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Remarks Prepared for Delivery by Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey at Farewell Ceremony


Washington, DC
United States

Good morning. Thank you all for being here.

Before I begin my remarks, I want to take a moment to specifically thank the Deputy Attorney General for his service to the Department. Although he knew from the start that he would serve only for a limited period, and although the confirmation process shortened that period even further, Mark willingly gave up a lifetime appointment as a federal judge for the good of the Department and the country. He has brought a first-class intelligence, wit, integrity and work ethic to the job, to the great benefit of the Department and of me personally. Although there won’t be a formal farewell ceremony for Mark, I wanted to announce today that I will be presenting him – in a private ceremony – with the Randolph award, which is the highest award I can bestow on a Department employee. Please join me in thanking Mark for his service.

I also want to thank my family, who regrettably will receive no formal award. My wife Susan, who has made great sacrifices in the past 14 months, not to speak of the sacrifices she made on my behalf before that; my daughter Jessica, who is here, and my son Marc, who regrettably could not be here. They have put up with both my absence and my occasionally distracted presence, as well as the inevitable tensions that go along with a public life – all without any of the psychic benefits that have accrued to me from serving here.

It was 14 months ago that I stood in this hall and took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution — the same oath taken by those who preceded me as Attorney General and by all attorneys and agents of the Department. In addition to taking the oath that day, I gave you a pledge – among other things, to use all the strength of my mind and body to help you continue to protect the freedom and security of the people of this country, and their civil rights and liberties; to take the counsel, not only of my own insights but also of yours; and to give you the leadership you deserved. I am not here to give you an accounting of whether I fulfilled that oath and that pledge – that is a task for others – but rather to thank you for helping me try to fulfill that oath and that pledge.

On that day, as now, the Great Hall was quite full. I was pleased at the time, although in retrospect much of what brought people here that day may have been simple curiosity: What’s the new guy going to be like? Today, I hope that some affection and perhaps respect may have a little more to do with the size of the crowd. But it may well be curiosity again. Can the Attorney General get through a speech and remain vertical?

When I arrived here 14 months ago, I was very much the newcomer to this building. Although I had served as an Assistant United States Attorney many years ago, I had never served here at Main Justice. I learned, of course, that although this building has a sign that reads "Department of Justice" on the outside, the Department is much more than what occurs here in Washington, important as that is (and I will get to that in a moment). The army that is the Department of Justice operates principally in the field rather than at headquarters. To most of the American people, the face of Justice – and that is "justice" with both a capital and a lower-case "J" – is what they see happening in their own communities rather than what happens here.

That includes what the American people see in the work of the prosecutors and law enforcement officers who make up this Department – at the FBI, the ATF, the DEA, the Marshals Service, and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices. It also includes the activities of those who operate out of the public eye but on whom much of our safety and security depends – for example, the men and women at the Bureau of Prisons who deal with the once notorious but now too often forgotten members of our society.

I tried during my tenure, brief though it was, to venture outside Main Justice and to visit as many components, agencies and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices as I could. During each of those visits, I found as talented and dedicated a group as one could imagine, and I came away thankful that these are the people who are the face of Justice to most of the outside world.

In this building, of course, I found no less. I had the great, if sometimes daunting, pleasure to work alongside a group of the most talented legal professionals anyone could ever hope to work with – people who could have led more comfortable lives in the private sector, certainly more lucrative and less stressful lives but, who chose instead to apply their considerable talents and abilities here with high hearts and high standards. For that too, I am deeply grateful, both as a DOJ colleague and as an American.

It has been an eventful 14 months, some events entirely satisfying, others perhaps less so – but all with some form of satisfaction. In the first category, we helped to set up an institutional framework that will protect our national security while preserving our nation’s commitment to civil rights and civil liberties. We helped to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to address modern forms of communication used by our enemies, and to plug other intelligence gaps. And we put in place new, consolidated guidelines for domestic FBI operations. Those guidelines will help the Bureau to remain the first-class crime solving agency it always has been. They also will continue its transformation into a first-class intelligence-gathering organization and a full-fledged member of the intelligence community that has helped assure that this country has not suffered a terrorist attack since September 11, 2001.

