Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
September 22, 2003
(Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates From Prepared Remarks)
Thank you for that kind introduction.
Thomas Jefferson and our nation's founders declared that governments are instituted among men to secure the rights of the people. This then, is the first responsibility of our government: to preserve the lives and liberty of Americans.
This is the responsibility to which you are dedicated. You exemplify the heroic spirit that awed the world on September 11th. Then, our nation's finest and bravest in New York and Washington sacrificed their lives so others might live.
The protection of life and liberty is the cause of our time. It has transformed the mission of the Justice Department. In its service, the men and women of law enforcement have brought new meaning to sacrifice and new depth to duty.
On every level of law enforcement, in every area of battling terrorism and fighting crime, we are committed to a new strategy, a strategy as serious as the threats we face; a strategy grounded in reality, measured by results, and accountable to the people of the United States of America.
We are charged with the protection of the lives and liberties of the American people. And the men and women of justice are delivering on this charge.
From the war on terrorism to the battle against violent crime, our strategy is succeeding. America is more secure today than it was two years ago. America is safer today than it was two years ago. America is freer today than at any time in the history of human freedom.
The facts speak for themselves. Fact number one: In the past two years, no major terrorist attack has been perpetrated on our soil. Fact number two: Today, our nation's overall crime rate is at a thirty-year low.
Stop for a moment and consider what it means to say that crime is at its lowest point in thirty years.
It means that in the last two years rapes are down 25 percent.
It means that in the last two years attempted theft is down 22 percent.
Assaults are down 20 percent.
And robberies are down 27 percent.
We celebrate this achievement because behind these statistics are human lives... innocent men, women and children who are free from fear, free from victimization, free from feeling alone and alien in their own communities.
A thirty year low in crime means that in the last two years almost one million Americans were spared the pain and anguish of being victimized.
It means that in two years 200,000 fewer people were robbed. 740,000 fewer men and women were assaulted.
And 13,000 fewer women were raped or sexually assaulted.
People are not just safer on the street because violent crime is at an historic low, they are safer in their homes as well.
Attempted forcible entry is down 24 percent. Overall crimes against property are down 13 percent.
And not just some Americans, but all Americans are safer today then they were two years ago. The violent crime victimization rate has fallen for all racial and ethnic groups. The violent crime rate has dropped across all income levels. The violent crime rate has fallen in every part of the country.
Together, we are protecting homes. We are saving lives. We are winning America's fight against crime, and I thank you for this outstanding achievement.
This 30-year low in crime did not happen by accident. We know what works to reduce crime.
New York Governor George Pataki once said that he had discovered the "root cause" of crime. The answer, he said, is criminals.
We know what works to reduce crime.
Reducing assaults by 20 percent takes tough penalties for offenders.
Lowering the rate of robbery by 27 percent takes effective tough tools for law enforcement.
Reducing rape by 25 percent requires cooperation from law enforcement and citizens.
These three concepts... tough penalties, tough effective tools and widespread cooperation... are the cornerstones of our strategy to prevent crime and terrorism. Our strategy is built on the simple but powerful truth that crime is prevented by locking up criminals. It's not rocket science. By enhancing cooperation, using effective, tough tools, and enacting tough penalties, we have driven down crime.
But wouldn't you know it, some people resist grasping even the most simple truths.
A newspaper recently pointed out that the crime rate was lower, but there were more people in prison.
Let me say this slowly, so everyone understands: Criminals tend to commit less crime when they're doing hard time.
Tough penalties work. Two years ago, President Bush made a commitment to reduce gun crime by getting gun criminals off the streets.
We developed Project Safe Neighborhoods to bring together federal, state and local law enforcement to target gun criminals with the toughest penalties on the books.
And we didn't just make promises. We hired more than 200 federal prosecutors and 400 federal agents to focus on gun violence. And $63 million in grants have been provided to hire 542 state and local prosecutors.
In just the two years of Project Safe Neighborhood's existence, the incidence of gun crimes has dropped 32 percent. Thirty-two percent. Gun crime has been reduced so dramatically that last year just seven percent of violent crimes were committed with a firearm. This is the lowest number of violent crimes committed with a firearm ever recorded. The lowest ever.
