"Securing Liberty," a Greater Issues address by John Ashcroft
March 8, 2007
McAlister Field House
It is kind of you to welcome me, and let me first of all—before I begin my remarks in a formal sense—thank you for being here and express my appreciation and thanks to the great heritage that this institution offers both to you and to the people of the United States of America. It is my firm conviction and belief that the values expressed in this institution are the values that are important to the success, the survival, the freedom, the liberties of the people of the United States of America. And I am grateful to you for investing yourselves in those values and to this institution for making its commitment to the values which will provide a basis for America's continued greatness. Thank you very much.
I happen to believe that the transmission of values from one generation to the next is the single most important responsibility of any society or culture, and with that in mind, it just doubles my admiration for you and what you've done.
Thank you for the kind introduction. You didn't mention any of the elections I'd lost or any of the big problems I had encountered. You didn't tell everyone here that I'm the only person ever to have lost a United States senate seat to a deceased opponent, and I just think that's mighty generous of you. But in the interest of full disclosure, and because I'm here to make a set of remarks to the Free Enterprise Group's ethics seminar tomorrow, I should tell you a few things like that. But rather than dwell on defeat, I want you to know that the opportunity to serve, the opportunity to serve your country, your family, your communities is a noble enterprise. And I would even suggest that the opportunity to serve in tough times is a greater opportunity than those who might not have that particular privilege. It is not always known when we enter upon an enterprise whether or not the opportunity will be one that has special challenges or not. None of us knows the future and some of us, even though we majored in history, are not as complete in our knowledge of the past as we ought to be.
But there is a bit of the past that I might just speak to you about tonight because I think it has become a dividing point in American culture that relates to the way in which we defend the freedoms and the liberties of the American community.
It was a Tuesday morning. It was what we called a severe clear just for the fun of it. Early in the fall. You know 9-11—you probably remember how it felt to you. I certainly remember how it felt to me as I went to climb aboard the small jet the Justice Department was providing for me as I was carrying out a mission sent my way by the president to the United States to go and emphasize the value of literacy to students across the country. The president was reading to students in Florida, and I was on my way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to be a part of a fifth grade class there and involve myself in sharing and emphasizing the value of literacy.
As we were approaching the eastern edge of Lake Michigan, I heard the voice bark out of the cockpit toward those of us in the cabin of the small jet: "General, call the command center at the Justice Department."
Not inordinately unusual—I mean that happened from time to time that I was asked to call the command center. But it was a telephone call that changed my life. I won't burden you with the details of the call except to say that when I finished the call I looked at my staff, and I said, “The world will never be the same.”
Little did I understand fully how profound the change would be and how the change would profoundly affect the way in which the United States would defend itself. I tried to get the pilot to reverse our direction in the air, and he said we had inadequate fuel to make it back to Washington. So we landed, refueled, climbed back into the air, were counseled to stop on several occasions but made our way back to Washington. We were held outside the city because no one was being allowed to enter unescorted the airspace of Washington, D.C. I thought how nice it was that they're interested in my safety to send this fighter jet to make sure that I got there. But the truth is had our airplane made the wrong turn that day, someone else would be talking to you all this evening.
I landed, and we went immediately, well, we started towards what's called the “undisclosed location.” I think some of you have heard about that—where you have the potential for continuity of government when very serious things may disrupt the otherwise tranquility of the operations of government. The traffic was so congested that I ordered the car turned around, and we went immediately to the strategic intelligence operations center at the FBI. And frankly, I spent the next 60 days in that unit. On the second day, however, when the president had returned to Washington—he was kept out of the city and should have been kept out of the city while uncertainty was the condition of our awareness, and he came back—we had a very small meeting. I believe it was in the Oval Office or sometimes these meetings blended into the situation room, and the president turned in my direction and said rather forthrightly, "Never let this happen again."
It's the kind of thing you wanted to say. It's the kind of thing Americans were saying. It was the kind of response to the trauma of 9-11 that all of us felt. But it represented a significant change, a reorientation, an organizing principle that would literally galvanize my existence for the next three and half years, for the Justice Department had been an institution that looked back in order to prosecute activities, to retaliate for things that had been done in the past. The idea of prosecution is the idea of recreating the past in a courtroom in order to be able to prove the responsibility of some party and then the punishment of those parties. It's looking back. It's to remediate or to fix things that went wrong. And when the president said never let this happen again, he was talking—as we were all talking and thinking prospectively—that our effort had to be addressing the future by way of prevention, rather than the past by way of retaliation. Pretty easy understandable concept.
A couple of problems, though, about anticipating the future as compared to recreating the past. Recreating the past is a little bit like putting together a puzzle that you might drag off the shelf on a dreary fall afternoon if it's too wet and cold and damp to go outside and throw the football around. It might be something that you look at the top of the box and say, “Yes, this is the way it was and this is the way we ought to be able to reassemble it.”
