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Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks in New York City About Defending Our National Security


New York, NY
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery


Thank you, Joon for that kind introduction.  And thank you for your decade of service to the people of New York and to this country.  In particular I want to commend you for your efforts that led to the conviction of Peter Gotti and other organized crime figures.  That’s outstanding work that has had a major impact on this community. When we planned this trip to talk about terrorism and national security, we were certainly not expecting the terrible events of Tuesday.


Before I say anything else, I want to offer my condolences to the people of this community.  The President—a proud son of this city—sends his condolences as well.  To the families and friends of those who were killed or injured, and to those suffering wounds: the people of the Department of Justice family are praying for you and thinking about you. 


This latest tragedy, however, showed once again the bravery of our police officers and first responders.  In particular, of course, I want to mention Officer Ryan Nash of the First Precinct.  His quick response and his courageous action under pressure prevented this attack from getting even worse.  He is rightly regarded as a hero today—not just in New York, but across America. He symbolizes the best of the best.


This morning I attended roll call with officers from the 13th precinct, some of whom responded to the 9/11 attacks.  It was an honor for me to meet them.  They embody the highest ideals of law enforcement and public service.


The people of New York should know that they have one of the finest law enforcement institutions in the country—and, indeed, the world.  We know that 85 percent of law enforcement officers in America serve at the state and local level.  This Administration cannot succeed in our goal of reducing crime without our state and local partners.  We are all in this together.


On my visit to the precinct this morning, we discussed this city’s use of crime data to channel their resources to where they are needed the most.  That is a proven success, and I believe that it can work around the country.  Indeed, cities all over the country are following your lead.  And so I want to thank NYPD for their leadership and for making New York—and America safer.


This week’s deadly incident—the deadliest attack on New York since 9/11—is one more reminder of the dangerous threats that we face as a nation.


New Yorkers know firsthand that terrorists want nothing more than to take away our most basic right: the right to be safe.  They aim to diminish our freedom and constrict our lifestyles.  And if it weren’t for our troops, our intelligence community, and our law enforcement, the terrorists would succeed.


Since 9/11, the Department of Justice has made fighting terrorism its top priority.  Our goal is not just to catch terrorists, but to prevent them from striking us.  And in this fight against terror, we have gotten results.  People in this room and around the country have been made safer.


Last month, a federal jury convicted Ahmad Khan Rahimi for his role in the September 2016 Chelsea, New York City bombing.  To the Assistant U.S. Attorneys who worked on this case—Emil Bove, Andrew DeFilippis, and Shawn Crowley—and our federal and local law officers: outstanding work.  This Department is proud of you.


Also in October, the Department of Justice unsealed charges against three men for plotting to carry out ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks in this city.  These cases are also being prosecuted by attorneys in this office.


And just this week, Mustafa al-Imam, a Libyan national charged with participating in the 2012 Benghazi attacks, was apprehended overseas and is on his way to America to face justice.


Terrorists should know: this Administration will use all lawful tools at our disposal, including prosecution in Article III courts and at Guantanamo Bay.  If anyone has any doubt about that, they can ask the more than 500 criminals whom the Department of Justice has convicted of terrorism-related offenses since 9/11.  And they can ask the dozens of enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay.


We are not slowing down.  The FBI currently has ongoing terrorism-related investigations in all 50 states.


I assure you, President Trump has never forgotten 9/11.  As a New Yorker, he knew people who lost their lives that day.  He has made our national security his top priority.  And he is exactly right to do that.  As he put it, the battle with terrorism is “a battle between good and evil.”  “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough.”


Over these next few minutes, I want to take this occasion to discuss some of the priority initiatives necessary if we are to be smart, vigilant, and tough.  This is not an exhaustive list.  But these are some of the most important.  And this is not a political or an ideological matter—this is a safety matter – a national security matter.  This is about what a great nation must do to protect itself.


First of all, we need to keep potentially dangerous people from getting into this country.  Second, we need access to electronic evidence with court approval.  And third, we need to lawfully, aggressively surveil non-citizen terrorists overseas.


The President is determined to keep terrorists and their sympathizers from infiltrating our country.  And he knows that, since 9/11, most of those convicted in our courts for international terrorism-related crimes have been foreign-born.


The Department currently has ongoing terrorism-related investigations against hundreds of people who came here as refugees.  As you all know, we expend enormous manpower and resources on these investigations, as well as on the hundreds of domestic cases inspired by foreign terrorists.  The FBI and our officers do heroic work, but it is simply not reasonable to keep asking them for more and more without putting policies in place that make their jobs easier, and make us safer.


The President was right to issue his executive order, the travel ban, to ensure proper vetting.  The countries covered by this order have failed—or are unable—to provide us the information necessary for proper vetting of their nationals.  How do you vet people from North Korea?  How do you vet people from Syria—where war and violence continues?


The President has the legal right to take this action.  Congress has authorized the president to stop travel from certain countries if it would be detrimental to our interests not to.  That’s exactly what President Trump did—and he did it to keep us safe.  


And not only was it authorized by law, it was the right thing to do.  On Tuesday night, President Trump once again ordered his administration to implement more rigorous, more effective vetting processes—extreme vetting.  President Trump made these decisions because he understands that we continue to face grave security threats from a number of groups and he is not afraid to talk openly and directly about it. 


Further, the President’s separate action to reduce the flow of refugees into this country will reduce the likelihood of potentially dangerous people getting here.  It will also take some of the pressure off of the FBI and our local law enforcement by control and vetting more carefully those requesting entry before they are admitted.


