Department of Justice Seal
Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
Address to National Association of
Counties Legislative Conference
Washington, D.C
March 7, 2005

Good morning, Angelo.

I appreciate the opportunity to address the Legislative Conference of the National Association of Counties.

Few government officials better represent democracy in action than our nation's county officials. When most Americans need to reach out to government for help, they are much more likely to take their daily concerns to county and local officials. County officials like you represent the outreached hand of the public servant, working for the good of the people. Whether the issue is education, transportation, or a host of other services, I know citizens look to you to solve common problems by finding fair and democratic solutions that improve life for them and their families.

I am honored to be with you today.

For more than two centuries, our Nation's love for freedom has defined the course of American history. During that time, we may not have always lived up to our best ideals, but our love for liberty and individual rights has always lit our way toward a better, more inclusive Nation.

Half a world away, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing today, for the first time, the power and potential of freedom. Even in the face of threats of violence, they are taking steps toward free speech, free assembly, and civil liberty.

Only a few weeks ago the world watched in awe and admiration as Iraqi voters held aloft their blue-tipped fingers to celebrate their first free elections. We will not forget the bravery of women-mothers, daughters, and sisters-who risked death to walk to their polling places. And I suspect many of us will look back with emotion at the tears of joy shed by expatriate Iraqi voters who never thought they would live to see a free, democratic Iraq come into being.

Courageous Iraqis have reminded every American that democracy is built on the exchange of ideas through debate, discussion, and dialogue. Even when there is disagreement, respect and tolerance for differing views can transform the heart and heal the land.

Most of all, they have reminded us all what a privilege it is to be part of the great debate that is democracy.

In a few weeks, we will begin here a serious discussion with implications for our Nation's future, as Congress faces the opportunity to reauthorize the USA PATRIOT Act.

In this dialogue, our goal remains what it was three-and-a-half years ago when the Administration and Congress worked together to pass this law: to give law enforcement the tools they need to keep America safe, while honoring our values and our Constitution.

This debate has considerable importance for county officials across our Nation. Whether we, as public servants, serve in Federal, state, or county government, our most fundamental obligation is to protect the people we serve. Simply put, without security, government cannot deliver, nor can the people enjoy, the prosperity and opportunities that flow from freedom and democracy.

As county officials, I know you are dedicated to the safety and security of all your constituents. Since September 11, you have responded to the need to increase homeland security and to support law enforcement and first responders. And I thank you.

While these years of continuing preparation have been expensive and challenging, I think we can all recognize that the work of prevention is far better than the pain and devastation that would flow from another terrorist attack.

As you consider further your county's own role in protecting our Nation, it is important to remember that the PATRIOT Act has already proven a vital part of our defense of protecting lives and liberties.

Unfortunately, certain provisions of this law have attracted some adverse attention. Some local officials have focused only on the investigative tools of the Act without considering the built-in safeguards that protect our liberties. I suspect this has motivated some counties and cities to pass resolutions against the PATRIOT Act.

For the past three years, U.S. Attorneys have been available to speak before county and city council meetings about the constitutional protections in and the importance of the PATRIOT Act. I have been told that, in a few cities, U.S. Attorneys' efforts to be heard have been refused.

If true, I am concerned that some local officials have cast votes relating to the PATRIOT Act based on misinformation or a lack of information.

I know that you are conscientious about serving your communities and your constituents, and that whenever you are faced with important issues you want to have the best information available to you.

Today I am going to give you facts I hope will inform your decisions regarding the PATRIOT Act.

Let me begin by asking you to remember the liberties we seek to protect, the lives we are sworn to defend, and the brutal lessons taught by September 11.

Over the last three years, we have made great progress in the war against terror. Thanks to the hard work of millions of men and women in Federal, state, and local law enforcement, in our intelligence community, and in the military, we are safer and more secure.

But our successes confront us with a new challenge: As the months and years since September 11 pass, complacency becomes our enemy. We face the temptation to think that the terrorist threat is receding and that September 11 was just one tragic day-a once-in-a-lifetime event not likely to be repeated.

Based on the intelligence we have collected, we know that our enemies do not view September 11 that way. They remember, and they want to do worse.

We, too, must remember the horror, the outrage, the sadness of that day-and use these emotions to motivate us to stop our enemies from duplicating their attacks.

