Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
New York City
September 9, 2003
On Thursday, two years will have passed since New York ground was hallowed by the blood of innocents.
Just two years have passed, and already it has become difficult for some Americans to recall the shock, the anger, the grief and the anguish of that day.
On the morning of September 11, I was in an airplane en route to Milwaukee, in the skies over the Great Lakes. By the time we could return to Washington, under fighter jet escort, thousands of people had been murdered at the World Trade Center. 184 victims had been killed at the Pentagon. Forty innocents had crashed to the ground in Pennsylvania.
From that moment, at the command of the President of the United States, we began to mobilize the resources of the Department of Justice toward the first, most basic responsibility of government: to protect the lives and liberty of Americans from further acts of terrorism.
The American people themselves were the first to fight back against terror. Many of these heroes were people from this city. Many of them were individuals in this room who put their lives on the line that day and everyday to defend American lives and liberties.
America began to fight back against terror before the twin towers fell.
- When the passengers on Flight 93 fought to end that flight in a field in Pennsylvania rather than a building on Pennsylvania Avenue;
- when fire fighters and police officers ran up the stairs as others were running down;
- when unknown heroes, whose stories will never be known, through their selfless acts of courage became the quiet heroes of that day, unknown to many but mourned by all.
For the men and women of justice, the minutes, hours and days after the second plane hit the towers were a maddening race against time.
Our responsibility was to prevent further loss of life to terrorism. Our responsibility was to protect the lives and liberty of Americans. And as we worked we knew al Qaeda could strike again at any minute.
Our responsibility was to find the perpetrators of the attacks and bring them to justice; to plan, man and execute the largest national security investigation in history. And as we searched we knew al Qaeda could strike again at any minute.
Our responsibility was to reorganize our justice system from a backward-looking system focused on prosecution, to a forward-looking system first focused on prevention. Our response was to track down and dismantle highly compartmentalized terrorist networks. To forge new relationships of cooperation with other nations. To mobilize a frightened citizenry. To fight for new and needed tools for law enforcement. To do anything and everything we could under the Constitution to prevent further acts of terrorism. And as we planned we knew al Qaeda could strike again at any minute.
Al Qaeda had previously demonstrated the ability to strike again; to carry out multiple, complex and simultaneous attacks. The 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were virtually simultaneous. 224 people lost their lives in explosions that occurred four minutes and 450 miles apart.
And al Qaeda already had demonstrated the will to strike again. The same year bin Laden bombed our embassies in Africa, he ordered his followers in al Qaeda to murder innocent Americans wherever and whenever possible.
So pressing has been the danger of further terrorism, and so enormous the task of protecting Americans from terrorism, that from time to time I doubted whether we would commemorate the second anniversary of September 11 without seeing additional loss of life and liberty on American soil. At times, I doubted America could make it, still safe, still secure, still free, to this day.
That we have had two years of safety is first a blessing, a sign that God's grace continues to shine on our nation and its people.
That we have had 728 days of safety is second a testament to you: the men and women who defend our nation, guard our borders, patrol our streets and enforce our laws. Freedom is not self-sustaining, and the security that ensures liberty does not come without tremendous effort. For two years you have expended that effort, preserving our security and protecting our liberty. All Americans owe you a debt that can never be repaid.
We have learned the painful lessons of September 11. Where we once had a culture of law enforcement inhibition that prevented communication and coordination, we have built a new spirit of justice. We have constructed America's defense... the defense of life and liberty... upon a foundation of prevention, nurtured by cooperation, built on coordination and rooted in our Constitutional liberties.
September 11 taught us that terrorists had outflanked law enforcement in technology, communications and information. So we fought for the tools necessary to protect the lives and liberty of the American people.
Congress provided these tools in the USA Patriot Act, passed by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities... 98 to 1 in the United States Senate and better than a 5 to 1 margin in the United States House of Representatives. And while our job is not finished, we have used the tools provided in the Patriot Act to fulfill our first responsibility to protect the American people. We have used these tools to prevent terrorists from unleashing more death and destruction on our soil. We have used these tools to save innocent American lives. We have used these tools to provide the security that ensures liberty.
The Patriot Act helps keep America safe in three critical ways:
First, it closes the gaping holes in law enforcement's ability to investigate terrorists.
The Patriot Act gives investigators the ability to fight terror using many of the court-approved tools that have been used successfully for many years in drug, fraud, and organized crime cases.
For instance, federal courts in narrow circumstances have long allowed law enforcement to delay for a limited time when a subject is told that a search warrant has been executed.
The Patriot Act allows agents to conduct investigations of terrorists using this same delayed notification.
All of the long-standing safeguards used in criminal cases are applied to terrorist cases. The search is court-authorized. Notification of the search is given, it is merely delayed. And there is good reason for this limited delay.