Another event in the first, entirely satisfying, category was the Department’s part in last November’s historic elections. The Department plays a major role in ensuring both access to the ballot and the integrity of the ballot, so that elections reflect the will of the people, and so that all Americans can maintain confidence in our system of government. That work is not only important, but also, in its own way, perilous. It is obvious to the point of tautology to say elections are inherently political events, but with that comes a not always obvious danger that we ourselves can be drawn into partisan territory.

Yet we managed to navigate these perils successfully by doing what we do best: by disregarding the political pressures and inevitable criticisms, and by going only where, and so far as, the facts and law led us. Although Election Day is just that -- a day – for that one day to go smoothly, as this past election largely did, requires years of careful planning and hard work by many people in the Department, from the Civil Rights Division to the Criminal Division, from the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to the FBI.

As I suggested a few moments ago, not all of the news over the last 14 months was good news. We heard allegations, and saw revelations, of politically influenced functioning within the Department, principally in hiring, and of other deviations from established procedures and acceptable professional standards. Thankfully, we can draw a measure of satisfaction even from these painful episodes. After all, many of the revelations and solutions came from within the Department itself. And, in those cases where investigations have been warranted, the Department has shown that it is capable of conducting the necessary review of the conduct and practices of its own people and of others.

We have also responded to these troubling allegations by changing policies and procedures. We instituted rules that limit contact between the Department and the White House on ongoing cases; we restored the role of career lawyers in making hiring decisions in the Honors and Summer Law Intern Programs; and we took steps to ensure that hiring and recruitment decisions throughout the Department take place on the merits, and without regard for any improper consideration, be it politics, age, race or sexual orientation.

As a result of these reforms, I am confident that the Department is thriving today, and that the institutional problems we identified will not recur. As a result of these reforms, distracting outside criticism has waned, and attention has returned to where it should be: to the valuable and skillful work that all of you are doing, and have always done.

As we take the steps necessary to correct past errors, we should heed two important lessons. First, we can take justifiable pride in the fact that the Justice Department’s own mechanisms and institutions have dealt, and can deal, with these problems. Second, as we do that, we should take care to deal both firmly and fairly – with due regard not only for how decisions may appear in the relative calm of peace, perfect hindsight and unlimited time for rumination, but also how they might have appeared amid the turmoil and risk that prevailed at the time some of them were made.

Here, I speak principally, although not exclusively, of decisions made by national security lawyers both inside and outside the Department. The pressure on these lawyers in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, was immense: The time was short, the stakes were high, and they were asked – by people across the political spectrum – to provide maximum legal flexibility to policymakers and operators.

It is hardly surprising that some of the decisions these lawyers made under those circumstances were wrong and, when viewed later in comparative calm, called for correction – which the Department itself did. But it is one thing to review and, when appropriate, to correct a lawyer’s work; it is another thing altogether to subject that work to second guessing without appreciation for the circumstances or good faith in which it was done. Long term, that kind of scrutiny will only make it more difficult for lawyers to provide the candid legal advice that policy makers need, and more difficult for the Department to attract lawyers who will give such advice.

Those are just a few of the matters we have dealt with in the last 14 months. It would take all of my remaining days in office to list the accomplishments and successes you have achieved during that time. It would take even more time for me to thank individually each person in the Department who deserves it. And even if I tried, I would inevitably neglect to thank someone who was truly deserving. So let me say to everyone listening: If, as I said and as I believe, the Department is thriving today, with both spirits and standards high, it is because of the talent and dedication of each of you, many of whom served long before I got here and many of whom – thankfully – will continue to serve long after I have left.

In a few days, new leadership will take charge of the Department. Some of their policies and priorities may differ from my own and from those of the administration in which I've served. That is entirely natural and in the normal course. We have administrations in this country, not regimes. Regardless of what differences of policy one administration may have from another, you help assure that they administer a system of making policy choices within the law.

My fondest wish for my successor, and my full expectation, is that whatever policies and priorities are implemented in the next 14 months and beyond, you who administer and enforce the law at the Department will be seen to have done so with the same scrupulous devotion to principled decision that I saw you maintain in the last 14 months.

For that, for the help you have provided me, and for the service you have given and will continue to give to all Americans, I thank you and wish the best of luck to you and to the friends and families whose sacrifices have enabled you to serve.

May god bless each of you, this great Department, and this wonderful country.

Updated April 23, 2021