Anticipating the future, however, is something vastly different. It's as if you had 10,000 puzzles dumped onto the floor of your living room and all the box tops had been burned because the scenarios had not yet transpired. It's a process of anticipating a scenario and as something that might be very damaging is about to come into existence. It's interrupting the coagulation or the assemblage of those pieces to make sure that they are defaulted and they do not happen. Well, there are lots of consequences that attend this commitment to interrupt the future rather than to recreate the past and they're necessitated by the way in which the world has changed. And I'd like to make a couple of quick points, and I'm very sorry that I'm going to rush through things here. I'm sure you're not sorry about that, but I have to rush through this.
Both the lethality—the destruction capacity of things—and the deliverability of weaponry have changed the face of conflict. They've changed it in a couple of ways. The amount of damage that can be done is incredibly greater than it once was. Think about the onset of this republic. If you read the 1776 book that tells about what happened at the beginning of the conflict for our independence, you remember people standing on the hills of Boston watching the British fleet as it made progress, and them saying sort of things like, “Boy, there come the British fleet. They'll be here if the wind doesn't change by later this evening. Let's go get a cup of coffee.”
You know, it was almost that way. When a person walked into the room, if they walked in with a satchel in the 1770s, at the time of the onset of the Republic, perhaps with black powder in the satchel a hundred years before dynamite had even been developed, perhaps they could have given everybody a pretty serious fright in the room—maybe some damage, injuries, maybe some people would have died. But the capacity of a single individual or a small institution was rather a small, slow, deliberate capacity, and as a result, we began the nation understanding or with the feeling that threats to the nation came from other nation states. Technology has changed the both speed or the deliverability of weaponry and the lethality of those weaponry, that weaponry so that now it can be delivered so quickly and it is so lethal that individuals or institutions of rather limited size can threaten the nation. So the United States of America has to be careful not just to be on the defensive against what nation states might do to threaten our existence. We have to be careful to understand that there are individuals or small groups of individuals who with the same-sized satchel that might have been not very threatening at all not too long ago could with evil chemistry, evil biology or perhaps even nuclear capacity or certainly radiological danger contaminate, threaten, injure, perhaps even kill or terminate the existence of large volumes of people and all sponsored by just a few individuals, rather than just a nation state. Now, the fact that a threat now comes to us from individuals and institutions, and not just nation states, does not mean that we no longer need to be aware of the threat that may be posed by nation states. But it does emphasize for us that we have to have a different approach to our defense. When the president turned and said, “Never again,” he understood, and implicit in his remark was the fact that we had to have a different understanding of the necessity for defense and the kind of things necessary to the defense of America, particularly when it comes from threats from individuals or institutions. Information becomes the best friend of prevention.
Let me just say that the first point I wanted to make was that the lethality and deliverability of weapons systems has changed so profoundly that we have a different range of individuals and institutions as well as nation states that we must guard against. The second point that I would make is that information is the best friend of prevention. If we really want to be able to disrupt those things that might otherwise destroy us or damage us seriously, we need information. I don't think I need to elaborate that point for you, that we need to know who the people are that are coming into the country, what their interests are. We need to know and be able to detect if one part of a little institution is buying the fertilizer which combined with the right catalyst can be a bomb and someone else is renting the truck and others are buying the fusing material. We need to be able to make some judgments about that kind of understanding and be able to step in and disrupt the planning. Information is the best friend of prevention. Now most of us understand and feel with other Americans, however, that information also is something that can be troublesome if it's maintained by governing authorities. We want to have a level of privacy in our lives, and Americans have come to expect that. Not only do Americans expect privacy, I think Americans have developed an aspiration which goes beyond privacy. Let me just suggest that Americans now aspire virtually to anonymity at least in some measure. I'll bet you there aren't five of you in this room that have missed the message from Las Vegas and the advertising theme that Las Vegas promotes. And it says, “What happens in Las Vegas …
The crowd: “Stays in Las Vegas.”
“You know what stays in Las Vegas?”
The crowd: “Your money.”
You're right, this is a great crowd. This is an insightful crowd. Your money stays in Las Vegas. But the idea that you can go to Las Vegas and do things in public that no one will know about signals just to me, and I won't want to elaborate on it, but the American people have a tremendous ambition and aspiration for privacy that they, they not have an inordinate amount of information collected about them. Now as the American people have this aspiration for privacy think of it as a movement in one direction, and the need to protect America has this necessity for information in order to interject or disrupt activities that might threaten America, I think you can see that there are two major aspirations—one for protection and one for privacy—that are on a collision course. And as you think about critical issues, let me suggest to you that the resolution of these two currents in the American culture, if you will, (one, asking for prevention—being unwilling and properly unwilling to tolerate a reoccurrence of mass casualties on the wings of those who would seek to destroy us. And so needing information. The other current—the demand for a sense of personal integrity and privacy so that the government is not always stirring in our individual affairs. These two currents are on a collision course. And as you are walking into the future, the interface between these two is going to be something that you'll have to do. You'll have to find ways to get enough information and to put it in the right hands and to be able to use it effectively to defend the country without offending the population of America.
