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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release January 18, 1997
                          BACKGROUND BRIEFING

The Briefing Room

2:54 P.M. EST

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as you all know, the President formalized the formation of the National Church Arson Task Force in June to combat the rash of attacks on our nation's houses of worship, thereby launching the nation's largest arson investigation ever and the largest current civil rights investigation. Indeed, it's one of the largest investigations of any kind underway in the Department.

The Attorney General and Secretary Rubin presented the President today with an interim report, which you, I guess, are now getting, on the progress of the task force over the period since june. The task force has produced results of which we are all very proud. We've investigated more than 300 arsons that have occurred since 1995. We have arrested more than 140 suspects in connection with 107 fires. We have well over 200 investigators, full-time, working on this at the federal level in cooperation with a like number of state and local investigators working exceptionally well and exceptionally cooperatively.

We have had 48 prosecutions so far. We've seen a drop, a dramatic drop in the number of reported arsons at churches. We have a lot of work yet to accomplish, but we intend to keep at it, or I should say my colleagues intend to keep at it until we get to the bottom of all of them.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. One of the things that we had tried to do when we set out in June with the formation of the task force was change our investigative approach. It's almost an old axiom in law enforcement that investigators investigate and prosecutors prosecute. And what we tried to do when we formed the task force, and what I think we've been successful at doing was bringing together prosecutors and investigators to work start to finish on the cases together, so that we now have in Washington an operations team that consists of agents of the ATF, agents of the FBI, working with Justice Department attorneys detailed from the civil rights division and from U.S. Attorneys Offices around the nation.

One of the concerns early on in the investigation was that we should go about these investigations not only with integrity but also with sensitivity to what has happened to many of these communities in which the churches were burned, so that we embarked on an extensive outreach program with ATF, FBI agents, representatives from the community relations service, all working with the communities to make sure they understood the nature of the investigations, that they understood our investigative approaches, and that they had confidence in the conduct of the agents, because arson cases are very, very difficult to investigate and difficult to prosecute. And we were certain that without the confidence of the communities we would not make the headway that we were able to make in these investigations.

The President, as you know, has spoken, and not only spoken about this concern, but visited a church in Tennessee and helped rebuild that church. But from the President on down, there have been extensive outreach efforts. Secretary Rubin, Attorney General Reno have spoken at great length about the concern and encourage us in our efforts. And my colleague and I have traveled to churches throughout the South and met with agents and worshiped with church members to demonstrate the level of our concern.

I do want to say a couple of words about some of the other efforts. In addition to trying to capture the guilty, the administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development put together a national rebuilding initiative and, working with the National Council of Churches and the Congress of National Black Churches, has led a cooperative effort that has resulted in 10 churches being rebuilt as of December 31st of last year, and an additional 30 churches are currently under construction.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As most of you know, FEMA works tremendously with communities all across the country, and that's pretty much the focus of FEMA's involvement: working with the U.S. Fire Administration, which is part of FEMA, in a national arson prevention clearinghouse. There's three areas: the clearinghouse is one, community outreach and coalition-building.

The federal government can't prevent church burnings all by itself. Our focus has been to try and work with communities. Right now, James Lee Witt, the Director of FEMA, is meeting with the Mayor of Macon, and that's one of our pilot project communities, in trying to build a grassroots approach toward preventing arson.

With the National Arson Prevention Clearinghouse, we've received more than 10,000 requests for information from every state and territory. We've distributed more than 300,000 arson prevention packets, and these packets consist of material on how to get training, grants, and provide technical assistance to callers on how to set up arson watch programs in their community, neighborhood watch programs sort of like Crime Watch in areas.

The clearinghouse also will be instrumental in referring the parents of juveniles with fire-setting problems to appropriate mental health professionals. Juveniles are responsible, by the way, for 50 percent of all arsons. In community outreach, the Corporation for National Service, AmeriCorps and Vista volunteers conducted arson risk assessment surveys, providing arson prevention information in 18 communities that had experienced church arsons, and in 73 other potentially vulnerable communities in the six southeastern states.

