Department of Justice Seal

Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
U.S. Attorneys Conference
New York City
October 1, 2002

(Please note: the Attorney General often deviates from prepared remarks)


     In the early summer of 1941, as London endured the worst bombing of the Blitz, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered this message of solidarity and defiance to the people of Great Britain: "We, too, born to freedom, and believing in freedom, are willing to fight to maintain freedom. We, and all others who believe as deeply as we do, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees."

     Over sixty years later, it's difficult to think of a phrase that better describes the path America has taken against the tyranny of terrorism - to risk dying on our feet rather than living on our knees. When enemies of liberty struck this nation one year and 20 days ago, we had choices: Either succumb to fanatics who seek to extinguish political and religious freedom, fanatics who would enslave women, corrupt education and kill Americans wherever and whenever they can; or we had the option to fight in defense of lives and liberties - freedom to speak, freedom to worship, the freedom to educate boys and girls, freedom to work, and the freedom from fear.

     For our nation, and all others who believe as deeply as we do, we've chosen to fight. Our cause - the American cause - is the defense of liberty itself.

     Despite the urgency of our responsibility, and the nobility of our labor, the historical defense of liberty has not always been easy, and it hasn't always been without controversy. In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln worried aloud if there were not in all republics an "inherent and fatal weakness," wondering whether democratic government must, of necessity, either be, quote, "too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?"

     History has answered this question.

     Chief Justice William Rehnquist has noted that the American experience, hard won over the course of our history, is a history of progressive strengthening of rights and liberties, even in times of war. What Lincoln feared as an "inherent and fatal weakness" has proven to be our greatest strength. For 226 years, in peace and in war, America has cherished liberty enough to remain strong, and remained strong enough to cherish liberty.

     Today, America confronts a war against liberty like no other that we have even seen - it is a chaotic conflict that endangers not just our soldiers abroad but imperils our citizens at home; an enemy that lives among us, turning our freedoms into the means of freedom's destruction. In response to this new war, America has once again arisen to the defense of liberty.

     Our actions are firmly rooted in the Constitution, secure in historical and judicial precedent, and consistent with the laws passed by the Congress. Nevertheless, our actions have been met in some quarters with disdain and ridicule.

     America is a nation that guarantees political freedom, self-governance, and open, honest debate. Even when our very way of life is challenged, the means and method of our nation's defense is an essential part of our ongoing democratic dialogue. We welcome this debate. And in that spirit, it is our responsibility to consider how those who criticize our actions would have us respond to the terrorism that struck on September 11 and continues to threaten the United States.

     In the post-September 11 world of our critics, virtually all of the new tools Congress has passed and the administration has authorized would be off-limits.

     You know this familiar drumbeat. I could go on.

     Our critics seem to think that business-as-usual - doing what was done before - and nothing more - would keep America safe from terrorists. As my grandfather used to say, "I've sawed this board off four times and it's still too short." If we keep on doing the same thing, we cannot be surprised by the same results. History instructs us that caution and complacency are not defenses of freedom: caution and complacency are a capitulation before freedom's enemies - the terrorists. While we always assiduously respect civil liberties and rights; do not become timid or shrink from your duties because of slings and arrows in the public arena.

     The critics call for a return to a culture of inhibition, which, in fact, existed prior to September 11, 2001. It was a culture whose law gave terrorists a technological advantage over law enforcement. For decades, both Congresses and successive administrations erected artificial walls that stifled cooperation between the intelligence and law enforcement communities. It was a culture that so sharply focused on investigations of past crimes that it limited the prevention of future terrorism.

     Congress recently heard testimony about this stifling culture of inhibition that prevailed in government in the months and years before September 11. FBI agents were confronted with a culture and climate of legal barriers to cooperation with intelligence officials. This climate was so strong that they even began to perceive barriers where none existed. Legal hurdles erected in Washington were so numerous and so high that agents in the field repeatedly tried and failed to do what needed to be done - and then eventually stopped trying - to overcome the barriers.