If, for example, a terrorist who planned to use a pre-positioned explosive device at a major public event discovered that law enforcement was aware of his plans he might go ahead and explode the device. Delayed notification allows agents to conduct the court-authorized searches necessary to find and disarm the device without tipping off the terrorist.
Another long-standing criminal law enforcement tool the Patriot Act allows us to apply to terrorists is court-approved access to business records.
For many years, prosecutors have been able to obtain business records in criminal cases using grand jury subpoenas. But before the Patriot Act, agents had limited tools to obtain records in terrorism intelligence investigations... receipts from chemical plants or hardware stores, for example, to discover who bought materials used in constructing bombs, or bank records necessary to follow the trail of terrorist financing. The Patriot Act recognizes that these kinds of records should be available to national security investigators while providing special protections for the First Amendment activities of Americans.
Second, the Patriot Act updates our anti-terrorism laws to meet the challenges of new technology, and new threats.
In an age when terrorists have cellular, even satellite, phones, we must anticipate, out-think, and adapt to the new tactics and technology of our terrorist foes. Under the Patriot Act, prosecutors may now use a "roving wiretap" to track a terror suspect's communication even when the suspected terrorist switches, changes, or abandons phones to avoid detection.
Since 1986, we have effectively used roving wiretaps to track suspected drug dealers. Thanks to the Patriot Act, we can now use them to track the terrorist threat.
Third, the Patriot Act has enhanced our capacity to build strong law enforcement teams dedicated to uncovering and stopping terrorists before they strike.
We have stronger teams today because law enforcement, intelligence officials and federal prosecutors can now share information and cooperate better with each other. From police officers to FBI agents to prosecutors and intelligence agents, the Patriot Act allows our expanded teams to "connect the dots" and save lives.
We know that information-sharing coupled with decisive action leads to results.
We saw the results when law enforcement apprehended Hemant Lakhani, an alleged arms dealer from Great Britain. Lakhani is charged with attempting to sell shoulder-fired missiles to terrorists for use against American targets. I think all Americans understand the devastation such a missile is capable of inflicting on a commercial airliner. After a long undercover investigation in several countries, Lakhani traveled to Newark, New Jersey, and was arrested, along with two alleged financial facilitators, as he allegedly prepared to finalize the sale of the first missile.
The Lakhani investigation would not have been possible had American, Russian and other foreign intelligence and law enforcement agencies not been able to coordinate and communicate the intelligence they had gained from various investigative tools.
To address all of the issues surrounding the Patriot Act would require more time than we have here. It is critical, however, for everyone to understand what the Patriot Act means for our success in the war against terrorism. I encourage Americans to take a few minutes and log on to a new website, www.lifeandliberty.gov. There, you can read about the Patriot Act and discover how it is keeping our nation safe and secure.
The painful lessons of September 11 remain touchstones, reminding us of government's responsibility to the people. These lessons have directed us down a path that preserves life and liberty.
Two years after Americans fought in the skies over Shanksville, we know that communication works. The Patriot Act opened new lines of communication between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. To shut down this communication now would limit the effectiveness of those we entrust with our security. It would make America more vulnerable to attack.
Two years after Americans died at the Pentagon, we know that cooperation works. The Patriot Act helped create new, enhanced teams dedicated to protecting American life and liberty. To prohibit intelligence officials from working alongside prosecutors and law enforcement would take us back to the days when our left hand did not know what our right hand was doing. It would increase the risk that more Americans will die.
Two years after citizens of more than 80 nations died at the World Trade Center, we know that prevention works. The Patriot Act gives terrorism investigators many of the same tough tools that criminal investigators have always had. To abandon these tools would place law enforcement at a disadvantage. It would senselessly endanger American lives and American liberty.
On Thursday we will mark an anniversary.
Two years is a short time in the life of a nation; it is a mere moment in the long history of humanity.
I know for those of you here today... you will never forget that day. You were on the front lines. You waded into the wreckage. You saw an enemy filled with hate bring devastation to your city, and our nation... and you witnessed many of the city's bravest and finest lay down their lives in sacrifice for others.
Only two years have passed... yet some Americans may have forgotten how we felt that day. And it was only yesterday 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 again the loss of a young hero... and we remember.
America MUST remember. It is my commitment to you that we WILL remember. In the war against terror, we will not falter and we will not fail.
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.
Providence, which has bestowed upon America the responsibility to lead the world in liberty, has also handed America a great trust: to provide the security that ensures liberty. We accept this trust not with anger or arrogance but with belief. Belief that liberty is the greatest gift of our Creator. Belief that liberty must be defended and protected. And belief that as long as there is an America, freedom must not and shall not perish from the earth.
Thank you. God bless you and God bless America.