Justice News

Attorney General William P. Barr Delivers Opening Remarks at the U.S. Attorney's Conference
Washington, DC
United States
~
Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good Morning, and thank you.

I want to thank Rob Hur and Zach Terwilliger, for bringing this Conference together. Thank you also to Jessie Liu, John Huber, and Jim Crowell for their leadership of the Attorney General’s Advisory Council (AGAC) and the Executive Office of U.S. Attorney’s (EOUSA). And of course, to Tim Garrison for a wonderful rendition of our National Anthem.

I also want to thank all of you, our United States Attorneys. As I told you when I came on board, I firmly believe that no finer complement of U.S. Attorneys has ever been assembled. The intervening months have only strengthened that conviction. I have met most of you individually and have seen the great results of all of your work up close, in specific cases and in the aggregate. It is a privilege to serve with you, and I look forward to working with all of you in the months ahead.

Much has changed here at Main Justice since last year’s U.S. Attorney’s Conference. You have this old Attorney General as your new Attorney General. The Department has also welcomed a new Deputy Attorney General, Jeff Rosen. Those of you have met and worked with Jeff will already know that he is a superlative lawyer with broad experience at senior government levels, as well as the private sector. He will make great contributions to the Department. We also have new leadership in the Associate’s Office, where Claire Murray now serves as Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General.

But while much has changed at the Department over the past year, much has also stayed the same. As I told you months ago, I support the prosecutorial priorities that Attorney General Sessions put in place. We remain focused on violent crime, drugs, immigration, and national security. There are also a number of specific initiatives AG Sessions established which I hope to continue and bolster. As I said on my first day back, it is “full speed ahead.”

Over the last several months, I have been struck by a contradiction that you no doubt experience every day. On the one hand, the Department’s law-enforcement efforts are at their all-time best. We have dedicated agents and Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSAs) working tirelessly to enforce federal law. You and your teams are exhausting all available resources to maximize our impact in individual communities and across the Nation. On the other hand, the threats we face are greater and more complex than ever. We still see persistent violent crime; growing national-security threats; record threats from illegal drug distribution; the increasing reach of transnational criminal organizations; and a crisis at our Southern Border — all despite the Department’s record-breaking efforts.

Much of what we are doing today is trying to make up ground that was lost as the result of inattention in the past. I assure you that with sustained efforts and firm resolve we will make up this ground and surmount these challenges. I want you to know that I support you and your teams and will do all I can to step up the fight.

One of these priorities has been fresh on my mind of late, and that is violent crime. We were all alarmed by the events last week in Dallas, Texas, where a disturbed veteran opened fire at the federal courthouse, including on three AUSAs and one of their children. We are fortunate that the would-be shooter was the only casualty. And I am proud of the response from the courthouse security, from the FBI, and from our U.S. Attorney’s Office under the leadership of Erin Nealy Cox.

The personal safety of our AUSAs is of the utmost concern to me, as it is to you. I have been closely focused on proposals by the AGAC to ensure the safety of our prosecutors. I assure you our AUSAs will have the authority and the tools they need to do their jobs effectively and to keep themselves and their families safe.

Today we are the lucky ones. Far too often I find myself sending condolence letters to the families of fallen law enforcement officers. Just in the past week or so, we have seen five officers killed in the line of duty, four of them shot by armed criminals. Police officers selflessly put their lives on the line to keep us safe. Attacks on them are attacks on all of us. These and other incidents are connected to an emerging willingness in some quarters of our society to countenance resistance to, and violence against, police officers. This Department will not tolerate violence against police, and we will do all we can to protect the safety of law enforcement officers.

We can all be rightly proud of this Administration’s record on violent crime. We have made impressive progress. But we must keep up a full court press. There are still areas of the country where we have not made sufficient headway. For many communities in America, armed criminals and violent crime are still the norm. We cannot accept this status quo.

