Justice News

Attorney General Eric Holder at the University of Maine's William S. Cohen Lecture Series
Orono, ME
United States
Friday, October 23, 2009


Remarks as prepared for delivery.


Before I begin, I’d like to thank President Kennedy and Chancellor Pattenaude for welcoming me to this wonderful university. Chief Justice Saufley and First Lady Baldacci, thank you for being here as well. And I’d like to recognize the distinguished representative of the Justice Department in Maine, United States Attorney Paula Silsby.

I especially want to thank our host and my friend, Secretary Bill Cohen, and not just because he gave me such a kind introduction. As you all know, Bill has loved and served this state for most of his professional career. Throughout his life – whether as a U.S. Senator or as Secretary of Defense – he has demonstrated how America’s destiny is intertwined with nations and peoples in every corner of the globe. He has recognized that preserving our ideals at home – be it in Orono, Maine, or Washington, D.C. – requires bringing to bear all of our resources – gunboats and diplomats, aid and understanding, alike. The power to wage war, when necessary; the ability to conduct diplomacy, when possible; the generosity to provide aid, when needed: our nation must exercise these options carefully, and always consistent with the rule of law. I commend Bill’s service to the country in carrying out these ideals, and serving as a model for all of us. I am honored to call him and his wife Janet my friends.

And thank you, Bill, for inviting me here today. It is wonderful to be here with you in such a beautiful part of the country. Given the beauty and tranquility of this great state, events in Washington, D.C. seem a million miles away. I hope you don’t mind if I stay awhile.

I would like to speak to you today about the role of the Justice Department in keeping this country safe, and how we attempt to do so on a day-to-day basis. Protecting this nation is my number one priority as Attorney General: it keeps me awake late at night and gets me up early in the morning.


I have spent most of my career working at the Department of Justice, including during the second term of the Clinton Administration as the Deputy Attorney General, the number two position in the Department. I left that job in February 2001, after the inauguration of President Bush, and spent the Bush administration working in the private sector.

When I returned to the Department this past February, I found that it had been transformed by the attacks of September 11, 2001. In the intervening years, the Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had built new capabilities to defend the country from terrorist attacks. These capabilities were focused not just on prosecuting those who do harm to our nation, but also on disrupting plots before they happen.

It is our paramount responsibility to do everything we can to protect our nation from terrorist attacks. We cannot afford to become complacent, and take our security, prosperity, and freedom for granted, but nor can we afford to lose sight of the ideals and values that have made our nation a shining beacon of freedom since we fought the Revolutionary War. We must continue to stand for the rule of law, even as we fight against those who would do us harm. Even in the throes of battle we cannot, as our nation has regretfully done in the past, abandon the rule of law.

As it was at our founding, so it is today – our strength derives from the sinews of those historic documents and from the enlightened principle of the rule of law that they have so nobly enshrined in our national ethos. For more than two centuries, the rule of law has served as the shining torch that has illuminated our path through our nation’s darkest days. To be sure, at times its light has flickered and waned. But always the flame has brightly flared anew and boldly marked our way once more. Indeed, the brilliant light of that torch has guided us to the forefront of international movements for human rights, for the lawful treatment of dissidents, and for free and open societies. Our country is at its best when it has provided the beacon light of the rule of law for all the world to see.

As Americans, we all bear a special responsibility to both uphold and promote the rule of law. This sacred responsibility springs from our unique place in history, and it is the animating force of our heritage – and of our destiny – as a nation. The founding documents of our democracy – the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution – established for the first time in the world’s long history a government not of men, but of laws. To a world governed by kings and emperors, dukes and czars, our founding fathers breathed life into an idea which caused common men to rejoice and despots to tremble. And it is the force and majesty of this idea that created the most powerful nation on earth.

As Attorney General, I think about these issues every day. Every morning I start the day with a threat briefing that serves as a constant reminder of the ongoing challenges we face and the persistence of our enemies. I can assure you that the threat is real. So learning to respond to it in a manner that is both effective and consistent with our values is not an abstract concept; it is a practical reality for me every day.

I’d like to make the abstractions as real to all of you today as I can.

Our efforts to stop a terrorist attack often start with an intelligence tip. This initial tip can come from any number of sources, including human intelligence contacts developed here at home by the Federal Bureau of Investigation or abroad by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or another partner in the Intelligence Community. Key information may also come from one of our partners at the state or local level, or even from a concerned citizen who reports activity he or she perceives to be suspicious. In fact, some of the best and most important tips come from everyday Americans who see something that just doesn’t look right.

As you can imagine, an enormous amount of tips and other intelligence information comes across the transom each and every day. The key to handling them properly is to sift through them to separate the wheat from the chaff – to determine what might constitute a serious threat and what does not.

When we do identify a threat, there are a number of ways in which we can follow up. We run the information through all of the databases that are kept by the intelligence community. The FBI may begin physical surveillance of a subject or conduct interviews to see if the information requires further action. The FBI may then also issue a National Security Letter, a tool which allows investigators to obtain information on financial or telecommunications transactions.

This investigatory work by the FBI is coordinated by the Justice Department’s National Security Division and, as appropriate, with elements of the intelligence community. One of the lessons learned in the wake of 9-11 was that it is crucial to harness the knowledge and resources of the entire government, so the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Security Council at the White House are kept informed and involved as we move forward.

If these initial steps show that further investigation is warranted, we might seek court approval under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to collect intelligence information by monitoring phones and email accounts. Applications for this coverage are classified, and I am not able to publicly discuss the specifics. So, yes, this is where you can let your imaginations return to Jack Bauer of "24" fame. In reality, however, unlike on TV, all of this activity is approved by lawyers, at a very high level. And yet, for some reason the producers of "24" never include scenes of me signing hundreds of pages of documents.

