Remarks* of Deputy Attorney General
LARRY D. THOMPSON
Georgetown University Law Center Conference
on Security, Technology & Privacy
April 25, 2003
I want to thank you and to give special thanks to Professor John Podesta for the opportunity to meet with you today and to share some thoughts on some truly critical issues that confront us in the ongoing war against terrorism. The question of when, how and to whom to release information about emerging threats to national security is one that we in the Department of Justice think about every day, yet, when you think about it, speak about surprisingly little. Perhaps with today's remarks, I can address that issue and give you some sense of how far we as a people and as a government have come since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
While every American knows it and it is seared into my own consciousness it bears repeating that that day witnessed the first mass murder of Americans on our own soil by a fanatical foreign enemy. This has not been the only terrorist threat against Americans, nor sadly has it been the only terrorist killing. But it was an historic day marking the size and scope of the threats we face which in turn determine the size and scope of our response.
We in the Administration have tried to take this lesson of history to heart. We know that those who forget such lessons are doomed to repeat them. And we are not the first free people to confront evil forces bent on our destruction. During the Battle of Britain in the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was faced with a classic dilemma concerning the precise issue that brings us together today. As the battle raged between British fighters and German bombers, the British had scored a tremendous intelligence coup by cracking the Nazis' "Enigma" cipher. Because of this intelligence what we would call today "threat information" the British knew that the Germans were losing the battle against the RAF's airfields and had decided to turn their efforts to sheer terror bombing of British cities.
When Churchill learned that the Nazis' next target was Coventry, he was faced with an unenviable choice: either to alert the virtually undefended city and thus reveal to the Germans that the British had cracked their codes, or to keep the code-breaking success secret and thus accept huge numbers of civilian deaths and injuries. This cruel dilemma is emblematic of the difficult choices that evil forces on good.
Churchill made this painful choice by balancing ultimate national security needs: the ultimate value of the new intelligence was so great and, as history proved, over time saved so many Allied lives that the sacrifice of Coventry to German bombers was a sad but necessary result.
Without the 20/20 vision that hindsight provides, today's threat information decisions rarely appear this stark. But we in the Administration do confront decisions about a startling variety of threat information on a daily basis. As Deputy Attorney General, I wear many hats: I supervise all of our law enforcement components and also DOJ's national security components, as well as overseeing the process by which we have tried to mesh these functions to support the war against terrorism. We receive information about threats from many quarters. Sometimes they come up through law enforcement FBI agents investigating crimes discover a connection to terrorists. Sometimes they come through intelligence channels FBI or CIA develops information from their many sources or intercepts communications among terrorists themselves.
But however these threats come to our attention, we know all too well that they represent a terrible reality: there are evil people in the world who are plotting to kill our countrymen. The horrific attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the USS Cole, our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the brutal murder of Daniel Pearl, to name a few, demonstrate the range of despicable conduct of which our adversaries are capable. At the same time, the prevention and disruption of terrorist plots together with the apprehension of many of the terrorists themselves across the country and around the world witness our successes in this struggle.
That these threats are horrifyingly real influences our decisions with dramatic consequences. I am told that this conference has discussed principles to guide the release of information about terrorist threats. It is good that we are having this discussion, and I am glad that you are trying to probe these issues in a systematic way.
On a daily basis, we are confronted with the necessity of making decisions about such threats. I can assure you that handling those questions remains more of an art than a science. And it is not hard to see why that is so. On the one hand, the information comes in many different forms and from many sources: human assets, captured terrorists, electronic data intercepts, and clever analysis all play a part.
On the other hand, we need to balance a range of considerations, not the least of which are public safety, national security, intelligence priorities and law enforcement. There can be severe consequences from the inappropriate disclosure of intelligence information not the least of which is endangering our own intelligence officers. We take stringent precautions to protect the source and methods such as electronic surveillance, human agents, covert searches and the use of foreign country intelligence information by which such information is developed and analyzed.
We try to strike that balance between disclosure and secrecy clearly in favor of public safety. We have a new paradigm: to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks before they happen, rather than focus on the possibility of prosecuting terrorists for crimes already committed.
Our guiding principle is to share as much information as we can about known threats consistent with the safety of the nation. We aim to treat the American people as adults, as they truly are, who can accept and assess these threats if we give them the tools to do so. Even where the threat information we receive is vague or potentially unreliable but still very serious, we frequently resolve the dilemma by making the threat public and explaining this ambiguity to the American people.
This rationale extends even to information that we cannot, for security reasons, make widely available. We supply private companies, such as airlines, with sensitive secure information about potential threats so that they can take necessary precautions. And we continue to make every effort to involve the vast range of state and local law enforcement agencies in our planning and to supply them with the maximum amount of threat information that national security permits.
We also have ethical concerns. We really do not want to create a double standard: that is, we do not want to disseminate threat information to government personnel without sharing that same information with the general public.
We do this with a healthy appreciation for the concerns that these warnings evoke. First and foremost, we are concerned that we not create panic and I think that we have taken a measured and balanced approach to prevent that. We have tried to explain the various threat levels and what each entails. We have expended enormous efforts to enhance communication and information sharing with our colleagues in state and local law enforcement.
Second, we are naturally concerned about so-called "alert fatigue." While we do not want to "cry 'wolf' " and thereby exhaust the capacities of the American people when no threat presents itself, neither do we want to let important threat information go unheeded if there is any way consistent with national security to get those warnings out to the public.
Third, the dissemination of threat information is actually a crucial part of our strategy to prevent and disrupt terrorist operations. We have had too many instances to count where alert local law enforcement and private citizens provided crucial counter-terrorism information or even foiled terrorist attacks.
We need these extra eyes and ears spanning the country to succeed in our battle against terrorism. The nature of our challenge is enormous. We have to be lucky every time to succeed. The terrorists only have to get lucky once. While that correctly describes the size of our task, it fails to recognize that the success of our efforts since 9/11 is not just due to luck. We, as a nation, have in large measure made our own luck by arming an alert populace with timely information that is as specific as we can make it. That force supplements professional law enforcement in critical ways and helps to make the country safer.
I believe w are on the right track in our war against terrorism. We have won some tremendous victories many of which will never be publicly known but we will not be complacent. As Will Rogers once said, "even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." And we will not just sit there.
*NOTE: Mr. Thompson frequently speaks from notes and may depart from the speech as prepared. However, he stands behind the speech as presented in written format.