Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
Office of Domestic Preparedness Conference
July 28, 2003
(Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates From Prepared Remarks)
Thank you Paul Ferguson, Arlington County Executive. Your community, once the scene of such devastation, has become a source of healing and hope for all Americans. I thank you and I thank Arlington County for hosting this gathering.
My thanks also go to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office for Domestic Preparedness who join Arlington County in sponsoring this event.
We are here today to learn; to use the past to educate ourselves for the future.
Mark Twain, a fellow Missourian, had a lot to say about education. He once remarked, for example, that, quote, "Training is everything ... a cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education."
But Twain also believed that real education involves thinking anew, challenging what we think we know about the world and acting accordingly. Twain said that education, quote, "... consists mainly in what we have unlearned."
Since our world changed on September 11, 2001, we have unlearned many things. First and foremost, we have dispensed with the notion that America is an island, somehow isolated from the currents of hatred, extremism and bigotry that buffet the world. Like generations before us, we have been reminded that America has enemies in the world, and these enemies seek to do us harm.
Twenty one months ago, President Bush pledged that al Qaeda and the terrorist network would not escape the patient justice of the United States. Our President pledged that we would remember the victims of terrorism.
Today, brave men and women such as you - from all walks of life and all parts of the nation - have answered the President's call.
You have answered this call in the memory of the 343 firefighters and 71 police officers who died in the line of duty on September 11.
You have answered this call in the memory of the citizens that died that day, and in memory of the men and women who have given their lives in defense of those who remained.
Thank you for answering the call of your President. Thank you for answering the call of your countrymen. Thank you for answering the call of justice.
One of the themes of this conference is teamwork. I am pleased to see that you have come here today, not as individuals, but as members of teams representing your communities. I recognize also that FBI agents from many field offices have come as members of the local teams they work with on a regular basis. Along with all of the local representation here today, I am very pleased to see so many representatives from state agencies, as well as our federal partners.
As you can see, preparing our nation for possible future terrorist attacks has forced Washington, D.C., to unlearn one of its favorite and most self-serving myths: that the federal government alone can protect Americans from terrorism.
Today, we know that this is not only a self-serving myth, it is a dangerous one. No single level of government - federal, state or local - can by itself ensure the safety of Americans. Our goals are to prevent further attacks and to respond and recover if and when terror strikes again. Achieving these goals must be a coordinated effort among all levels of government.
As you will hear throughout this conference, the coordination and cooperation among the response agencies from many disciplines, many jurisdictions, and all levels of government contributed to success of the Pentagon response effort on September 11. And many of the relationships that ensured the success of the response were developed and fostered prior to September 11.
On the day of the attack on the Pentagon, first response units from Arlington County and other local jurisdictions raced to the scene to begin to try to manage the chaos. Shortly after, an FBI fire liaison arrived and immediately began to work seamlessly with the local responders to establish a unified command. This initial cooperation and coordination set the tone for the difficult days to come. The Arlington County Fire Chief and the FBI officials worked together to accomplish multiple, immediate tasks: life saving, fire suppression, evidence collection, and respect for the remains that lay within the rubble. Each agency and official understood each others' roles, responsibilities and relationships.
The reason federal, state and local responders were able to work so well together from the first minutes at the Pentagon was because their relationship had already been established. Long before Arlington County responded to the Pentagon on that horrific day, they were part of a federal program called the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici 120 Cities program. This exercise was established to enhance the response to a terrorist attack in the 120 largest cities of the nation. Thanks to this preparation, and the coordination between federal, state and local officials it involved, lives that may have been lost were saved at the Pentagon on September 11.
In the 21 months that have passed since September 11, we have unlearned the notion that we can shut down communication and cooperation among federal agencies and hope to keep our nation safe. We have learned that those who gather the nation's intelligence and those who prosecute the nation's crimes must be able to work together to prevent terrorism. We have learned this lesson and we have put it to use in the destruction of four alleged terrorist cells in Buffalo, Detroit, Seattle and Portland:
- in over 240 individuals charged with crimes uncovered in the course of terrorism investigations;
- in over 100 convictions and guilty pleas as the result of our post-September 11 investigations;
- in over 515 deportations; and
- in the hundreds of suspected terrorists that have been identified and tracked throughout the United States
Communication and coordination were among the tools gained when Congress overwhelmingly approved the USA Patriot Act in the weeks following September 11. We use these tools to gather intelligence and to prevent terrorists from unleashing more death and destruction. We use these tools to connect the "dots." We use these tools to save innocent lives.
The Patriot Act was supported overwhelmingly by the American people, it was enacted by a margin of 98-1 in the Senate and 357-66 in the House, and it provides ample review by federal judges of the actions the government takes to prevent terrorism and to investigate terrorist acts.
Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) explained his support of the Patriot Act as follows: "It allows law enforcement to keep up with the modern technology these terrorists are using." Prior to the Patriot Act, he explained, "the FBI could get a wiretap to investigate the mafia, but they could not get one to investigate terrorists. . . . To put it bluntly, that was crazy."
The Patriot Act allows law enforcement to share information with intelligence agencies. Failure to do so is not only foolish, but may lead to deadly consequences for our citizens. As Senator Edwards (D-North Carolina) explained, "we simply cannot prevail in the battle against terrorism if the right hand of our government has no idea what the left hand is doing."
We have learned the value of the law enforcement tools provided by the Patriot Act. Unfortunately, some Americans have been told myths about this critical law.
It is a myth, for example, that under the PATRIOT Act the FBI can unlawfully visit local libraries to check the reading records of ordinary citizens.
In fact, the Patriot Act does not allow federal law enforcement free and unchecked access to libraries, bookstores or other businesses. The law requires that a federal judge must first issue a warrant. That warrant can only be used to obtain foreign intelligence information that does not concern a United States person, or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.
A recent newspaper article stated that the Patriot Act, quote, "gives the government sweeping powers to monitor citizens suspected of having ties to terrorists."
This is not true. In fact, the Patriot Act was a long overdue measure to close gaping holes in the government's ability, responsibly and lawfully, to collect vital intelligence information on criminal terrorists. It updated the law to accommodate modern technology, such as cell phones and the Internet. It allows law enforcement investigators to use the same tools in terrorism that we have used for years in drug cases and organized crime cases.
These are just two examples of the myths that distort our understanding of the Patriot Act today.
Today, our freedom is more secure today than it was 21 months ago. For we have unlearned the natural tendency of a free people to take our freedom for granted.
The lessons of liberty are a continuing education. America has had to relearn these lessons in the past, and no doubt will again in the future.
In 1862, as the Civil War took its destructive toll, Abraham Lincoln reminded his fellow Americans of the great privilege and great responsibility that befell them as the nation endured its time of great testing.
"Fellow citizens we, cannot escape history," Lincoln said. "We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We - even we here - hold the power and bear the responsibility."
We, too, cannot escape history. But we can learn from it.
All of us - each and every one of us - holds the power to defend our nation, its citizens and our freedom. Each of us bears the responsibility to learn from each other and those who have come before us.
I thank you for wielding this power respectfully, and upholding this responsibility faithfully.
May we learn from our history today. May the fiery trial through which we now pass be of short endurance, and may our passage light us down in honor for generations of Americans to see.
Thank you. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.