And at the same time gun crime has dropped by 32 percent, federal gun prosecutions have increased by 36 percent. In 2002, federal gun crime charges increased by over 20 percent ... the largest annual increase ever. Call it a coincidence if you like, but I'd call it something else: an anti-gun crime strategy that works.
We must keep up pressure in Milwaukee and across America. It is time to END revolving-door justice that puts armed repeat offenders back on the street.
Officer Jason Pratt was killed by an armed repeat offender in Omaha last week. His killer had a long history of violent crime: armed robbery at the age of 13, repeat gun offenses, repeat gang violence, repeat probation violations, repeatedly resisting arrest and two previous known shootings. For his first shooting, he received only 3 years probation. For his second shooting, he walked free when the gang member he shot refused to identify him as the shooter. His third shooting ended the life of Officer Pratt.
The morning after Jason died, his widow, and the mother of his two young children, Stacy, gave me Jason's SWAT team medallion. She asked me to carry it as a reminder of Jason's life, and of the cause of justice to which we are all dedicated. I will remember. Jason and Stacy are victims of revolving-door justice ... we will stop this injustice, we will all remember ... the countless victims like Jason will not have died in vain.
We must lock up predators by aggressively enforcing the gun laws while we protect the individual Constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment.
With this strategy, and with your help, we are protecting lives. We are preserving liberties. We are winning America's fight against gun crime nationwide, but we must intensify that fight in every community.
And we can and should build on this strategy.
Not very long ago, too many criminals were receiving wildly different sentences for the same crime. And too many criminals were receiving severe sentences that they never served because they were let out on parole.
Seeking to provide certainty and fairness in federal sentencing, Congress enacted federal guidelines for sentencing a criminal predicated on a simple fact: the amount of time a criminal spends in prison should depend on the severity of his crime and his criminal history, not the judge who sentences him.
But today, too many criminals have found their way back on the streets because some federal judges have exploited loopholes in the sentencing guidelines. Under the leadership of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Sensenbrenner, Congress recently closed the loopholes on sentencing criminals, particularly those who prey on the nation's children.
The PROTECT Act reaffirms what the people, through their representatives in Congress, sought to achieve in enacting sentencing reform: sentences should be fair, uniform and tough. Sentencing guidelines are not merely recommendations to federal judges; they are the law, and they protect the public. I believe that when a predator commits a crime, he should do the time.
Today I am issuing new guidance to the nation's federal prosecutors to ensure that tough but fair charges are brought under our criminal laws. Like federal judges, federal prosecutors nationwide have an obligation to be fair, uniform and tough.
The direction I am giving our U.S. Attorneys today is direct and emphatic:
It is the policy of the Department of Justice that federal prosecutors must charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense or offenses that are supported by the facts of the case except in limited, narrow circumstances.
In virtually all cases, prosecutors must bring the toughest charges available, yielding the toughest penalties under the sentencing guidelines.
It's important to note that these changed guidelines explicitly encourage individuals charged with crimes to plead guilty and cooperate with law enforcement. Often, additional crimes can be prevented through information obtained from an individual choosing to cooperate. Charged criminals who decide to cooperate can help us dismantle terrorist cells, disrupt drug networks and destroy organized crime syndicates.
The new guidelines require federal prosecutors to charge hard-hitting sentencing enhancements against hard-core criminals.
Repeat offenders, child predators, criminal bosses, drug kingpins, and violent gun criminals should face the toughest charges and spend the most time behind bars.
The lawless. The predators. The repeat offenders. These are the real sources of crime. Taking these criminals off the street and keeping them off the street reduces crime.
We are netting these criminals with our second pillar of prevention: effective, tough tools. In the days after September 11, we didn't have to look far to find investigative tactics to prevent additional acts of terrorism. The answer was simple: we needed to use the same tools to prevent terrorism that we use to prevent other crimes.
For example, for years we have been able to use roving wiretaps in organized crime and drug cases. If a drug trafficker is working on a big haul of contraband and moves from his home phone to his office phone and then to his cell phone, the FBI can use the same wiretap to listen to all his conversations, instead of having to get a warrant for each phone the trafficker is using.
If tools like this have worked against gangsters, drug king pins and murderers, then why shouldn't we use them against terrorists?
We should. And that's why Congress ... led by Chairman Sensenbrenner ... passed the PATRIOT Act by a wide, bipartisan margin ... to give law enforcement the same tools and capabilities to prevent terrorism that we have used to combat other forms of crime.
