Good morning. Thank you for having me, it’s good to be back with you.
I’ve just returned from several days in Europe discussing cooperation in the war on terror with our international allies. Coming off this trip I am particularly mindful of the importance of partnerships.
So before I go any further, I’d like to thank you for yours.
President Bush and the American people look to law enforcement at every level to fight terrorism and combat crime. They expect you and I – all of us – to work together, and we must take seriously the trust they have placed in us. We carry the solemn obligation to extend freedom and justice to every person – fighting block by block, city by city, day by day to protect our neighborhoods and our fellow citizens.
I should note that we will continue to be aided in this mission by the tools contained in the USA Patriot Act. I am pleased that Congress has acted to renew the Patriot Act, and I particularly appreciate those of you who were vocal in the national debate in support of this important law enforcement tool.
We can achieve our common goals only by working together as a team – a true partnership for justice at every level of government. We have a role to play at the federal level, and I look forward to talking a bit about that in a moment. But you are on the front lines. We rely on – and deeply value – your experience, your expertise, and your work to overcome the challenges confronting our States and communities.
I hope that we can join together in a partnership defined by coordination and cooperation – as we work on shared priorities such as terrorism, violence, gangs, and drugs.
I have been Attorney General for about thirteen months. I’ve learned a lot during this time – and I’ve worked hard toward a number of important priorities for our Nation. Thankfully, I’ve also had the chance to get outside of the beltway to visit many of your states and see the men and women of state and local law enforcement. In many areas I’ve relied heavily on your support and counsel – especially through NAAG participation in the Executive Working Group.
After evaluating my first year – and the feedback I’ve received from partner organizations such as NAAG and others – I recently announced a strategic vision for the Department in the upcoming year. It is a road map of priorities and initiatives rooted in the pursuit of the American dream. Many of the issues on which we are focusing are of particular importance to each of you – fighting terrorism; combating violent crime, drug trafficking, and cyber crime; protecting civil rights; and preserving government integrity.
In each of these six areas of special emphasis, we have a plan to secure the hopes and opportunities of the American dream – a secure homeland, a safe community, a fair and equal chance to succeed, and a strong belief in the cherished values that make our country great.
I’ve already announced several new initiatives:
• A new anti-gang program will strengthen the fight against violent gangs across the country, with special emphasis in six pilot cities.
• Project Safe Childhood will duplicate successful methods already used to combat gun crime to prevent the exploitation of our kids over the Internet.
• And Operation Home Sweet Home will refocus and expand the Civil Rights Division’s Fair Housing Act testing program to root out discriminatory practices in housing.
The issue of housing has been highlighted by the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina – where thousands were left without homes by the wind and waters of our Nation’s most destructive natural disaster. One thing became clear in the days and weeks that followed the storm’s landfall – as we watched images of a flooded New Orleans and heard stories from throughout the Gulf region. We are not as prepared as we need to be at all levels within the country: federal, State, local, and individual.
As you know, the White House recently released a report detailing the lessons learned during the response to Katrina. It includes more than one hundred specific and important recommendations for improving our national ability to prepare for and respond to disasters – whether man-made or wrought by Mother Nature.
Now begins the work of implementation; I know you are already involved in this challenge. It will not be easy and will require the partnership of everyone to make our Nation more prepared. As you know, several of the recommendations require that we work together – on issues such as the deployment of federal resources, the establishment of Law Enforcement Coordination Centers, and deputizing of agents and officers to enforce federal and state laws.
The White House report asks the Department of Homeland Security to take a fresh look the National Response Plan. Some decisions will be re-evaluated, portions will be revised, and our national commitment to a robust preparedness and response capability will be renewed at every level – federal, State, and local…as well as in every household, school, and business across the country.
But one thing will stay the same: State and local professionals – including the National Guard – will still be the key first responders. We will only step in at the federal level if the situation on the ground overwhelms the capabilities of local resources – and, then, only at the request of state leaders.
In those cases, the Justice Department has been charged with the critical challenge of coordinating the federal, State, and local law enforcement response to ensure public safety and security. We’re first going to examine ways in which we can help you plan for an emergency, including how to assess whether federal assistance is needed and how to request it. That must be a two-way conversation, and it can start today. Then, we’ll work together to establish policies and procedures that will ensure continuity of operations for law enforcement, criminal justice, and prison systems during a crisis.
The lessons learned during and after Katrina will make our nation stronger in the future – not just for the next hurricane season but for any natural or man-made disaster. And those lessons don’t begin and end with evacuation plans and bottled water.
We also saw the best and the worst of human nature in the aftermath of the storm – charitable contributions by the millions but also cases of fraud and corruption uncovered by the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force.
I established this Task Force to deter, detect, and prosecute anyone who tries to take advantage of the misfortune of those caught in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. More than 200 individuals have been charged with hurricane related fraud related crimes, including charity and benefit fraud, and public corruption. I appreciate your participation in this Task Force and am proud to say that we’ve accomplished a great deal together for the people of the Gulf Coast.
The overall goal of the Task Force is to stop people who seek to steal for themselves the money that is intended to help the victims of the hurricanes and the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region. We especially cannot tolerate corruption by government officials that would interfere with the flow of relief dollars to the places that need it the most.
One of my priorities for the Justice Department in the coming year is to better safeguard public integrity – not solely in the area of Hurricane related fraud, but also procurement fraud and other instances of public corruption. I commend your President, Steven Carter, for his continued focus and leadership on this important issue.
Our government and economy are the envy of the world because we have systems that are open, honest, fair, and dependable. Integrity in government is essential for a strong America…taxpayers deserve nothing less. That’s why I’ve made it a priority to enforce our laws that preserve the integrity of our public institutions.
As you are aware, the American dream is in many ways an economic dream. People hope to start a business, buy a home, improve their community, or invest for a better future down the road. In some areas of the world, such dreams can only be pursued with bribes, kickbacks, and coercion. But here, our unique commitment to the rule of law allows ordinary citizens to rely on – and expect – the honesty and integrity of government officials, corporate executives, and other holders of the public’s trust.
I know you are familiar with the list of recent corruption cases. Unfortunately, it only takes one or two corrupt officials to damage the public’s trust in hundreds of thousands of honest and hard-working public servants.
In partnership with the Criminal Division and Inspector General offices, the FBI has dedicated significant resources to rooting out public corruption. In the past three years, more than 200 new agents have been added to anti-corruption squads across the United States – agents whose only job is to investigate corruption cases.
With your help, we’re cracking down on public corruption. I’ve told prosecutors to operate with one principle in mind: No one is above the law…not a city councilperson, a Member of Congress, or an Administration official. We will not allow public officials – Republican or Democrat – to misuse their office or misspend taxpayer dollars.
When I laid out my strategic vision for the Justice Department this year, I made it clear that our mandate comes from a long history of protecting the American dream.
As someone who has lived that dream, I know how important it is to preserve and protect the hopes and opportunities we cherish in America.
I appreciate your help in this mission. We cannot achieve our goals alone…we need cooperation at every level of government. I look forward to our work together on the implementation of the Hurricane Katrina recommendations and other important priorities for the American people, including our efforts to preserve the integrity of our government.
Thank you and God Bless America.