~ Thursday, July 16, 2015
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Deputy Director [Ron] Turk for your kind introduction, for your leadership at ATF, and for your many years of service to our country. Let me begin by thanking the many friends and family members here today. As an Atlanta native, I know there are few demonstrations of love greater than traveling to south Georgia in the middle of July, and we’re particularly honored by your presence and your support. I also want to recognize Acting Director [Tom] Brandon. While he couldn’t be here today, he has done an exceptional job during his time at the helm—first as Deputy Director and now as Acting Director. We’re lucky to have such great leadership here at ATF.
Every few months, a new crop of women and men assemble in this room for a ceremony such as this. It marks the completion of ATF Special Agent Basic Training, but also something more than that. It marks your formal induction into this remarkable law enforcement agency—an institution that traces its lineage from the earliest days of the Republic through some of our nation’s most demanding moments of service and sacrifice. And it marks your entry into the Department of Justice—an extended family of agents, prosecutors, and dedicated public servants who share a common mission and purpose.
Twenty-six years ago, I started as a line prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta, and I’ve been with the Department of Justice ever since. During that time, I’ve learned what I hope you’re all discovering now: there is no better or more fulfilling place to work. You are given great powers and then tasked with one overarching goal—to do justice in each and every case. You have both the opportunity and responsibility to confront some of our nation’s greatest threats—gang violence, terror bombings, illegal arms trafficking—and to help make your community safer and more secure for the next generation.
From my experience in the field, I learned that a prosecutor is only as good as the investigators he or she partners with. It doesn’t matter if they’re ATF agents, state troopers, or local beat cops. What matters is that they’re tough, fair, and dedicated to the dogged pursuit of justice. It’s not enough to work hard and win convictions—this job requires individuals who genuinely care about achieving the right outcome. That takes judgment, maturity, and a willingness to question everything, including one’s self. You were selected from a deep pool of applicants to become ATF agents because we believe you possess those traits. We look forward to you proving us right in the months and years ahead.
Later in this ceremony, certain graduates will be presented with awards recognizing their achievements over the past four months. Four of these awards carry the names of our fallen colleagues – Special Agents Eddie Benitez, Todd McKeehan, David Sullivan, and Ariel Rios – all of whom died in the line of duty. It’s important that even during this day of celebration, we recognize those who paid the ultimate price for their service to this organization and to this country. We honor not simply the heroism of their final sacrifice, but also the heroism of the lives they lived—their decency, their integrity, and their commitment to create a better world for those who came next. It is up to us—and up to you—to carry on the ideals they championed.
That won’t always be easy. You have chosen a career that comes with great challenges. Some are simply a feature of a life in law enforcement. The long days, the late nights, the trips away from home. The occasional prosecutor who won’t return your calls. The anxiety every time you execute a search warrant, not knowing what’s on the other side of that door. The desire to comfort the loved ones who take such pride in your work but who fear for your safety. These are all aspects of the job, and they are as true now as they were when Eliot Ness faced down the gangsters of Chicago.
You will also face scrutiny simply due to your association with ATF. This agency has the unique challenge of enforcing laws involving weapons and devices whose legality changes depending on how they’re used and who’s using them. You must not only know the difference, but also understand the strong emotions that these distinctions evoke.
These challenges are not insubstantial. But that’s why we so badly need you. We need smart, dedicated, thoughtful individuals to carry on the highest traditions of this agency and this Department.
I won’t presume to know why each of you decided to join ATF. You each took your own path here. But I’m willing to bet that no one chose this profession or this organization because they thought that the work would be easy. If you’re like me—if you’re like Acting Director Brandon, Deputy Director Turk, and everyone up here on this stage—you’re drawn to the great challenges of improving our nation and our neighborhoods. You’re drawn to the demands of public service, eager to use the tools of our government to save lives and heal communities, even in the face of criticism and cynicism. You’re drawn to this work, as President Kennedy once said, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
In the 1990s, our country was struck by a string of vicious church burnings. The targets were largely African-American houses of worship. For a period of time, it wasn’t clear how we would confront this crisis. But it was ATF agents, working with Justice Department prosecutors and investigators, who helped stem the tide and brought many of the perpetrators to justice.
In the 1980s, it was DEA agents, working with law enforcement here and in South America, who pioneered a decades-long strategy to investigate, prosecute, and extradite the worst of the cartel leaders in Colombia and elsewhere.
In the 1970s, as the Mob exercised control over cities and corporations, it was FBI agents, working with informants and improved surveillance tools, who broke the code of silence and cracked open La Cosa Nostra, resulting in a virtually unbroken string of successful prosecutions.
And in 1962, as James Meredith faced death threats trying to become the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi, it was Deputy Marshals, working with attorneys from our Civil Rights Division, who stood by his side and protected him as he registered for class and desegregated an institution.
The Department of Justice is filled with brave women and men who have overcome the insurmountable. The credibility and success of this Department has always relied on individuals willing to put aside their concerns, roll up their sleeves, and get to work.
During your career at ATF, you will have the opportunity to make a difference in ways that few others can. It may be disarming an IED and preventing a catastrophic attack. It may be dismantling a violent street gang and freeing a community from violence. Or it may be disrupting an arms-trafficking network and ending the flow of illegal weapons into a neighborhood. Whatever it is, it will require time, effort, and an entrepreneurial spirit. But it is within your reach. I know, because I have seen ATF agents do it over and over again.
And as you do this work, I can promise that you will always have the unwavering support of the Department of Justice. We understand the challenges you face and the obstacles you must overcome. We see the real sacrifices that you and your family make for this job, and we know how deeply you care about doing what’s right. We witness the impact you have, in ways that don’t always make the headlines, ensuring the safety of your home communities and protecting those who most need protection. We recognize the quiet acts of heroism that take place on a daily basis.
The Department of Justice will ensure that you have the training, resources, and support you need to thrive. We will stand with you in the face of attacks. We will do everything in our power to ensure that our law enforcement agents receive the respect and recognition they deserve. And we will work with our law enforcement partners to build bridges to the broader community, so that we can help others understand the honorable work that you do.
All we ask in return is that you stay true to the values that brought you to this job: your professionalism, your sense of purpose, and your commitment to doing justice. Your nation has entrusted you with great responsibility, and we expect you to wield your powers with discretion and care. Out in the field, you will be carrying not simply your gun and your credentials, but also the obligation to use them only in a manner reflecting the values of this institution.
To the families here today, I want to say a special thank you. You too will be called upon to sacrifice as your son or daughter, husband or wife, begins service as a federal law enforcement agent. To the parents of today’s graduates, I want to congratulate you for raising a child who answered a call to public service to make this country safer for the rest of us. You obviously did something right, and the patriotism your son or daughter has demonstrated by joining ATF is a reflection of the values you instilled. Thank you.
Looking into this crowd today, I am confident about your success, and about the future of this great Department. I am excited about all that you will do for your field offices, for your communities, and for this country. So let me be the first of many today to say: Congratulations, and welcome to ATF and the Department of Justice. I’m proud to call you all my colleagues.