Recently, some in Washington have created an hysteria that local libraries are "under siege by the FBI," that we are rifling through the reading records of everyday Americans. The fact is, with just 11,000 FBI agents and over a billion visitors to America's libraries each year, the Department of Justice has neither the staffing, the time the inclination, nor the authority to monitor the reading habits of Americans.
I asked the FBI and the Department of Justice to declassify the report on how many times we have used the Patriot Act business record authority to check library records. And what did the report reveal? No one's reading habits have been reviewed. Not a single American's library records have been reviewed under the Patriot Act.
In fact, no court in America has validated a single charge of violation of Constitutional rights in connection with the Patriot Act.
The lives and liberties of Americans are PROTECTED by the PATRIOT Act. With the effective, tough tools provided by Congress in the PATRIOT Act, we have dismantled terrorist cells in New York, Michigan, Washington State, Oregon and North Carolina. We have brought criminal charges against 262 individuals. 145 have been convicted or pled guilty, including shoe bomber Richard Reid and American Taliban John Walker Lindh. Last week, two more members of the Portland cell pled guilty to charges of conspiring to provide services to the Taliban, including attempting to travel from Portland to Afghanistan to assist the Taliban in fighting against the armed forces of the United States after September 11th.
All told, two-thirds of al Qaeda's leadership worldwide is either in custody or dead.
We are WINNING the war against terrorism ... and there has been no major terrorist attack on American soil for over two years. I thank you...
We can and should build on this success.
Recently, the President called on Congress to pass legislation to strengthen the effective, tough tools we are using to win the war on terror.
First, the proposed legislation would allow administrative subpoenas, which enable law enforcement to obtain certain records quickly, to be used in terrorism cases. There are 335 areas in current law in which administrative subpoenas can be used. I think the American people agree that terrorism should rank somewhere among our top 335 priorities.
Second, the President's request would make it as tough for someone charged with terrorism to be released on bail as it is for those charged with serious drug offenses and violent crimes. It would keep those charged with terrorism off the street.
Third and finally, this proposed legislation would allow the death penalty to be charged for some terrorism related crimes that result in the death of innocents. Our message to terrorists should be as loud and clear as our message to garden variety murderers: kill an innocent American, and you will lose your own life.
The third and final pillar in achieving this historic, 30-year low in crime is the rising tide of cooperation between ciizens and law enforcement.
Public trust in law enforcement has grown. More Americans are reporting crimes and cooperating with law enforcement than ever before. Working with the National Sheriffs Association, we have almost doubled the number of Neighborhood Watch programs, from 7,500 to more than 13,000.
Cooperation has allowed us to build strong law enforcement teams dedicated to the prevention of crime and terrorism. And cooperation has allowed us to enlist the support of a vigilant, informed citizenry.
We are weaving a web of prevention while protecting the autonomy of citizens in their communities. We are protecting our neighborhoods. We are reclaiming our streets. We are rediscovering our citizenship.
We are winning America's fight to protect our lives and our liberties. Thank you for preserving lives and liberties.
Our nation's commitment to freedom and justice began with a revolutionary generation willing to fight for their ideals. Today, we continue that fight to preserve the lives and liberties of every citizen.
During the long days of Operation Enduring Freedom, the struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan, it was reported that some military commanders read a list every morning to their troops - the names of the men and women who died on September 11.
By reciting the names of the dead, the commanders paid tribute to the words of Abraham Lincoln, spoken on another battlefield, 140 years and half a world away. They are words of hope, and words of resolution. "That from these honored dead," said Lincoln on the battlefield at Gettysburg, "we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion."
That cause is freedom; given a new birth at Gettysburg, and reborn once again in the struggle which history places before us today. We did not seek this struggle, but we embrace this cause.
Our cause is not without cost. It has been two years since the September 11th attacks, but it was only two weeks ago that the 343rd firefighter to die in the World Trade Center attack was buried. A vial of Michael Ragusa's blood... all that his family had... was wrapped and placed in a coffin for burial. We mourn the loss of a young hero ... and we remember.
Securing life and liberty. That is our charge. It is the first responsibility of government. And on behalf of our fellow citizens, what is asked of us... what is expected of us... we will accept. And what we accept, we will achieve.
Thank you for your effort. Thank you for your leadership. God bless you and God bless America.