Thursday, August 14, 2008
Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey at the ATF Headquarters Building Dedication
Thank you Mike, for that kind introduction and for your splendid leadership of the ATF.
It is a pleasure to be with you to help dedicate this impressive building. Depending on how you count, you could either say that you’ve been waiting 5 years for this building — since you joined the Justice Department in 2003; or you could say you’ve been waiting 36 years — since 1972, when the ATF, as we know it today, was formed as part of the Treasury Department.
Or perhaps you could say that you’ve been waiting for over 200 years. Not just because, as anyone who has ever done construction on a house can tell you, that’s how long it feels like any construction project takes, but also because that’s how far back this agency traces its history.
ATF dates back to the early days of the United States, when the very first Congress passed a tax on imported spirits to help pay debts accumulated during the Revolutionary War. The Department of the Treasury was assigned to administer that tax, in part because its Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, had recommended the legislation. Over the next 70 years, Congress passed a variety of taxes to raise revenue, and in 1863, it finally authorized the Treasury Department’s Office of Internal Revenue to hire “three detectives to aid in the prevention, detection and punishment of tax evaders.” Those first three detectives are, in many ways, your founding fathers.
And they set you off on the right foot. One of the major investigations of that day was led by those three men: working undercover, they broke up an outfit called the “Whiskey Ring,” a group of whiskey distillers and corrupt government officials who defrauded the government out of millions of dollars in annual revenue. Their investigation ultimately led to the convictions of 110 people, which is a big number even by today’s standards.
Fast-forward 55 years and others of your forefathers — known as “revenuers” — found themselves in the middle of Prohibition, with the task of investigating the illicit manufacture and distribution of liquor. It was during this time that Treasury Agent Eliot Ness and his team took on Al Capone, and significantly disrupted his criminal organization.
These agents, and many others, who preceded you showed the best characteristics of federal law enforcement: in the Whiskey Ring investigation, they showed determination and honor by following the facts where they led, even when they led to the highest levels of government. And when Ness assembled his team of agents, they were called “The Untouchables,” because they were dedicated, courageous, unwavering, and un-bribeable. It bears particular mention that that dedication and courage, and the aura that surrounded these agents, came at a great cost. If you look at the memorial wall outside, you will notice that by far the largest number of ATF agents killed in the line of duty were slain during the years of Prohibition.
From those first three investigators who cracked the Whiskey Ring, to the days of Eliot Ness’s Untouchables, to today, ATF has grown to operate 25 field divisions with 250 field and satellite offices that blanket the country, employing nearly 5,000 people. And though its name has changed quite a few times — it’s been called the Office of Internal Revenue, the Prohibition Unit, the Bureau of Industrial Alcohol, the Federal Alcohol Administration, and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division — its spirit has not changed: You are as dedicated, honorable, and courageous as those in whose footsteps you follow.
ATF’s mission — to prevent terrorism, reduce violent crime, and protect our nation — is right at the core of the Justice Department’s mission, which I’m sure is part of the reason that the transition from Treasury to Justice was as smooth as it was. But it is how you fulfill your mission that makes you such a vital part of the federal law enforcement community and such a respected member of the Justice Department family.
You work in partnership with state and local law enforcement to combat gangs and gun crime. Through your leadership of the Violent Crime Impact Teams and your efforts to launch and sustain the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative, ATF has built the bridges that enable us to stand with our local counterparts, presenting a united front against the plague of violent crime.
Again and again, you have proved you are willing and able to answer the call for help — as shown by high-profile cases including the DC sniper investigation, by your assistance during and after the tragedy at Virginia Tech, and by your leadership in the fight against gangs like MS-13.
But ATF’s experience and expertise extends far beyond these important violent crime enforcement efforts. ATF helps in the crucial effort to reduce gun trafficking and violence along our Southwest Border through programs like Operation Gunrunner; it helps protect the country by regulating the firearms and explosives industries; and it serves as the federal government’s expert in arson and bombing investigations.
Because of its expertise in explosives, ATF plays a crucial part of our country’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, both in protecting our troops from explosive devices and in training our foreign counterparts. And because of that expertise in explosives, ATF also has an indispensable role in the national effort to prevent terrorism.
I learned of that role even before I became Attorney General, when I presided over a trial relating to one of ATF’s biggest cases of recent history: the investigation into the 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center, which resulted in the arrest and prosecution of Omar Abdel Rahman and others. As the trial judge on that case, I heard months of testimony about the investigation by ATF and other agencies. I don’t think anyone could have listened to that testimony without coming away impressed by ATF’s abilities and the professionalism of its agents — I certainly didn’t, and I came away well impressed.
This building is a monument to all of ATF’s strengths and accomplishments, and it is appropriate that we celebrate those today. But even as we celebrate those accomplishments, it is crucial to remember that they have not come without a price. The building itself honors those who paid that price, with the beautiful memorial wall near the entrance, and the somber monument in the courtyard to your four brave colleagues who lost their lives at Waco. And as we dedicate this building today, it is important to remember those brave men and women, who gave their lives so that we could continue to lead ours.
It is equally important, however, to remember the many lives you have saved. So this building should stand also as a reminder of the many Americans who are still with us, and who we need not mourn, as a result of your valiant efforts.
I thank you for the work you do, and I know your country thanks you too.
Thank you very much.