That is why the Department remains committed to driving down violent crime, including through the vigorous prosecution of firearms offenses. I have been glad to see that prosecutions under § 922(g) are at an all-time high. We need to maintain our focus on getting illegal guns off the streets and out of the hands of violent criminals. I want all of our offices to work with their state and local partners on “Triggerlock” cases that take advantage of stiff federal penalties to punish and deter violent felons. I also want to see vigorous enforcement of the background-check process, both against prohibited persons who “lie and try” and against firearm dealers who skirt the process. We need to provide real deterrence. I look forward to working with all of you to step up our drive against gun crime.

As you all know, we also cannot reduce violent crime without confronting the role of gangs and other criminal organizations. Working with our state and local partners, we must keep sustained pressure on these groups, which are primary drivers of violent crime. Many of these criminal organization have national or transnational profiles, and thus require a coordinated federal strategy. We are already working with the AGAC and our national task force leaders on strategies for the top transnational threats. But whatever the scale, the Department needs to use all available tools to dismantle these groups and to disrupt their efforts. RICO is one powerful tool to neutralize violent criminal organizations, and I know some of you are using it very effectively. We should strive to duplicate those efforts across the country.

While I am talking about violent crime, I want to make clear that, while our focus is often on predatory violence, I am also deeply concerned about the rise in hate crimes that we have seen over the past decade. We must have zero tolerance for violence that is motivated by hatred for our fellow citizens — whether on the basis of their racial, religious, or sexual characteristics. We also need to take a strong stand against those who would use violence to intimidate people from exercising their rights to free speech and to participate in the democratic process.

In addition to guns and gangs, the other significant driver of violent crime is drug crime, which represents another priority for the Department. When I returned to the Department as Attorney General, it was disheartening to learn about the state of the drug problem across the country. In most respects, the problem is much worse than when I left the Department in 1993. I believe that the last Administration was not aggressive enough in fighting the drug threat; a lot of ground was lost; and a tsunami was allowed to build up that has been hitting the country.

We cannot be discouraged. When I look at the overdose deaths, the blighted lives, and the families and communities broken by drug addiction, it reminds me why we cannot surrender. We must work harder than ever.

I am proud that this Administration has shone a much-needed light on the opioid epidemic and that the Department has taken a number of dramatic steps to tackle this national crisis head on. And while there are encouraging signs of progress, our work is far from over. On the streets, the rise of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids has been followed by 100-times stronger car-fentanyl and by mixtures of fentanyl with cocaine and other drugs. We must also continue our efforts to prevent and punish diversion of licit drugs, another area where the Department has done great work. And, as you know, while opioids are the most acute problem in many areas of the country, in other areas Mexican methamphetamine is surging. We must keep fighting and keep innovating to match the ever-evolving threat.

We all know we face an unprecedented immigration crisis on our Southern Border. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is in the lead on tackling this problem. A lasting solution will require changing our laws, but in the meanwhile we must do all we can to support DHS. We have to continue our work prosecuting the illegal reentry cases that DHS refers. But even if we devoted every AUSA in the country to those cases, we would not resolve the crisis at our Southern border through prosecutions alone. That is why I am also working to address the problem through a surge of immigration judges, new Attorney General rulings, revised regulations in coordination with DHS, and a host of other measures. Most dramatically, the President has achieved a real breakthrough in our relations with Mexico, whereby the Mexican government is taking a series of critical measures to control the flow of illegal migration. Just the initial steps are starting to bite. There is a real prospect that these actions, along with efforts in Central America, will help us turn the corner.

National security must always be a top priority. The Department is fully committed to combatting terrorism, foreign intelligence threats, the theft of intellectual property by foreign adversaries, and cyber attacks. These efforts lie at the core of our sworn oath to defend the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

First, over the last decade, we have achieved extraordinary successes in combatting terrorist threats at home and abroad, but we can never let down our guard. We must use all available lawful means to neutralize terrorists in the United States or elsewhere we find them within our reach. The United States relies on many tools to combat international terrorism and the work of the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices has been a critical part of that effort. In appropriate cases, we will continue to prosecute terrorists as one important means to protect our citizens, by removing these deadly threats from the face of the map. 

