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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks About theDepartment of Justice’s Priorities and Mission


Washington, DC
United States

Good morning, and thank you all for being here – and for tuning in from Department of Justice offices across the country. It is a pleasure to join Lee [Lofthus] in welcoming so many colleagues and critically important partners here today.

I’d also like to thank Lee – and each of our Assistant Attorneys General, our Associate Attorney General, and all of our component heads – for their outstanding leadership of the Department, and for the invaluable guidance that – over the last two years – they have provided to me. And although he could not be here today, I also want to thank our Deputy Attorney General, Jim Cole, for his dedicated partnership and friendship – not only over the last few months, but also over the last few decades, since the two of us – fresh out of law school – began our careers in this great Department.

Nearly 35 years ago, I arrived here, to this building, to begin my “dream job” as a line attorney in the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section. The day before starting work, I had moved down from New York City, assuring my friends and family that I only would be in Washington for a couple of years. That was 1976.

What I did not know then – but soon discovered – is that I had been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the chance to be part of a highly skilled and motivated team – an extraordinary group of men and women who – in common cause and through individual action – were reaffirming our nation’s founding principles of liberty, equality, and security; helping to shape America’s future; and taking innovative and collaborative steps to protect our fellow citizens.

Contributing to this work – our work – quickly became, and continues to be, the most thrilling and rewarding experience of my professional life. In the years that I have been privileged to serve this Department, I have worked alongside – and learned from – some of the world’s most talented and dedicated lawyers, law enforcement officials, and public servants. Every day, you and your colleagues – a team that’s now more than 114,000 members strong – carry out your important jobs with the simple, but essential, goals of protecting and improving lives – and pursuing justice in every case, every circumstance, and every community.

You demonstrate how the law can be a powerful force for good – a protector of those we serve; and a driver of change and progress, of tolerance and inclusion, of peace and prosperity. And you have proven that – in the work of ensuring justice for all, opportunity for all, and security for all – one person can make a difference.

Like you, I love this Department. And, like you, I am proud – not only to serve it, but also to champion its work.

Just over two years ago, together, we launched a new chapter in the Department’s extraordinary history. And I was honored that – on that February day – so many of you welcomed me home. That day, as I stood before you – and swore the oath of office for the last job I will ever hold here – I laid out three priorities that would guide our work. First, and most importantly, I promised that the Department’s top priority – and our chief responsibility – would be protecting the security, rights, and interests of the American people.

I also pledged to reinvigorate the Department’s traditional missions and breathe new life into important areas that had been overlooked in recent years.

Finally, I promised to heal the Department – by rebuilding morale and restoring credibility. As a young lawyer, I had seen my first boss and one of my personal heroes – Attorney General Edward Levi – do just that in the wake of the Watergate scandal. At a time of deep national division – and widespread cynicism and mistrust of government – he provided the leadership and vision necessary to bring this Department together, to raise standards, and to remind the American people of why this institution – and its work to protect this nation – is essential, and how it positively affects every city and community; every neighborhood and home; every life.

Two years later, I am proud to say that we have kept our word. Because of you – your hard work, your commitment, your willingness to sacrifice, and your eagerness to improve the lives of others – we have made meaningful, measurable progress in fulfilling the pledges we made to the American people.

Of course, it hasn’t always been easy. Department of Justice employees face some of the most challenging circumstances and complex issues in government. And your work has never been more difficult.

Together, we have witnessed our nation’s most severe environmental catastrophe, and responded to a historic financial crisis that left our economy severely crippled. We have faced increasingly sophisticated criminal enterprises, and worked to keep pace with the cutting-edge technologies that have brought new opportunities for criminals to commit theft and fraud. We have responded to growing demands and leveraged limited resources – and you have risen to the occasion when asked to accomplish more with less. And while confronting and overcoming a broad range of challenges, we have sustained an ongoing battle against determined – and constantly evolving – enemies.

Together, we also have mourned the loss of innocent lives. We have struggled to understand – and to prevent – unspeakable acts of violence. And we have paid tribute, and our last respects, to law enforcement heroes who – in the line of duty and in the service of their country – have made the ultimate sacrifice.

But despite these and other challenges, we have taken critical steps forward in meeting the goals – and fulfilling the responsibilities – that I laid out two years ago.

We have thwarted serious – and potentially devastating – terrorist plots. We have adapted our operations to identify and disrupt national security threats. And we have prosecuted more terrorists than in any other two-year period in history.