In terms of coalition building, FEMA has selected three locations for the pilot community-based Arson Awareness and Prevention coalition-building efforts. Macon is one of the communities; Charlotte, North Carolina, is another; and Nashville, Tennessee, is the other. And we're working with those communities to field-test grassroots strategies for combatting arson within the communities, working with them on how to obtain training grants. We also have been working with the Department of Education, which has awarded seven grants through its Safe and Drug-Free Schools program for a total of $1,800,000, for hate crime prevention activities. FEMA has also distributed $774,000 in training grants to all 50 states in the District of Columbia to enhance state and local arson investigation and prevention capabilities. An estimated 2,500 individuals will be reached directly with these grants to begin these programs.

This year, FEMA, in 1997, will make available $750,000. Every state will participate, including the District of Columbia and the territories, to support the governors and their arson prevention efforts. These efforts may include statewide public education campaigns, coalition building, community-based arson watch programs, or other arson prevention priorities determined by each specific governor, each individual governor. It's basically a grassroots-oriented approach to prevent arson and to help communities prepare themselves to fight arson.

Q What was the cause of this epidemic last year? Was it a conspiracy? Was it copy cat? I mean, what was it that brought it on in such a epidemic proportion last year?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We saw, and continue to see, a number of different kinds of causes. There are conspiracy convictions we have obtained involving small numbers of fires in small -- or relatively small geographic areas. We have not established an overarching criminal plan that connects all of the fires or a large number of fires across the region, or across the country for that matter. We're still looking at some of those potential connections as a matter of the ongoing investigation, but the convictions so far that are conspiracy convictions, to the extent, are in smaller numbers.

Q What was the reason? Is there any basic --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There is no one reason, which is pretty much what we thought all along. Many of the fires are driven by racial hostility, many by religious hostility. There are an astonishing number, as you heard referred, of fires committed by juveniles, which I think is among the most disturbing features of these fires. I think if you had to put them into groups, if you will, there is a group of cases where race or religious hostility is clearly at issue. There is a group where it is clearly not at issue. And there's a group in the middle where many of us involved -- indeed, most importantly, the investigators -- believe it's at issue, but where we don't we think we have the evidence that would sustain a civil rights conviction in court, but where we can prove arson in the absence of a civil rights charge we will proceed on and have proceeded on the arson charge.

Q But did you find racial or religious hostility as factors in a majority of the arson fires, or in a minority of them?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, actually, even in the cases that are -- where we've had arrests, investigations are ongoing. One of the patterns has been -- so the short answer is, I can't give you a complete answer yet. One of the ways these cases have unfolded is that the arrest is often made after a cooperative investigation by the state authorities first. And then, using a variety of investigative strategies that have been productive, we follow on with the civil rights part of the case.

So sometimes there's an arrest and, indeed, in many of the pending cases there are arrests on state arson charges or vandalism charges of one kind or another. And then the further investigation yields the civil rights dimension.

Q I think the impression that the American people received when this was very much on the front pages was that racial or religious bigotry was a key factor in these fires, and did we all leap to wrong conclusions on that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, if the conclusion was, or the impression was, that that was driving all the fires, yes, that was an incorrect impression. That's not an impression that we attempted to convey. We've said all along that there are a variety of motives at work here -- race or religious hostilities, clearly one of the motives at work. And I think the investigations have pointed that out.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You asked a second ago about our investigative approach. One thing that we changed in June, and actually before June, was when the federal investigators were brought in. In many of the fires and in many of the investigations, although typically the state officials and the state fire marshals are the first responders, the federal investigators were often on the scene before the embers cooled down, and that's made a big difference.

The ATF is probably the nation's -- in fact, is the nation's premier arson investigator, particularly in cause and origin. And since the evidence is so precious in an arson case, it was very important for us to get those investigators on the scene initially.