The President has also laid out a set of principles for immigration reform that would make us safer.  First of all, by building the border wall and requiring legal status to get a job, this plan would dramatically cut down on the illegality in our system.  It would help us keep better track of who is in this country.


And just as importantly, the President’s immigration plan would switch us to a merit-based immigration system.  He would abolish the Diversity Visa Lottery and replace it with a points-based system like is used in Canada and Australia.  This is the best way to ensure that the immigration system in America is benefitting America.  We don’t use random chance in college admissions and we don’t roll a die to hire people.  By the same token, a lottery tells us nothing about who would thrive in this country.


This merit-based system would be a boon to our economy and raise wages.  But it is not just an issue of economic security; it is an issue of national security. A merit-based system, by definition, would be safer than a lottery or even extended family-based immigration.  We want the best and the brightest in America.  The President’s plan is essential to protecting our national security, while also banning drunk drivers, fraudsters, gang members, and child abusers.


A bill to switch to a merit-based system has been introduced in Congress by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue.  It’s called the RAISE Act. It’s time to end the Diversity Lottery in favor of a rational, merit-based system.


We need to be aware that some people who come here radicalize once they’re here.  Just yesterday, the Department unsealed an indictment of a Turkish man who was living as a legal permanent resident in New York City.  He left the United States to join ISIS, and then used social media to recruit people in the United States, Europe, and Australia to join their campaign of terror and hate.  According to the indictment, the defendant urged on a suicide bomber in Iraq and he boasted that he had sent 20,000 jihadists to ISIS territory.  Today he is facing a potential life sentence without parole.


The largest category of counterterrorism cases in the United States under investigation today are of people inspired by ISIS.


Since President Trump took office, ISIS has been on the run in Syria and Iraq.  At one point ISIS controlled a land mass the size of Great Britain and a population the size of Michigan.  But now their capital has fallen.  The American people should celebrate these victories, but we must also recognize ISIS and other violent jihadist groups still pose a threat to our safety here in our homeland.


The number of Americans traveling to join ISIS has declined dramatically.  But terrorist networks are becoming increasingly decentralized and harder to track.  Terrorist groups increasingly use social networking sites to recruit new members and lone wolf attackers around the globe.  They then can use encrypted communication channels to plan their crimes, some of which can be carried out within hours.


The Department of Justice recognizes that terrorist tactics are evolving, and we are adapting our own tactics to meet this challenge. We can never stand still.


Which brings me to my second point.  To investigate terrorism, we will need access to electronic evidence in a lawful way.  Too often, technology companies refuse to cooperate with law enforcement or even to comply with court orders.  Over just the past year, the FBI was unable to open access to nearly ** mobile devices submitted to its Computer Analysis and Response Team, even though there was court orders or legal authority to do so.  We can only imagine what the consequences of not getting that information will be.


We know, for example, that the terrorist who targeted an event in Garland, Texas in 2015 sent more than 100 instant messages to a terrorist overseas—just on the morning of the attack.  What we don’t know, however, is what he said—because those messages are encrypted.


This failure to get encrypted information in a timely manner causes law enforcement to waste even more valuable time and resources.  And it could have potentially deadly consequences.


The third item that our counterterrorism efforts need is a related matter.  It is the ability to surveil overseas for intelligence purposes.  The law that authorizes us to do this—Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—is scheduled to expire in just 59 days.  Today I am once again calling on Congress to reauthorize it.


Section 702 has proven to be effective.  For example, in 2009, the FBI stopped Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan national, from executing his plans to bomb the New York City subway system—just a few miles from where we are right now.  He made explosives and drove over the George Washington Bridge.  But thanks to intelligence lawfully gathered under this law, he was prevented from carrying out the attack.


Today, with the international terrorist threat decentralized and increasingly online, it is more important than ever that we have this capability.  Frequently, terrorists abroad plot against this country and are in contact with other terrorists in the United States. This is the key to prevention. We want to stop terrorist attacks before they occur.


I know that Section 702 has its critics.  But I believe that if people understood how the system worked, and what is at stake, they would demand that their representatives reauthorize this law.  So I want to be clear about this: Section 702 does not permit the targeting of any American anywhere, or even a foreigner who is likely in the United States. Congress needs to make sure that well intentioned but misinformed amendments don’t make it impossible to use the data we already have.


I was a Senator serving on the Judiciary Committee when this law was passed, and I can tell you that it was rigorously vetted and scrutinized.  It passed with nearly 70 votes in the Senate and nearly 300 votes in the House.  In 2012, Congress reauthorized it with even stronger support.  Both times it was completely bipartisan, and every court that has examined it has found it to be lawful.


Terrorists continue to plot against us, and there is no sign that this threat is going away.  The only question is whether we will be prepared.


At a time when our enemies are experimenting with new tools and tactics, we cannot unilaterally disarm ourselves.  We cannot afford to let this law expire.  And so I call upon Congress to once again reauthorize this law and ensure that the Intelligence Community does not lose this critical tool and insure we don’t go backwards.


In law enforcement, we are always adapting to the challenges of the moment.  We are always trying to hit a moving target.  But we get results.  People in this room have proven that.


I am confident that, if we take these steps I have outlined today, we will rise to meet whatever new challenges we will face—and we will keep the American people safe.


Thank you.



** Due to an error in the FBI's methodology, an earlier version of this speech incorrectly stated that the FBI had been unable to access 7,800 devices. The correct number will be substantially lower.

National Security
Updated May 23, 2018