     Under the leadership of President Bush, the Department of Justice has not been complacent - nor has it been content to maintain the legislative and administrative restrictions that hampered our ability to prevent September 11.

     And out of the ashes of that day, we have rededicated ourselves to thinking anew and acting anew in defense of the American people. We have fought for and won law enforcement tools together with the Congress. We have restructured the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We have provided new guidance to investigators, and new mechanisms of cooperation between federal, state and local officials. Where a culture of inhibition once reigned, we have built a new ethos of justice, one rooted in cooperation, nurtured by coordination, and focused on a single, overarching goal: the prevention of terrorist attacks. We always have done this framed by the guarantor of American freedom, the Constitution of these United States.

     It now falls to you, our United States Attorneys, to seize this moment in history -- to grasp the tools that are now available, that have been provided and that will make our calling to prevent terrorism a reality.

     Our responsibility - and our privilege - is unique. In prosecuting terrorism we occupy a difficult intersection between national security and traditional law enforcement. We must do our jobs with the utmost attention to the quality of the investigations we conduct and the cases we prepare. We must use all lawful means to prevent terrorism. And we must act with excellence. There are no second chances in the campaign to prevent another September 11. If we fail in our responsibility to secure justice, we invite more than the risk of additional criminality. Failure risks the security of our nation and the survival of freedom.

     Our prevention strategy is working. Today our law enforcement offensive against terrorism is making America safer. So when you return to your responsibilities across America, do not return to the old days and old ways of law enforcement. Use the tools for prevention that Congress and the Administration provided and the tactics for protecting Americans that we are defending. Reject the dusty old notion that it can't happen in my backyard. It can. And you and I are accountable for the defense of our neighbors. In this, the calling of our time, let us be unrelenting.

     After a year of this war, I want to burn three lessons in your conscientiousness about our new strategy for prevention.

     We have conducted the largest investigation in history; disrupting and punishing possible terrorist related activity throughout the United States. It's working. Let me note just a few instances:

     At our borders: INS agents tightened security. Over 500 aliens arrested. 431 deported.

     Overall criminal charges: 131 individuals charged. 94 already found guilty. You have been working - and working well. We have designated 39 entities as terrorist organizations. Frozen the financial assets of 62 organizations that support terrorism. We've investigated and disrupted the finances of terrorist connected groups and individuals through the Terrorism Financing Task Force.

     Despite these successes, law enforcement's new anti-terrorism tools are sometimes scorned and actively undermined. Those who believe Americans - and American liberties - had adequate protection on September 11, 2001 are seeking to roll back our defenses of the past year. We cannot risk damaging the security of the United States by publicizing the names of those detained in our investigation, or by allowing the potential release of individuals the President, pursuant to his war powers, has designated as enemy combatants, or by re-erecting the barriers blocking law enforcement and intelligence community cooperation.

     These actions may be advocated in the name of American liberty; but they do not, in my judgment, advance the cause of liberty. For liberty is not Abraham Lincoln's feared "inherent weakness" for which we must die, on the contrary, liberty is the eternal strength for which we must fight and for which we must prevail.

     And fight to secure liberty we will. In Congress, in the courts and in the media, we must defend our ability to prevent terrorism, to preserve freedom, and to protect the American people.

     On December 9th, 1941, six months following his message of solidarity with Great Britain, and two days after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation from the Oval Office. The day before, America had declared war on Japan. In two days, we would be at war with Germany. Roosevelt said, "The true goal we seek is far above and beyond the ugly field of battle. When we resort to force, as now we must, we are determined that this force shall be directed toward ultimate good, as well as against immediate evil. "

     This Justice Department will never sacrifice the ultimate good to fight the immediate evil. But we will defend to the fullest and utilize to the utmost our ability to prevent acts of terrorism. We will fight as generations of Americans before us have fought. And with your leadership and with God's grace, America will endure long after the evil that threatens us has been vanquished; a nation safer, stronger and more free.

     Thank you for your work, your sacrifice and your leadership. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.