PREPARED REMARKS OF ATTORNEY GENERAL ALBERTO R. GONZALES AT THE
NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF ATTORNEYS GENERAL SUMMER MEETING
Good morning. I am grateful to be here as this organization celebrates its 100 year anniversary. Much has changed during your history. Indeed, when my position was created in the Judiciary Act of 1789, it was a part time job. The law creating the Department of Justice was not passed until some 80 years later.
Like you, my current representatives cover a wide range of issues and challenges. This morning I want to inform you of the four areas that I intend to focus most of my personal attention on during the remaining 18 months of the Bush Administration.
In these, as in many other areas, I will need your help, your leadership and your advice. First, I want to tell you that I have not forgotten about the images of the burning World Trade Center Towers or the frantic goodbye calls between loved ones on September 11, almost six years ago. We, you and I, have made America safer but we are not yet safe. The threats to America have evolved, our adversaries are patient, determined and smart. Working with state and local partners, the Department will continue to focus on protecting our country from terrorism.
Second, I do not think it is possible to achieve the American dream if people live behind closed doors in fear for their safety. While we have enjoyed record low violent crime rates as a general matter across the country for several years, there have been recent trends that concern me. For this reason, last fall I directed an 18-city tour where DOJ officials met with state and local leaders to discuss possible causes.
Among other things, we have learned that it is too easy in this country for people to acquire firearms that should not have them, particularly our youth. We are working already with local communities and with our international partners to address the problem of gangs. But I want to ask your help with respect to a related issue highlighted by the Virginia Tech tragedy.
In response to the shootings at Blacksburg in April, President Bush directed Secretaries Michael Leavitt and Margaret Spellings and myself to travel to communities across our nation and to meet with educators, mental health experts, law enforcement and state and local officials to discuss the broader issues raised by the tragedy.
Some of the discussions focused on how to increase the effectiveness of current federal firearms regulation. One answer is NICS.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System – known as “NICS” is a vital but underutilized law-enforcement tool. It is the mechanism that allows federal firearms licensees to do instant background checks on gun purchasers. It provides access to nationwide databases, ensuring that one state’s information about a warrant or other disqualifying information can be available when a prohibited person tries to buy a firearm in a different state.
But only 23 states currently provide to the NICS information on persons disqualified from possessing firearms for reasons related to mental health. Even some of those that do provide information, only provide very few records, some as few as one.
For the NICS to be most effective in keeping firearms out of the wrong hands, all states will need to understand the full scope of existing federal laws and submit, or make available, appropriate information to the NICS about people prohibited due to mental health history.
ATF Director Mike Sullivan recently sent a letter to all state Attorneys General about this. And I am here to emphasize how important it is that state governments prioritize and address legal and financial barriers to submitting all relevant disqualifying information to the NICS.
This may require some states to evaluate whether changes or modifications to their laws are necessary. To that end, the Department of Justice can help states develop procedures or policies that accommodate the various privacy and other state laws that may be impediments to providing information. This will enable all states to provide all appropriate information to the NICS, so that required background checks are thorough and complete while still protecting patient privacy.
I look forward to working with all of you on this front. Please do not hesitate to let us know how to help you, so that together we can ensure the effectiveness of existing federal firearms laws.
The third issue I want to discuss is one that I know this group is thinking about and dealing with already, and that’s protecting our kids from pedophiles, predators and online child pornographers.
I know that you kicked off this meeting with an afternoon of sessions that included the subject of protecting our children from online predators. I was heartened to see it emphasized on your agenda because I believe that this is an issue which can define us – not only as public servants, but as a society.
After all, a community’s most basic responsibility is the protection of its most young and vulnerable.
This issue is important to me – both as Attorney General and as a father.
The statistics are alarming. The threat posed to our children, just in cyberspace – which is the new frontier for the depraved people who seek to hurt our kids – was highlighted by a national survey, released last year, conducted by University of New Hampshire and researchers for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). It revealed that one in seven young Internet users received unwanted sexual solicitations or approaches in the previous year. One in three of those that received an unwanted solicitation described the contact as an aggressive sexual solicitation, which threatened to spill over into “real life” because the solicitor asked to meet the youth in person, called him or her on the telephone, or sent him or her offline mail, money, or gifts.
But there is more behind my concern than shocking statistics.
Because, while numbers can impact our thoughts and even change our priorities, they don’t change a person.
Seeing images of actual children being brutally violated …
Seeing a digital film of an infant being raped…
Seeing these and other images and films that are downloaded from the Internet and viewed by sick individuals over and over…
That changes a person.
It changed me. And it I am going to do what I can, working with you, to stop these crimes.
Shortly after becoming Attorney General, I visited the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section. The chief of the section introduced me to a branch of crime that is easily neglected because it is so tempting to look away… it is so very difficult to look at and it is even difficult to hear about.