We must not forget the heart-wrenching phone calls from victims in the World Trade Center or from the hijacked planes to their loved ones. We must memorialize the pictures of the missing, held tight by the tearful and desperate, who searched in vain. Over 3,000 Americans were murdered that day. These were victims from communities with familiar names, such as Union County, New Jersey; Fairfax County, Virginia; Suffolk County, New York; Norfolk County, Massachusetts, and many others.

For the families of these victims, the wounds of that horrific day are still fresh-and it is likely that they will never fully heal. But as a Nation and a people united, these memories should spur us on to remain steadfast and vigilant.

As we begin our discussion about the PATRIOT Act, we must also understand how our enemies saw September 11th, and how they view this conflict.

As one radical supporter of Al Qaeda stated in a fatwa after September 11: "It is astonishing to mourn the [American] victims as being innocents. Those victims may be classified as infidel Americans, which do not deserve being mourned, because each American, as to his relation to American government, is a warrior, or supporter, in money or opinion. It is legitimate to kill all of them.."

These "legitimate" targets referred to are our moms and dads, sons and daughters, neighbors and loved ones.

Our enemy has no respect for life, for civil or religious liberty. They do not believe in the right to conscience, or personal choice.

These are values we prize-simple freedoms your constituents and our fellow citizens hold precious: From standing up to speak out at a school board meeting to writing your local council members for help, from visiting a child's teacher to writing your congressional representative.

My job as Attorney General is to defend every day those values and the freedoms enshrined in our Bill of Rights and our Constitution.

My workdays begin with a morning intelligence briefing. With FBI Director Mueller, we review the latest counter-terrorism intelligence and situation analyses and report to the President our Nation's progress in the fight against terrorism.

In my capacity as White House Counsel and now as Attorney General, I have met and heard from many of the men and women winning the war on terror for our Nation. They tell me that the PATRIOT Act is very important in our law enforcement and intelligence efforts. They tell me that without this law, many of our most important successes would not have been possible. The PATRIOT Act has addressed critical vulnerabilities in America's pre-September 11th defenses.

First, it lowered the artificial and unwise bureaucratic wall that had prevented law enforcement and the intelligence community from sharing information about terrorist movements and plots.

Second, it modernized and gave investigators legal tools for fighting in the 21st century. These are tools, such as "multipoint wiretaps," which have proven themselves time and again in the fight against drug smugglers, mobsters, and other criminals. They have long been sanctioned by our courts, but were not available for national security investigations until the PATRIOT Act.

We know, for instance, that terrorist networks use computers, email, and cellular phones to cloak their operations, here and abroad. They are trained to switch phones and email accounts in order to make it harder for us to track them.

Under the PATRIOT Act, officials may now obtain court approval to use a "multipoint wiretap" to track a terror suspect's phone communications, even when the suspected terrorist switches, changes, or abandons phones to avoid detection. These and other common-sense measures included in the PATRIOT Act have helped our Federal, state, and county officials make America safer.

Unfortunately, a small but vocal minority has attempted to mischaracterize the PATRIOT Act. The critics have dealt in conjecture and hypotheticals. We can point to solid results, saved lives, and a Nation that is safer. For more than three years, there has not been one verified civil rights abuse under the PATRIOT Act.

As Senator Dianne Feinstein has stated, quote, "I have never had a single abuse of the Patriot Act reported to me. My staff e-mailed the ACLU and asked them for instances of actual abuses. They e-mailed back and said they had none."

I want to encourage you to come forward if you or your constituents have ever experienced an abuse under the PATRIOT Act. If there are violations, I want to know about them.

But the Act has helped us considerably in the war on terror. Thanks to this law, America's law enforcement and the intelligence communities were able to work together to break up the "Portland Seven" terrorist cell. Members of this terrorist cell had attempted to travel to Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 to fight with the Taliban and Al Qaeda against the United States. Because law enforcement was allowed to conduct surveillance on one member of the cell, agents and officers knew they could prevent an attack as well as continue to gather evidence against other operatives in the terror cell.

Some commentators have claimed that the PATRIOT Act violates personal Internet privacy. But the law allows Internet Service Providers to aid law enforcement voluntarily, and only in emergency situations. Such voluntary cooperation allows for businesses to protect consumer information as well as allow for swift action when lives are on the line.

Here is one example of how this can help us solve crimes. Only a few months ago, the Nation was shocked by the tragedy of Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Bobbie Jo had been eight months pregnant when she was found strangled to death in her Missouri home. Her unborn daughter had been cut out of her womb with a kitchen knife.