Second, among the greatest threats to our national security are those posed by rival foreign powers. Foremost among these is China, which we know to have both a robust intelligence operation and an economic strategy that includes exploiting the intellectual property of our companies and citizens. We need to continue to pursue, and indeed step up, our China initiative. The threat of attack on our economic infrastructure, trade secrets and intellectual property is ever growing and we should be prepared to address it wherever we find it.

Finally, and relatedly, we remained focused on the growing and evolving cyber threat. In the twenty-first century, an increasing proportion of crime is cyber crime, as the dark web has become a black market of contraband that fuels criminal endeavors of all kinds. As organized crime becomes increasingly transnational, we see more and more crime move online. We have resources to address the cyber threats we face, but we must ensure that we use these resources efficiently to operate in an environment that grows increasingly vast and challenging.

As I alluded to earlier, there are also a number of other focused initiatives that I hope to see continue and strengthen during my tenure. For me, the elder-fraud initiative provides a great example for how the Department can use its resources with a high return. Not only is the elderly population among our most vulnerable citizens, but we are learning more and more about the role of foreign and transnational criminal organizations in perpetrating these schemes. Another area I want see us redouble our efforts is in prosecuting human trafficking violations, especially those involving children. We are working with the AGAC and several components on initiatives to step up the fight in this area.

That should give you a sense of my views on the priorities of the Department. But my charge today is not for you go out into the field and to maximize prosecutions in each of these categories. You will always need to strike a balance. And as you do, here are a few things to keep in mind:

First, in a Department like ours, the notion of priorities should not be confused. We have an obligation to enforce federal law, and that means covering all of the bases as best we can. If we say that the Department will prioritize violent crime prosecutions, we know that this cannot mean we ignore civil-rights violations or environmental crimes. We must try our best to enforce federal law across the board with the limited resources we have.

A necessary corollary is that federal prosecutors must exercise sound discretion to strike a balance. This balance requires that each of you adapt the Department’s general priorities to the specific circumstances of your districts. Thus, while opioids represent the greatest drug threat in many districts, others face greater problems with methamphetamines or cocaine. And while transnational criminal organizations may be the primary driver of violent crime in one city, another may struggle with more localized, home-grown groups. Our Department priorities are never intended to take your eyes off the leading problems in your district, including the great work of your civil divisions, which protect government resources by defending the United States and rooting out fraud against the government. Each of you is responsible for determining where we can have the biggest impact in advancing the safety and well-being of your communities.

Once we have decided where to dedicate our resources, we must do so efficiently. Tenacity is often a great attribute, but you must also be prepared to redirect efforts when prudence so dictates. We must remain thoughtful and objective in our analysis of the merits of an investigation, and to be nimble enough to reassess as circumstances change. Knowing when to drive on and when to redirect your limited resources is a critical part of leadership.

Third, we must take ownership and accept accountability for our decisions. Every indictment that comes out of your office bears your name and, as you know well, is your responsibility. It also ultimately reflects on the people who stand beside you in the U.S. Attorney community and all of us who work in the Department of Justice. That is a grave responsibility, but an essential one, because the legitimacy of our work depends on accountability, all the way up the chain from the line AUSA to me as Attorney General.

There is an inscription in my office, which I pass several times each day: “The United States wins its point whenever justice is done its citizens in the courts.” A prosecutor wields extraordinary power over his fellow citizens even when no criminal case is brought. Almost 80 years ago, Robert Jackson gave his well-known address “The Federal Prosecutor” to the U.S. Attorney’s Conference. If you have not read it in a while, you should before you head back home. Therein, Jackson describes the awesome power of the federal prosecutor and calls for a commitment to fairness and decency. We must always play fair in our efforts to bring criminal prosecutions or litigate on behalf of the United States.

Fairness must inform all that we do. After all, the whole concept of our American constitution was to establish a Government that could serve the common good while checking government power to protect individual liberty. And that is the Constitution we are sworn to support and defend. As you carry out your mission, I rely on you to lead wisely, hold those who injure the public accountable, and zealously represent the United States in court, while at the same time maintaining unshakable confidence in the rule of law and justice for all. That is your charge, and I know that you embrace it willingly, and well.

Thank you.

Updated June 26, 2019