Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
Protecting Life and Liberty
September 18, 2003
(Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates From Prepared Remarks)
Thank you for that kind introduction. It is inspiring to see so many men and women in uniform gathered here.
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.
That said, if you listen to some of the rhetoric coming out of Washington recently you might have a, shall we say, less serious view of what we're up to. You might, for instance, believe the hysteria behind this claim: "Your local public library is under siege by the FBI."
If you were to pay too much attention to some in Washington you might conjure up harrowing images of agents working around the clock. Like in the X-Files, they are raincoated, dark suited, and sporting sunglasses. But unlike the X-Files, their subjects aren't treacherous space aliens but readers and librarians. And no one escapes their grinding interrogation. In a dull Joe Friday monotone, they ask: "Why were you at the library? What were you reading? Did you see anything suspicious? Just the facts, ma'am. Just the facts."
This image is fanciful, but the hysteria behind it is very real. 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 nor the inclination to monitor the reading habits of Americans. No offense to the American Library Association, but we just don't care.
But just in case there are those who persist in these fantasies, I asked the FBI and the Department of Justice to declassify the report on how many times we have used the power to check library records. And wouldn't you know it. So prying are we, so overheated is our passion to know the reading habits of Americans that we have used this authority exactly... never. No one's reading habits have been reviewed. Not a single American's library records has been reviewed under the Patriot Act.
Not a single court in America has validated any of the charges of violations of Constitutional rights in connection with the Patriot Act.
And so the charges of the hysterics are revealed for what they are: castles in the air. Built on misrepresentation. Supported by unfounded fear. Held aloft by hysteria.
On this and every other tool provided in the Patriot Act, charges of abuse of power are ghosts, unsupported by fact or example.
We have a job to do, a job that's too important to be sidetracked by flights of fancy. We are charged with the protection of the lives and liberties of the American people. And in the face of multiplying demands, and all too real threats to the safety and security of Americans, 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.
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, or free from feeling lost 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 by crime.
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 than 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 dropped in every part of the country.
Together, we are ensuring equality under the law. We are protecting homes. We are saving lives. We are WINNING America's fight against crime. Thank you for that 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 requires tough penalties for offenders.
Lowering the rate of robbery by 27 percent requires tough tools for law enforcement.
Reducing rape by 25 percent requires cooperation from law enforcement and citizens.
These three concepts... tough penalties, tough laws 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 tougher 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 headline, for example, once recently asked, "If the Crime Rate is Lower, Why are So Many 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 criminals using guns with the toughest penalties on the books.
And we didn't just make promises. We hired more than 200 new 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 are locking up predators by enforcing the gun laws, while we protect the individual Constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans to bear arms under the Second Amendment.
We are protecting lives. We are preserving liberties. We are winning America's fight against gun crime. Thank you for winning the fight.
The lawless. The predatory. The repeat offenders, who take advantage of revolving-door justice to inflict pain and fear on communities like Memphis. These are the real sources of crime, and for a safer America, we must target and remove these sources of fear, violence, and death.
We are netting these criminals with our second pillar of prevention: 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 used roving wiretaps in organized crime and drug cases. If Tony Soprano is working on a big haul of contraband and moves from his home to his office and then to his cell phone talking over and over again, the FBI can use the same wiretap to listen to all his conversations, instead of having to get a warrant for each phone the mob boss is using.
In addition, for years we have used ... under certain court-approved circumstances... delayed notification warrants. So if a drug cartel has a new distribution plan, police can search the drug king pin's home for clues without letting the cartel know what they are up to.
If tools like these 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 passed the Patriot Act by a wide margin... to give law enforcement the same tools and the same capabilities to prevent terrorism that we have used to combat other forms of crime.
With the 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. 143 have been convicted or pled guilty, including shoe-bomber Richard Reid and American Taliban John Walker Lindh. All told, two-thirds of al Qaeda's leadership is either in custody or dead. And most importantly, there has been no major terrorist attack on American soil for over two years.
We are shutting down terrorist operations while protecting the due process and privacy rights of law-abiding Americans.
We are protecting the innocent. We are finding, prosecuting and convicting the terrorists. We are winning America's fight against terrorism, and I thank you for winning the fight.
And we can and should build on this success.
Recently, the President called on Congress to pass legislation to strengthen the 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. Current law provides a list of 335 offenses in which administrative subpoenas can be used. I think the American people agree that fighting terrorism should rank somewhere among our top 335 priorities.
Second, the President's request would make it as tough for people 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 indicted for terrorism off the streets.
Third and finally, this proposed legislation would allow the death penalty to be charged for 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 be held accountable with your own life.
These are tough, common sense tools that can and should be in the hands of terrorism prosecutors.
Allow me to take a moment to clarify who should, and who should not, be worried about these tools in the hands of law enforcement.
If you are spending a lot of time surveilling nuclear power plants with your al Qaeda pals, you MIGHT be a target of the Patriot Act.
If your idea of a vacation is two weeks in a terrorist training camp, you MIGHT be a target of the Patriot Act.
If you have cave-side dinners with a certain terrorist thug named bin Laden... if you enjoy swapping recipes for chemical weapons from your "Joy of Jihad" cookbook... you MIGHT be a target of the Patriot Act.
The lives and liberties of Americans are protected by the Patriot Act. The investigative tools we have used successfully to drive down crime and prevent terrorism are designed and intended to protect American citizens exercising their Constitutional rights and liberties.
To learn the facts about the Patriot Act, you can log onto our website at www lifeandliberty gov.
On my watch, the Department of Justice will perform its duties in a manner that reflects the noblest ideals and highest standards set by the United States Constitution. I would not and I will not support or invite any change that might restrict or endanger the individual liberties and personal freedoms of Americans.
The third and final pillar in achieving this historic, 30-year low in crime is the rising tide of cooperation between citizens and law enforcement. A renewed since of civic responsibility has strengthened the cause of justice, helping Americans reclaim their neighborhoods.
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. More and more, citizens are looking out for their neighbors and for the nation.
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.
And we can and should build on this success.
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.
And within the last few days, here in Memphis the law enforcement community lost two officers... Anthony Woods of the Memphis Police Department and Michael Waters of the West Memphis Police Department. We mourn the loss of all these heroes.
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.