It was an orientation I will never forget. I saw video of a father sexually assaulting his daughter who was no older than 5 or 6. I saw an infant, screaming, bound by towels, as a grown man defecated on him.
You can’t see such images and not act – especially when we know that these images are being endlessly exchanged thousands of times over on the Internet.
I know that you are already doing a lot to safeguard the innocence of our children through enforcing your state laws. I know that even those of you who do not have jurisdiction over criminal law are assisting in this effort by offering leadership and visibility. Thank you and God Bless you for this.
But we probably all can agree that we all need to do even more … because quite honestly, what we are presently doing is not enough. It is not enough for us to become educated about child exploitation. It is not enough for us to be sickened. It is not enough for us to condemn. This is a national problem, requiring a national dialogue and creative thinking.
As you know, the Department of Justice has created Project Safe Childhood in an effort to do just this. We are now asking that everyone who has the power to help protect our kids join together in building a foundation for a national, zero-tolerance attitude towards pedophiles and sexual predators. How do we do this together?
This means encouraging prosecutors to be aggressive in the cases they bring. When it comes to hurting kids, there is no gray area and our prosecutions should reflect that.
We must insist that no lead will ever cross the threshold of a U.S. Attorney’s Office, District or State Attorney’s office, local police precinct or advocacy center without some kind of follow-up and action. If there is evidence that a child has been hurt, there needs to be a thorough investigation and if there is enough evidence, an arrest and strong prosecution.
We have heard time and time again from state and local investigators and prosecutors that investigations of these crimes would be greatly aided by increased data retention by Internet Service Providers. That’s why I asked a working group within the Department to look at this issue, and we're working hard on ways to remedy this problem. I appreciate your support on the issue of data retention; I hope we can continue to make significant strides in investigative practices in the future.
We must seek stiff penalties for these criminals. This may include encouraging your state legislature to change your state laws.
If your state penalties are already more aggressive than federal penalties, cases should be brought at the state level. If the federal law will put a pedophile behind bars for longer, it should be brought as a federal case. I have encouraged the U.S. Attorney community to work with your prosecutors to make that happen.
Working together does work.
I know that Project Safe Childhood has been a catalyst for cooperation in Mississipi, for example. Attorney General Jim Hood is developing a Cyber Fusion Center and coordinating his efforts with US Attorneys Jim Greenlee and Dunn Lampton. Office space in the new center--to be opened in July--has been designated for the use of the Project Safe Childhood Coordinator while working jointly on projects with state investigators.
We are hopeful that the cooperation between local, state and federal officials in Mississippi can serve as an example for all of us in working together within Project Safe Childhood.
The importance of education is why I’m so proud of the partnership that the Department of Justice has with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Ad Council called “Think Before You Post.” It aims to educate teenage girls about the risk of online predators. The more these girls know about the threat, the more likely they will be to take steps to protect themselves by being careful about what they choose to share online.
The question of what we do with convicted sex offenders when they are released from prison is a critical one as well, and we are in the early stages of answering that question. For example, jut a few weeks ago – on the anniversary of Project Safe Childhood – the Department released proposed National Guidelines for Sex Offender Registration and Notification.
The proposed Guidelines are comprehensive. They describe when sex offenders need to register, the kinds of information they must provide, and for how long they need to update their information.
I hope that all of you will carefully review these proposed Guidelines and give us feedback. Your expertise can help us make the guidelines the best that they can be, and as strong as they must be.
When he talked about the importance of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King said that “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
That is still true today. For us to be silent on this issue is to fall short of our responsibilities as leaders of the battle to protect society’s most innocent and most vulnerable: our children.
As attorneys general, we have the power to educate and rally the law-enforcement community.
We should also be talking to parents, teachers and other community groups as often as we can. We should be learning from our partners and sharing what we learn with our communities. We should be teaching them how to recognize trends and signs of abuse, and how to take action if they suspect that a child is being abused.
This message needs to be heard at the local Chamber of Commerce meeting as much as it does at the school board meeting. Because every adult is responsible for protecting the next generation of children. And we can’t succeed in protecting them unless we establish a true zero-tolerance culture.
The fourth and final issue I want to mention today is my commitment to restore public trust and our efforts to fight corruption. Public corruption is the most dangerous poison for any democracy. Those of us in public office owe a special duty to the people we serve. When that trust is violated, there must be accountability. And whether you are in the State House or the White House, Congress or the State legislature, Democrat or Republican, I intend for the Department to follow the evidence of any wrongdoing.
I believe that is our solemn obligation as Attorneys General.
I know you are with me on all of these issues. That is why, today, we are brothers and sisters in a common cause – you and me, standing shoulder to shoulder, like sentinels at the watch.
May God bless and guide your important work, and may he continue to bless this great nation. Thank you.
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