Police officers examined a computer found in Bobbie Jo's home. They discovered that she had been active on the Internet in connection with her dog-breeding business. As the investigation intensified, the officers found an exchange from a message board between Bobbie Jo and someone who called herself Darlene Fischer. Fischer claimed to be interested in a dog. She had asked Bobbie Jo for directions to her house for a meeting on December 16-the same day as the murder.

Using a PATRIOT Act provision, FBI agents and examiners at the Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory in Kansas City were able to trace Darlene Fischer's messages to a server in Topeka, find Darlene Fischer's email address, and then trace it to a house in Melvern, Kansas. Darlene Fischer's real name was in fact Lisa Montgomery. Montgomery was arrested and subsequently confessed.

Thanks in part to the hard work of law enforcement and the technological advances of the PATRIOT Act, baby Victoria Jo Stinnett was found alive-less than 24 hours after she was cut from her mother's womb.

In this criminal case, the PATRIOT Act helped save one baby's life. In the case of terrorism worldwide, such voluntary cooperation and speed can save thousands of lives. If these tools can be used to stop child molesters and kidnappers as well as terrorist financiers and Al Qaeda operatives, we will all be able to live in an America that is safer, more secure, and more free.

Some critics have claimed that the PATRIOT Act endangers our civil liberties. Let me be clear that I think we should be Free-and we are free-to question the exercise of government power when we believe it may infringe on our privacy or our civil liberties. Such debate is good and healthy for our democracy. But debate should be based on facts. And in 2004, the Patriot Act was used to protect the lives and liberties of members of the El Paso Islamic Center. Thirty-year-old Jared Bjarnason sent an email message threatening to burn the mosque to the ground if hostages in Iraq were not freed within three days.

Acting quickly, FBI agents used a provision of the PATRIOT Act to identify Bjarnason as the source of the threat. Without this tool, law enforcement would have had to obtain a separate search warrant from each service provider through which the email traveled. In the case of Bjarnason, such a string of search warrants could have taken 30 days-far beyond his threatened deadline. Bjarnason was found, arrested, and has pleaded guilty.

As these examples show, the PATRIOT Act protects civil liberties as well as American lives. What is often left out of the critic's accusations are the many safeguards built into the law itself.

The PATRIOT Act requires judicial approval for delayed-notification search warrants. Courts can only allow these search warrants in the face of threats such as the death or physical harm to an individual, evidence tampering, witness intimidation, flight from prosecution, or serious jeopardy to an investigation. At all times, the Government is subject to the jurisdiction and supervision of a federal judge.

The PATRIOT Act requires investigators to apply and receive federal court permission to obtain a pen register or trap-and-trace device-which simply provide investigators with routing information, such as incoming and outgoing phone numbers from a phone. There is no collection of the content of the communication under the Act.

The PATRIOT Act requires investigators to obtain a court order to examine business records in the course of a national security investigation or to protect against international terrorism. Such court orders may not be obtained to investigate ordinary crimes, or even for domestic terrorism.

The PATRIOT Act allows individuals recourse if they believe their rights are abused. In addition, the Justice Department's Inspector General is required by law to designate one official to review information and complaints alleging the abuse or violation of civil liberties by Justice officials.

Finally, the PATRIOT Act requires me, every six months, to report to the House Judiciary Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee the number of applications made for orders requiring the production of business records under the PATRIOT Act.

As these examples illustrate, the PATRIOT Act not only fully respects the rights and liberties of America, but the law contains built-in safeguards that ensure the protection of our rights.

As Attorney General, it is my job to fight for a stronger, safer Nation guided by the rule of law, a dedication to justice, and opportunity for all. Each day, the men and women of the Justice Department defend the civil liberties that make America so special. And we work to ensure that terrorists do not endanger the peace and freedom so important to the exercise of our precious rights.

As the cause of freedom expands around the globe, it is my honor to work to see that it expands here at home. I believe that our war on terrorism and the PATRIOT Act are critical to this cause. As we move forward in discussing its reauthorization, I welcome the debate and look forward to hearing the views of others. The President has said we must reauthorize the PATRIOT Act. If some have suggestions for improvements to our laws that make America safer, I would be interested in hearing those. But mindful of the tragedy of September 11, I will not support changes in the law that would make America more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Thank you again for having me here today.

May God bless you and your families, may He continue to guide our democratic debate and dialogue, and may He continue to bless the United States of America.