Q In those cases where juveniles were involved, was it just mischievous activity by them, or was there racial or religious hostility involved in those cases as well?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The answer is yes and yes. In 50 percent of the cases they ranged the whole gamut. We've had cases where the juveniles were, you know, pranksters, basically. We had one case where a juvenile was a purported devil worshipper. We've had other cases where the juveniles used the most rank kind of racist intimidation as a part of the act. So it's been -- it's run the gamut.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me add one thing to that. There's a silver lining also in the troubles that began several months ago, and that is that through the outreach efforts that FEMA's been involved with, communities are going to be much better prepared to handle arsons of all kinds. These grants that have gone out in cooperation with the Council of Churches, with all of the fire organizations -- the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Association of Arson Investigators and all of the fire service organizations working with fire departments small and large all across the country -- communities all across America are going to be better prepared to handle and to deal with arson through the training at our Emmittsburg facility, United States Fire Administration. So as a byproduct of those troubles that you're speaking of, there is a larger picture involved in that, too, that is a good picture.

Q There is a drop in the incidence. How much of that is preventive efforts, how much of that is lack of publicity? It's not on the front pages anymore.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't have an answer. You know, it's like most things, it's probably a combination of factors. I think -- I mean, I have to believe, and I think most of us do, that the seriousness and the concentration of the prosecutive effort, investigative and prosecutive effort has contributed to that. It may also be that the reduction in the newspaper attention or press attention contributes to that. Although, the rise preceded the press attention. So, you know, we could debate that.

Q What about insurance fraud? What percentage, roughly, would you say proves to be just simple insurance fraud?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that those allegations exist in probably one or two cases. But you should understand that a part of the standard protocol for an arson investigation is to examine that, as well. So it's not an unusual question to be asked in an investigation of arson, but the evidence bears out insurance-related kinds of activities in one or two cases.

Q And the hate cases, would you say it's a majority so far, pending further investigation, or a plurality of cases?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, let me say that the combination -- you remember those three groups I was talking about, the cases where it's clearly hate and the ones where we think it's hate, but we don't think we can prove it? Those two groups, in my estimation, represent a majority of the cases. But the convictions, the actual convictions will be obtained obviously on the strength of the evidence themselves and that number remains to be seen at the end of the day.

Q Well, with the variety of motives that you've described here, does that cause you any more concern than if you had looked at it and found that the only motive in these cases was hate of one sort or another?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I understand your question. Personally, I have always felt that this was -- that not finding an overarching national conspiracy was worse because of what your question implies: that unconnected attacks on sanctuaries and knowing the impact that has on a community, whether it is driven by religious hatred or racial hatred or a disrespect for a sense of authority or whatever the reason, the fact that there are so many incidents and that there is the range of motives is personally, I think, even more worrisome than an overarching criminal conspiracy.

Q Would you discuss the --

Q There's almost a sort of casualness to it.


Q It seems almost as though there's more of a casualness to this, as though it's become something that's easier to do. It would be easier to -- for perpetrators to convince themselves to do -- that it's not such a terrible thing.


Q I mean, I'm asking if that's -- I'm wondering if there's something in the society that is making it easier for these things to happen.

Q When you say "personally more worrisome," why? Because it shows a breakdown in moral order or --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know that -- I don't know how wholesale a conclusion is appropriate at this stage when we've had 143 arrests and the same number again of unsolved matters. I think we -- all of us have been -- within the administration, in the communities, frankly I think in the press as well, have been concerned about what this may say about us as a society today. And I think that the President has shown particular leadership in using this as an opportunity to bring people together. And I think actually we've seen that in individual communities as well.

Q One of your charts in the back of the material you handed out shows that a majority of the fires that are taking place, or arson that's taking place at places of worship, are not at African-American churches, at least in the last few months, but at other places of worship. What's going on in those cases and why do those numbers seem to have mushroomed in the last six months or so?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In relation to the -- do you want to take this?






SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't mean to hog the -- in relation to the number of fires in African-American churches, you're right, particularly in the most recent months, the number of attacks on white churches, on synagogues and mosques is higher. That is right. And to the extent that there is a variety of motives, I think you see more variety, if you will, in that class of -- in that group of cases than you do in the attacks on the African-American churches. We have been investigating attacks on white congregations, on synagogues and mosques from the beginning and will continue to do that.

We are not seeing -- I guess in one case that I am -- that comes immediately to mind, we did charger a civil rights -- we did make a civil rights charge and obtain a civil rights investigation in an attack on a white church where there was demonstrable racist motivation. But we don't see that phenomenon in terms of the attacks on the white congregations in the same degree that we do -- anywhere near the same degree that we do in the attacks on --

Q What do you see as the motivation in those other -- in the white churches and the synagogues and mosques. What type of motivation do you see in those cases?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You see -- well, the attacks on the synagogues are frequently anti-semitic attacks. And there is -- and that is demonstrable again, because -- now, I'm talking about evidence, what it is we can show. As I think about the attacks on the mosques, I can't remember whether there was an anti-Islamic motivation, but maybe one of these guys can help.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: At least with respect to -- with respect to one of the mosques, one of the -- in South Carolina, one of the issues that we're looking into is racial animus, because that's a mosque that was frequented by African Americans.

Q Could you be a bit more specific on the incident you just mentioned where you got a civil rights complaint against people who had attacked a white church? What were these suspects, what was their race?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You guys will correct me if I mess it up? It was in Tennessee -- Dyersburg, Tennessee. The attack was on a white church by a black suspect who -- I believe this is a case where he admitted the crime. Isn't that right? And he said that he was doing it in retaliation for what he perceived to be the widespread attacks on African-American churches. That's the only case of that kind that we have had. But we used the civil rights laws in connection with that as well.

Q There seems to be an effort to kind of draw attention to this. You've got this report coming out, the President's address tomorrow. You've got a choir at the inaugural made up of members of the churches. I mean, do you see any -- is that intentional to have these kind of forces pointing so much together or is it just a coincidence?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can't speak to the choir -- I don't know how that relates, except that -- what?

Q Preach to the choir?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think the President had a choir at his last inaugural as well. The President is -- well, first of all, we promised the President that we would make periodic reports about the progress of the task force, and we have done that in an informal way. We're doing it in a more formal way for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I'm leaving and we wanted to kind of sum up, if you will, on where I am. And, frankly, it's just a natural time. We had originally intended to do it at six months and the process of getting it out and the holidays intervening have caused it to be seven months.

Q Why are you leaving?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Why? I can come back to that.

Q Do you feel your job is done?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no, no, no, no. I would stay if I could, but my wife and kids have been in [name deleted] for most of the last three years, so I've been commuting. That's the simple answer.

The President's -- I think the reason for the President wanting to call attention to the report, in addition I think, frankly, to being proud of the results of the task force so far, is to remind everyone in and out of the task force work of his personal commitment to the success of this work. And that is very, very genuine and very palpable.

Q The incident in -- North Carolina -- baptist church, I understand that that was two black, I guess, builders, contractors who burned down that black church.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The facts sound right, I just can't confirm whether that's the right one.

Q Are they being dealt with with the civil rights? Are they being charged with civil rights violations?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, as I stand here I can't tell you. As I recall the facts, that was a case that had to do with a dispute over their fee. And if I am right, that those are essentially all of the facts, then there wouldn't be a basis for a civil rights charge. But there may be a basis for a federal or a state arson charge.

Q Okay, because are listed in here, and I was wondering if that --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, this is all of the investigations that are the subject of the task force. Not all of them are the subject of civil rights charges.

END 3:20 P.M. EST