Department of Justice Seal

Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) Twentieth Anniversary Conference
July 30, 2002

(Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates from Prepared Remarks)

     Thank you, Larry Thompson, for that introduction and for all that you do for the cause of justice in America. Before we get started, I have a story about Larry I have to share with you.

     The Department of Justice has a comment line that individuals can call to let us know how they think we are doing or what we should be doing better. Well, last weekend, someone calls the comment line and says, "Larry Thompson should be running the country." To which I say, I agree. But to which I add, as an aside to Larry: if you have enough time to be making calls to the comment line, you're not as busy as I thought you were.

     I want to thank also Karen Tandy for her service to the Department and to the American people. And I want to acknowledge the officials from both inside and outside the Justice Department who are here today.

      Drug Enforcement Administration Director Asa Hutchinson
      FBI Director Robert Mueller
      U.S. Marshals Service Director Benigno Reyna
      Acting Deputy Commissioner of the INS Michael Becraft
      Customs Service Commissioner Robert Bonner
      Dennis Crawford, Acting Chief of Criminal Investigations at the IRS, and
      Robert Switzer of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms

     Twenty years ago, America was under attack -- assaulted by an enemy that would not just take lives, but destroy freedom and extinguish hope. Illegal drugs flooded the nation. In just the three years between 1977 and 1980, drug sales on American streets increased by almost fifty percent. And as drug abuse grew, drug trafficking became big business. Drug crime became organized crime. Sophisticated criminal enterprises, specializing in violence and financed by drug profits, threatened the very foundation of the republic.

     Almost eleven months ago, America came under attack once again. Just as before, the enemy that attacked on September 11 aimed not merely to kill Americans, but to obliterate our freedom, and to destroy our hope. In response, we have adopted a strategy of cooperation and coordination between law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels. We have refocused our collective resources on a single, overarching mission. That mission is to prevent terrorist attacks by identifying, tracking, disrupting and dismantling terrorist networks.

     This strategy of interagency cooperation and coordination is not a new one. It models the example set twenty years ago by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.

     In 1982, under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan, a group of American leaders came together to develop and implement a revolutionary strategy to target the drug organizations that were amassing fortunes through the destruction of American lives.

     The single, great idea of OCDETF was to bring together the expertise of various federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to target entire networks of organized drug traffickers. OCDETF founders like Larry Thompson and Rudy Giuliani understood that interagency cooperation was the only way to get beyond street level prosecutions to target the sophisticated new drug syndicates. OCDETF created all-star teams of law enforcement officials focused on a single goal: to cripple and ultimately dismantle major drug trafficking organizations, root and branch.

     Today, the foresight of OCDETF's "founding fathers" is the calling of our time. Drug traffickers, having grown in organization and sophistication in the 1980s, are now increasingly involved in terrorist activity as well. Law enforcement has been aware for some time of significant linkages between terrorism and drug trafficking. But we have not had the tools to quantify the drugs-terrorism nexus until today. Earlier this year, I asked federal law enforcement agencies to identify for the first time on a single list the major trafficking organizations that are responsible for the U.S. drug supply. Following extraordinary collaboration and information sharing between federal agencies, this list has been developed, and what it reveals is shocking. Nearly one third of the organizations on the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations appear also on our list of targeted U.S. drug suppliers.

     The drug threat we face is not a new one, nor is the priority we place on ending the toll that illegal drugs take on the lives and in the lives of Americans. And the growing combination of drug trafficking and terrorism serves to call us even more urgently to action. In March, I announced a strategy to reduce the availability of illegal drugs. The centerpiece of this strategy is the reorganization, revitalization and restoration of OCDETF. It is a strategy that recognizes illegal drugs as both a destructive force in the lives of individuals and a destructive force to the security of this nation. It is a blueprint for change, but it is also a call to you the men and women who form the leadership of OCDETF to embrace fully this challenge, and to rededicate yourselves to reorganizing our resources, revitalizing our effort, and restoring the historic role of OCDETF in America's campaign against illegal drugs.

     In March, I outlined six separate components of our supply reduction strategy, and I am pleased to say we are making considerable progress in each area.

     First, we are developing reliable estimates of the amount of illegal drugs available in the United States to use as a benchmark for our progress.

     Second, each of the nine OCDETF regions has developed strategic enforcement plans that identify and target the most significant drug trafficking and money laundering organizations in their regions. This, in itself, is an accomplishment for which you should be congratulated. But let me be clear: this was not merely a paper exercise. Now, these completed plans need to be monitored, evaluated for success, and re-tooled as needed.

     Third, as I mentioned, federal law enforcement agencies have collaborated to develop the first unified national list of drug organization targets. This list will serve as our "most wanted" list of targeted organizations, and provide a further benchmark for our progress.

     Fourth, OCDETF has placed -- and will continue to place -- increased emphasis on conducting financial investigations in order to remove the profits of drug organizations through asset forfeiture.

     Fifth, just as we did with our recent reorganization of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, we have begun the process of substantially realigning and redirecting our resources within OCDETF to match the changing drug threat. This is unprecedented in the history of OCDETF, and I encourage all of you to review how resources are distributed in your region with an eye toward greater efficiency and effectiveness.

     Sixth and finally, we have made progress restoring the original mission of OCDETF. We have begun once again to target not only members of organizations who smuggle, transport and distribute drugs, but also those individuals involved on the financial side -- financial backers, money launderers, and those who invested the proceeds of illegal drug revenues. And as we look to the future of OCDETF, we must continue to reach back to the early, proven methods. Co-located task forces, for example, have a proven track record of success. Where appropriate, we should return to this practice. Deputy Attorney General Thompson, I know, is a strong proponent of co-located task forces, and he will be speaking at greater length about them later.

     Today, as we rededicate ourselves to the task that lies before us, we also acknowledge the significant victories that have already been won in the war on drugs, due in great part to the tireless efforts of the men and women of OCDETF. I want to thank each team that has worked so hard to target and take down these dangerous organizations. Your investigations have resulted in the arrest and conviction of hundreds of individuals and the seizure of millions of dollars as well as significant amounts of narcotics. With the help of the U.S. Marshals Service, hundreds of high-level fugitive narcotic traffickers have been apprehended.

     I have no illusions about the task that confronts us. But I know that progress is possible, because progress has been achieved in the past. During the heyday of OCDETF, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, drug use among high school seniors declined each and every year. And as OCDETF began to drift from its original mission in the early 1990s, drug use began to creep back up. So I reject the fatalism that drives the calls for surrender to the degradation and dehumanization of drug abuse. I reject the notion that a nation founded on the idea of freedom cannot live up to that idea. I reject the notion that we should decide, at the time of our greatest power and our greatest prosperity, to abandon willfully this goal.

     The challenge before us is great, but it is not insurmountable. It harkens back to another time in American history, when a great president refused to surrender, and instead rallied the nation to the daunting task that lay before it.

     "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history," Abraham Lincoln told the nation in the midst of the Civil War. "We . . . will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial though 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 and the challenge that history has put before us. America is beset by evil -- be it the scourge of illegal drugs or the persistent threat of terror. And all of us each and every one of us holds the power and bears the responsibility of America's defense. The security of our nation, and the safety of our citizens, is in our hands. May we bear this responsibility faithfully and well. 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 for your leadership. Thank you for your service. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.