts for Black September, listed that way or any of the other aliases that you have for Black September? Anything? I'm not saying foolproof, anything.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I think there is substantial -- substantial information indicating that the movement taken today by the President will address a significant aspect of the terrorism problem. It is not merely a question of symbolism, it is a question of good enforcement policy so that the action taken, while it certainly is not going to eliminate the problem, is, in fact, from my enforcement experience, going to help.
Q: Three quick legal questions --
Q: Is it not already illegal to donate money to these organizations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Illegal, per se?
Q: For me to give to Abu Abbas, was it not already illegal for me to do that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You have, for example, just passed in the last Congress the Material Support Act. But it has very significant limitations with respect to the scope. So, for example, you could not, in the context of that particular legislation contribute, as you suggest, assuming, though, that that act, that the contribution is to support terrorist acts overseas in which the U.S. would have federal jurisdiction which is a very limited range of terrorist acts.
Q: So what changes here, the burden of proof?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Which, under our -- or the legislation?
Q: Under your new initiative?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Under new legislation, we are, among other things, criminalizing the conspiracy in the United States to commit terrorism acts abroad. Our fundraising provision, of course, is also much broader than existing law.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me build on that. In terms of financial institutions, in terms of what's different, we could not have stopped the transfer from the New York bank -- let's say you had written the check to the New York bank -- from the New York bank to whoever you were sending, whatever named organization you would like. The executive order the President's taken today allows him under the international --
Q: Why could you not have stopped the transfer?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We did not have the -- there was not legal authority to do it.
Q: I'll try to keep it short. Wire-tapping still with the judge's prior approval?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q: Okay, you can eliminate hearings now, the right of somebody to have a hearing before he's deported, are you going to try to shortcut that? And, third, what about the right to associate so far as going to a mosque and contributing to a -- you're really touching on constitutional rights, and you know it as well as I do.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me take issue with your characterization. No, we're not touching -- obviously, the legislation in this area has to be drafted with tremendous sensitivity to those issues, and I think we have. We have, in fact, brought to bear great concerns about civil liberties of Americans and non-Americans in this country, and what we have designed, I would suggest to you, you will see is consistent with those constitutional limitations.
But on the other hand, as the court has repeatedly said, Constitution is not a suicide pact. It does permit us to move aggressively in this area consistent with the Constitution to be able to protect ourselves and our vital national security.
Now, with respect to this wire-tapping, all we're suggesting, among other things, is to take existing authority, which now has an articulation of a whole range of offenses, that permits legal wiretapping, and add terrorism to it. Okay?
As far as deportations -- deportations, what we want in connection with terrorism is a methodology consistent with constitutional limitations to enable us to expedite the deportation process, utilizing federal district courts and federal district judges and to have a mechanism -- have a mechanism so that to the extent that we have to rely on classified information --
Q: Closed courts, closed hearings?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no. Public hearings, procedures consistent with the same procedures utilize din criminal cases to ensure the protection of classified information, consistent with constitutional limitations. That is what we are proposing.
Q: I'd like to ask about legislation -- for a moment. You mentioned the legislation that you've got coming up. Two basic questions -- one, have you had any discussions with the Republican leadership on it, and what sort of response have you gotten from them, if anything? Two, are you liable to have any sort of difficulties in moving the legislation through because of the inclusion of two right-wing Jewish groups on the list of organizations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me -- maybe others here are far more qualified to respond to that question -- but let me just say from working in this area for many years, my experience is this is a bipartisan area. This is an area where my experience, everybody's concern, everybody wants to move in this area consistent with constitutional limitations. But they want to ensure that we are taking, at the Justice Department, an aggressive stance, which we are, that we have a full panoply of legal weapons to go after these problems. And so, from my perspective, I would hope, and I have no reason to doubt, that we will have a good bipartisan response.
Q: Is the CIA obligated under this Executive Order to help you and State and the rest with regard to intelligence on these various groups that might be funneling money to eventual terrorists?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The CIA and other American intelligence agencies are a full partner in this process, and their work overseas and the work of the FBI here at home is essential to make this work. And they're anxious to help, and they are helping.
Q: There's a broad paragraph in the order that talks about other federal agencies without naming them, and that's why I asked the question, whether that is the paragraph that brings the CIA into the picture.
Q: Have you stopped any fund transfer since midnight?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Like I say, we will not know. I do not know as of right now. We won't know for a number of days.
Q: Isn't that something you're following? I mean, wouldn't you be concerned?
Q: Is it fair also to describe this as a freezing of assets in addition to blocking transfers?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely.
As I said in the beginning, we won't know for a number of days yet until we hear back from the financial institutions. They are directed, as of 12:01 a.m. tonight, any of the activities that we discussed or assets that we've discussed or transactions that we've discussed are hereby blocked. In other words, it is a seizure. It is very similar -- this is identical authority to what you have seen in terms of the economic sanction programs that have been used that most of you would be familiar with.
Q: I have another technical question if I may. This is your list, is that right? Because there was nothing written at the top of this. This is the official --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's been actually put out by Treasury.
Q: Right. Okay, because I was surprised when I read the annex, although I know there are lots -- I'm not a Middle East expert -- I know there are lots of different names for these groups -- not to see Islamic Jihad listed on the annex. Are they included under Hezbollah on this annex?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is listed as one of the 12, is a distinct organization. Hezbollah is a different organization. They're both listed.
Q: There is something here that just says Jihad, but it doesn't say Islamic Jihad, and I thought that might be the Jihad group.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The two organizations are listed, but they're distinct groups.
Q: What if somebody is caught in this and claims to be innocent, that they're involved in truly humanitarian efforts? Do they have to sue the federal government to get access to their funds?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, there are appeal procedures -- this has happened obviously much before -- we have a lot of experience in this program. We have appeal procedures, people would apply to the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control, and there are appeal mechanisms in place. There are obviously always judicial avenues, but there are nonjudicial avenues as well -- administrative avenues to work this out.
Q: The same as in the Haiti assets freezing?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, very similar, and very similar to other activities.
Q: Is there not a breakdown in consular work to let these people to get visas to get here in the first place?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There have been some problems in the past, and with the help of the Congress and some new funding, we've done a lot in the last eight months to tighten our visa issuance in border controls. And I think we're doing a much better job on that.
Q: a charge was made lately that the State Department allowed the CIA to conduct the visa control, and that they let some of the terrorists in that way -- connected with the CIA for terrorist purposes that the CIA might want done. Can you answer that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Department of State is responsible for conducting our consular activities overseas, not the CIA. And we conducted and we take responsibility for it.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END2:44 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269866