In addition to advancing our national security efforts, we have reformed and strengthened the way this Department works. We have found innovative ways to foster transparency, accountability, and professionalism across every component. We have reestablished the authority of career officials to make hiring decisions. We have launched landmark initiatives to foster diversity across the Department’s ranks and to ensure that all Americans – no matter where they live or how much money they make – can access our justice system. We have developed training programs and new tools to ensure the highest standards of conduct among prosecutors. And we have signaled that, once again, the Civil Rights Division is open for business and true to its founding principles.

Across the Department, and in our United States Attorneys’ Offices, we have raised both standards and spirits – and restored public faith in our critical work. We also have shown that, if mistakes are made along the way, we will admit them; we will act immediately to correct them; and we will move forward with the central goals of protecting – and achieving justice for – the American people.

We have also made strategic investments to revitalize the Department’s traditional missions – investments that, already, are paying dividends. We have re-invigorated our working collaboration with state and local law enforcement in making our communities safer. And we have provided targeted, evidence-based assistance to communities under the Recovery Act and through our critical grant programs.

Over the past two years, we’ve filed a record number of civil rights criminal cases, and secured an all-time high in civil recoveries for taxpayers and victims. We’ve led government-wide efforts to respond to the largest oil spill in our nation’s history, and made certain that taxpayers do not foot the bill for its cleanup. And just last week, we secured a conviction – in the biggest bank fraud prosecution of this generation – against the former chairman of a private mortgage lending company for his role in a nearly $3 billion fraud scheme.

In addition, we have strengthened the rule of law across our country and beyond our borders – and established the international partnerships necessary to combat global threats and 21st-century crimes. And we have helped to advance important changes in policy and legislation – including the reduction of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, the passage of landmark hate crimes legislation, and the implementation of reforms to ensure that DNA evidence is used to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent.

Your work matters. And your success is no hollow achievement. Your constant vigilance and ongoing commitment to collaboration, the sleep that you’ve sacrificed and the time with your families that you’ve cut short, the hours that you’ve logged in offices and courthouses, in the back rooms of investigation sites and on the front lines of community safety efforts – that work has made a difference. It has allowed our fellow Americans to know peace and security, while maintaining faith in our nation’s system of justice.

You deserve – and you have earned – my deepest gratitude. You are patriots in every sense of the word. Over the last two years, you have made our nation not only safer, but stronger. I am proud – and each of you should be proud – of what we have accomplished.

Without question, the results that we’ve achieved have been historic. But I am not yet satisfied. And I don’t want you to be either.

As we consider where we must go from here, I am reminded of Attorney General Levi’s assurance – 35 years ago – that “the agenda of the Department is inevitably unfinished…[and] is also always boundless.”

Boundless, too, are the opportunities now before us. So, today, as we look toward the future, we will take action in four key areas to fulfill one core mission: protecting the American people. These priorities will allow us to build on the record of success that we’ve established, and they will guide our future efforts.

First and foremost: we will protect Americans from terrorism and other threats to national security – both at home and abroad. Using every available resource and appropriate tool, we will continue to disrupt terrorist plots, thwart potential attacks, and vigorously prosecute those who seek to harm our nation and our people. We will aggressively pursue emerging threats around the world and at home, and enhance our ability to gather and analyze actionable intelligence. We will engage in outreach efforts to all communities in order to prevent terrorism before it occurs. We will be vigilant – not only against international terrorist organizations, but also against domestic extremist groups, militias, and other home-grown threats. And let me be very clear about this: we will continue to rely on our most powerful and most proven tool in bringing terrorists to justice – our federal court system.

These national security efforts are among the most important work we do. As we have learned – in the most painful of ways – our nation is at war with a determined enemy who seeks to strike at American interests – and to harm our people – both here and abroad. But we can defeat this enemy – and we will do so without compromising the values that have made our nation great. Indeed, it is only by upholding our most cherished and sacred principles that we will ultimately be successful in this fight.

Second: we will protect Americans from the violent crimes that have ravaged too many communities, devastated too many families, and stolen too many promising futures. One of the key ways we will strengthen violent crime prevention is by increasing our support for the law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line each day to keep our communities safe. Although we can all be encouraged that violent crime rates are down nationwide, it is clear that more work remains to be done. In recent months, we have seen an alarming spike in officer fatalities and the number of line-of-duty law enforcement deaths. This is appalling and unacceptable. And it is why we will continue making investments to provide life-saving equipment, training, and information-sharing capabilities to our courageous men and women in the field.