I think there are a couple of signals that I would offer as clues to how this might happen. Most of us know that one of the dynamic aspects of the American economy is the credit system we have, and there's a tremendous amount of information necessary to have the right kind of system of credit. It's one of the things that keeps our economy going, and it allows our industrial system and economic approach to dwarf the productivity of virtually every [indistinguishable] —it's credit, but it's a lot of information. One of the things that we should learn from the maintenance of that information is that, that individuals should be able to have some access to the information in the system about themselves. And you've heard the advertisements, and you know that our culture welcomes people to look at their own records. And secondly, opportunity is given for people to correct defects in the information. We may have to have something like that. I'm not sure how you'll work these things out.
Another clue is in the healthcare system. Most of us know that information in the healthcare system is very important to our health to learn about what happens to various pathologies and what happens in various conditions is helpful in developing treatments, and yet we don't want to share with everybody around us what our ailments might be and what they might have been and what our condition is. So we allow the information to be used on a broad sense, but we mask the identities of individuals whose information is being used. I simply say to you that there are these two apparently contradictory flows in the American community that will have to be reconciled, and you'll have to do that.
I have just one other point to make before we go to Q&A. Well, maybe two. People constantly suggested about my activities, that somehow it was my job as attorney general of the United States to balance security and liberty. And as a matter of fact, if you'll read great scholars throughout history, they talk about that. Ben Franklin talked about it. Thomas Jefferson talked about it. These are heroes of mine, but I have to differ with them. I don't believe it is our job to balance security and liberty. You see it makes those concepts appear as if they are equal values. I think the only thing worth securing is liberty, and the value of liberty and what we really need to do is have enough security to make sure that we maximize the liberty which we might otherwise enjoy. Some have suggested every time you pass a law, you diminish liberty. If you do, you shouldn't be passing the laws. I submit to you that many laws that have been passed expand liberty. Think of a community with no law against rape and murder. Are you freer or is your freedom more valuable to you after the law prohibiting rape and murder? I submit to you that it is. Or think of a law that prohibits slavery. Is there more freedom after the law is passed or before the law was passed? I would not want to live in a culture that didn't limit and forbid slavery. So I don't believe that the real test is somehow are we going to balance liberty against some competing different value of security. I think the purpose of security is to enhance liberty and the test should be do we take an action, and if we want to take the action, will our liberty be worth more taking the action than it would be if we don't take the action? And that's the way I saw it to develop a philosophy of moving forward. You will have the privilege of defending freedom and liberty for this society and in a way setting an example for the way it should be defended by all the nations of the world. You are inescapably, inescapably role models to the world. It comes as a responsibility of being a part of the United States of America. And the value of liberty is unique and different. There is nothing like it, for it energizes humanity to levels of achievement that will not be reached by those who treasure anything above it.
In my judgment there was one American who understood this more profoundly than any other, who certainly stated it more convincingly than any other and you probably won't have heard this analysis of it before. But I close with it.
Emma Lazarus was a Jewish immigrant to the United States. Her family were immigrants from the, from the Iberian peninsula, Spain and Portugal and that area, came to the United States. And about 130 years ago, they were erecting the Statue of Liberty in New York's harbor. She wrote a poem called “The Colossus.” It's a poem that is relatively short, but they took the last four lines off that poem and they put them on the base of the Statue of Liberty. And you probably learned those lines at one time or another. I'm sure you'll recognize them if I—well, I will quote them, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddles masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teaming shore send these, the homeless tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
I like the poetry. Nice sounding. Has a nice lilt about it. And I accepted it as just a nice sounding piece for a long time. Then I noticed what she had said. She didn't say, “Give me your National Merit Scholars.” She didn't say, “If you didn't go to The Citadel, you need not apply.” She said, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddles masses.” The one qualification she puts in the poetry is that they be yearning to breathe free. She understood that freedom is such a catalyst, that in order to become world beaters, you don't have to have all of the advantages that someone else might dream necessary, that it works a special magic in a culture and society that literally makes champions of the culture. It changes ordinary people into extraordinary achievers. That's why America is different.
I grew up in the Midwest. I grew up, and I guess I just thought, you know, America was the best place, and I had this idea that America was better than other places because we were better people than other people. Look around. We can't be better than other people. We are other people. The truth of the matter is that our advantage comes from freedom. It is a freedom in which we are privileged to live, and it is a freedom that we are privileged to defend. I thank you for your investment in the freedom of the United States of America by your dedication to its values here at The Citadel. May God bless you.