And so, it’s important to note that intelligence collection is just one side of the coin. On the other side is the legal support that ensures that our counterterrorism work operates in strict compliance with established laws and procedures. There is a team of lawyers in the Department of Justice’s National Security Division who work daily to review intelligence-collection requests and to present them to a special court known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Everything we do is subject to strict procedures and oversight by the court and by Congress to ensure our investigations adequately safeguard individual liberties.

In these investigations, we can also bring to bear traditional criminal investigative tools that have been used for years to target criminals ranging from mafia bosses to drug kingpins. For example, our prosecutors in the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices around the country can use grand juries to obtain documents and to compel testimony. They can offer incentives such as reduced sentences in exchange for cooperation, which may lead to critical intelligence information and allow us to build a case or disrupt a terror network piece by piece.

Of course, if the threat involves elements overseas – as many plots do – we will work hand-in-hand with the intelligence community, the Defense Department, and our foreign partners to develop an effective strategy. We have forged powerful bonds with our allies overseas, and we continually draw on their expertise, their tools, and their authorities. Modern terror networks are not bound by national borders. Therefore, we can’t let these borders stand in the way of our efforts to fight them.

Above all, we are pragmatic. We make rational decisions by having officials from every relevant Executive Branch agency sit down together to evaluate any potential threat and decide which tools we can best use to disrupt it. There is no room for turf battles when it comes to protecting the American people, and I can assure you that every member of this Administration’s Cabinet is committed to working together to keep the country safe.

This effort requires a tremendous amount of hard work by people who toil in the background without recognition. In the Department of Justice, they are the FBI agents in the field who follow up on the initial leads with surveillance and interviews, the attorneys who coordinate with the investigators and analysts in the intelligence community, the intelligence analysts who sift through the data looking for important patterns, and the lawyers who go before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And that is not to mention the many other federal, state, local, tribal, military and foreign partners with whom the Justice Department coordinates to make sure that, at the end of the day, each and every terrorist threat has been neutralized. As President Obama declared at his recent visit to the National Counterterrorism Center in Virginia, "when working to disrupt terrorist networks, there is one goal, and we are one team."

Of course each of these steps must abide by the rule of law- this is who we are as a nation. Since the enactment of important reforms in the 1970s, strict legal oversight is how the United States has protected civil liberties in intelligence matters. I believe the steps that have been taken to build on that in the last few years - by bringing our lawyers and intelligence investigators together to work on terrorism investigations - have increased the effectiveness of the many rule of law mechanisms that have long been in place.

Working together, we ensure that civil liberties are protected to the greatest extent possible. Working together, we ensure that our actions are always based on specific information, not stereotypes or rushed judgments. Working together, we continually evaluate whether we are pursuing the correct path or need to rethink our assumptions.

Let me be clear – we cannot and need not sacrifice our core values in order to ensure our safety. Adherence to the rule of law strengthens our security by depriving terrorist organizations of their prime recruiting tools and legitimacy. When we commit to operating within a Constitutional framework, we distinguish ourselves from the enemy we are acting to defeat. We have to lead not only by overwhelming strength, but also by good example. A few seem to have forgotten what, to me, is this most basic of American values and have lost touch with what truly distinguishes us as a nation.

As I mentioned before, most of this work happens far from the public spotlight, as it should. But in just the last month, we saw the seriousness of the threat that still exists, and an urgent reminder of the importance of our efforts.

The alleged plot in Colorado and New York to detonate an explosive device in the United States was one of the most serious threats this nation has faced since 9-11. This wasn’t merely an aspirational plot with no chance of success. This plot was serious, developed, and had it not been disrupted, it could have led to the loss of American lives. I caution that our work continues in that matter.

The good news about this case is that the system worked. A coordinated effort led to the disruption of this plot before any Americans could be harmed. But the system has to work every time. We cannot lose even one time. We can’t rest for one minute – and we won’t.

I would like to encourage the students here today to join this effort. I started my career as a line attorney in the Public Integrity section of the Department of Justice. It was there that I learned from agents and colleagues how to investigate and try a case. It was a wonderful job, the first of many I have held with the Department, and the experiences I forged there have guided me throughout my career.


There are countless ways for young, idealistic people to become involved. Perhaps working on counterterrorism issues such as the ones I just talked about appeals to you. If so, there are opportunities not only in the Justice Department and the FBI, but also in the military, in state and local law enforcement, in the intelligence community, and in other federal agencies. Or perhaps the idea of working on civil rights matters really excites you. If so, I would welcome you at the Justice Department where we already have a cadre of outstanding public servants, and where we are hard at work strengthening and transforming and reinvigorating the Civil Rights Division. Or perhaps promoting and defending our civil liberties is what really animates you. If so, there are scores of opportunities in the public and private sectors. Whatever your calling, I hope that many of you will follow a path that leads you, if only for a time, to public service. While this nation presents boundless opportunities, it also faces real challenges in the years ahead. We need your energy, your idealism, and your thoughtfulness more than ever.


So let me end with a final tribute to this great state. Joshua Chamberlain, at the dedication of the 20th Maine monument at Gettysburg in 1889, spoke these words: "We know not of the future, and cannot plan for it much. But we can hold our spirits and our bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and such ideals, and dream such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men we will be whenever and wherever the hour strikes, that calls to noble action."

Those words are as relevant today as when Chamberlain recited them 120 years ago. While these national-security issues are some of the most difficult of my generation and yours, thanks to the hard work of the many men and women who have dedicated themselves to safeguarding our nation, I am confident that we will be ready whenever and wherever we receive that noble call to action and be proud of the manner in which we defend this nation we all love.

Thank you.


Updated August 20, 2015