We also will invest in scientific research to make certain that this Department is both tough and smart on crime, and that our decisions are economically sound. This means working closely with state, local, and tribal partners. It also means broadening our support for effective crime prevention, intervention, enforcement, and reentry strategies. By better understanding the cycle of violence – and by applying targeted solutions at every phase of it – we can stop and disrupt violent patterns. This work could not be more urgent. Today, 1 in every 100 American adults is incarcerated – and two-thirds of those who transition out of our jails and prisons eventually are rearrested. This is not acceptable. Helping our young people avoid lives of violence and crime – and providing support to those who’ve served their time and are struggling to rejoin and contribute to their communities – is not just a proven public safety approach. It is an economic imperative. And it is our moral obligation.

Effectively combating violent crime also demands that – with the help and leadership of our U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, as well as theFBI, ATF, DEA, and Marshals Service – we continue to crack down on the gang-, gun-, and drug-fueled violence that menaces our streets and threatens our communities. Through intelligence-driven, threat-based prosecutions – we will focus on dismantling criminal organizations and putting them out of business for good. In so doing, we will fight to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those who are not lawfully allowed to possess them.

Third: we will protect Americans from the financial fraud that devastates consumers, siphons taxpayer dollars, weakens our markets, and impedes our ongoing economic recovery. As we’ve seen, the impact of financial crime is not confined to Wall Street – and many times the victims of fraud have worked hard and played by established investment rules, only to see their retirement and life savings vanish at hands of white-collar criminals.

Over the last two years, through reinforced interagency partnerships and new joint initiatives – such as the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force and the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team – we have transformed the way we deal with fraud crimes. Not only have we secured record recoveries totaling billions of dollars, we have raised awareness about these crimes and improved the ability of consumers and victims to report suspected fraud schemes. In the coming months, we must take all of these efforts to the next level.

We will vigorously investigate financial crimes and ensure that those who commit them are made to pay the price – by serving long sentences and making restitution to taxpayers, as well as victims. To identify the most effective ways to prevent and combat financial fraud, senior Department leaders will continue to meet with victims, medical providers, business leaders, and key government and law enforcement partners around the country. We will also work to bring our HEAT task forces to new problem areas, and to expand other successful programs that will allow us to maximize both our efficiency and our impact.

Finally, we will protect those most in need of our help – our children, the elderly, victims of hate crimes, of human trafficking, and of exploitation – and those who cannot speak out or stand up for themselves. We will ensure that our children have healthy environments and safe places to live, to learn, and to play. We will protect our seniors from abuse and our young people from experiencing – and witnessing – violence. And we will enforce our civil rights laws to guarantee that – in our workplaces and military bases; in our housing and lending markets; in voting booths, border areas, and boardrooms; in schools and in places of worship – all Americans are protected.

In the critical days ahead, these four essential priorities – protecting Americans from national security threats, protecting Americans from violent crime, protecting Americans from financial fraud, and protecting the most vulnerable members of our society – will guide our work. And they will shape our legacy.

As we advance each of them, we will continue to act as responsible stewards of precious taxpayer dollars. And we will look for new ways to align operations, maximize resources, and amplify our work by building and strengthening partnerships.

Nearly half a century ago, on this very day – April 25, 1963 – Attorney General Robert Kennedy discussed the Justice Department’s most critical – and fundamental – responsibility: to build “a better and a safer world…a world in which people will be free to realize their own talents and fulfill their own destiny.”

This is what each of us must do, as Attorney General Kennedy said, “when our time comes.”

This is our time. This is our moment. This is our chance to strengthen the great traditions of this Department, to build on its most notable achievements, to honor the contributions of those who have served before us, and to create a world that reflects our aspirations for future generations.

In examining the long history of this Department, it is clear that – if we commit ourselves to it – change is possible. Improbable – and once-unimaginable – advancements are possible. And even the largest and most persistent obstacles can be overcome.

What endures – what matters most – is the work before us. The work we do for the people we serve. The work that is our great privilege, our urgent and worthy calling, our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So, let us recommit ourselves to this work. Let us make the most of the opportunities now before us. And let us distinguish this era of the Department’s history as yet another great age of accomplishment and progress.

Thank you all for your contributions to what we have – and what we will – accomplish. I am grateful to each of you. I am proud of each of you. And, like our fellow Americans, I am counting on each and every one of you.

Let us leave this Great Hall today committed – every day – to making our nation a place that is both more secure and more just. Our challenges are significant, and our tasks numerous, but our capacity to do great things is evident. We can do these things if we make this moment – and this future – our own. So let us begin.

Thank you.

Updated June 25, 2023