WASHINGTON – Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) thanked his fellow Justice Department employees for their "sacrifice" and service on Friday as he prepared to leave the helm of the law enforcement agency.
"Today I'm here for one purpose and for a single purpose alone — to thank you for your service to the United States," Ashcroft said. "We are coming to a crossroads on an extraordinary journey of justice for this department and our nation. It's been a journey of unanticipated challenge, of uncommon sacrifice, but our passage has been made easier by the vision that guides us — a vision of freedom, human dignity, a vision for America and for the generations of Americans yet to come."
The former Missouri senator recently announced his resignation, saying he would not serve as the country's top law enforcer for another four years during President Bush's second term.
The president has chosen White House counsel Alberto Gonzales (search), responsible for writing many of the country's most stringent anti-terror laws now being enforced, to fill the position. Gonzales must be confirmed by the Senate to take this post.
Ashcroft likened the dedication of service and perseverance of the law enforcement officers and staff working under him to that of the first men to cross Antarctica, whom, he said, "triumphed against all odds."
More than 100 years later, the men and women of the Justice Department have prevailed over "the most savage attack on America in history," Ashcroft said, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks (search), and have prevented another such attack from hitting America's soil
"You have enhanced the freedom of Americans at precisely the time when our freedoms are under attack," he said. "Some said freedom was the price we'd pay for our security but here we are, three years later — a freer nation than we were before."
Ashcroft, who has been highly criticized for the way he has enforced various laws such as the controversial Patriot Act, said Sept. 11 was a lesson to Americans everywhere that their values and human dignity must be defended and that the law enforcement community everywhere — on the local, state and federal level — stepped up to the plate to shoulder that responsibility.
One dominant criticism of the law enforcement community following the attacks that left more than 3,000 people dead was that the various levels of government didn't talk to each other enough and share information that could help prevent such attacks. But lessons have been learned and changes have been made since then, Ashcroft said.
"Barriers that once separated group from group, career from non-career ... barriers have given way to a new understanding of our mutual dependence, interdependence," he said. "We've learned from hard experience that the burden of protecting the nation cannot be a burden borne singularly ... [and that] leadership in the defense of freedom does not come exclusively from Washington."
Other than preventing another terror attack on the homeland, Ashcroft cited other law enforcement success stories, such as the capturing of the Beltway snipers, whose shooting spree killed or injured 14 people in October 2002. He also noted that violent crime rates are at a notable low and hailed the government's war on drugs, saying headway is being made in keeping youth from "gateway drugs" like marijuana.
"When we can help graduate young people from adolescent to adult, absent of a drug habit ... it's a gift to the future of the nation," the attorney general said.
In other success stories, the department's corporate fraud task force has charged more than 900 violators in 400 cases, while more than 500 individuals been convicted of corporate crime to date, including top executives "who we have shown are not beyond the law," Ashcroft said.
"From the mailroom to the boardroom, we have insisted on integrity in the marketplace," he added.
The government has also helped prosecute human traffickers, he noted, saying that from fiscal year 2001 to 2003, 440 individuals have been charged with criminal civil rights violations and 210 new human trafficking investigations have been opened — double the number from the previous three fiscal years.
But by far, the most notable successes have come in preventing another Sept. 11-type attack and taking the War on Terrorism to the terrorists, Ashcroft stressed. Al Qaeda (search) operatives and suspects such as the so-called Lockawanna Six (search) are others nabbed from New York to Oregon, Virginia and Ohio, are off the streets.
"As we gather this morning, we gather in a nation that has not been attacked and the reason why is not a mystery; Al Qaeda has not lost a thirst for blood. Al Qaeda has not declared an amnesty on what they declare to be 'infidels.' We know terrorists will strike when and if they can. For three years, terrorists have not struck at America because you and people that work with you in this law enforcement community have not let them."
To date, 375 people have been charged with terrorist-related activity as a result of these investigations, he said, and 195 of those have entered guilty pleas.
"This morning, our nation is safe because you answered the call. ... I join with all Americans in saying 'thank you,'" Ashcroft said in closing his remarks. "Like earlier generations of Americans, you set out to defend your nation and like those generations, you're succeeding."