After going seven years without another terrorist attack, our intelligence professionals and national security lawyers now hear quite a different message. When 56 Members of Congress request a criminal investigation of the professionals and lawyers, they should have no doubt that those lawyers, and certainly their successors, will get the message: if they support an aggressive counterterrorism policy based on their good faith belief that such a policy is lawful, they may one day be prosecuted for it.
The competing imperatives to protect the nation and to safeguard our civil liberties are worthy of public debate and discussion, and congressional oversight and review of our intelligence activities is vitally important. But it is equally important that such scrutiny be conducted responsibly, with appreciation of its institutional implications. We want lawyers to give their best advice to those who must act, and we want those who must act to know that they can rely on that advice.
As this Society knows, the rule of law is not undermined by stating with clarity and precision exactly what the law requires. To the contrary, both our law, and our democracy, gain strength when we separate legal disputes from policy disputes, and when we permit our policy disputes to be aired in good faith.
In a democracy, of course, the appropriate way to resolve policy disputes is through the ballot box. We have just had an election, and a new Administration will soon take the reins in Washington . What I have done as Attorney General has been to try, along with others in our government, to make sure that our counterterrorism efforts stand on sound institutional and legal footing so that the next Attorney General and the new Administration have what they need to assure the safety of the Nation.
The next Administration will have the opportunity to review the institutions and the legal structures that this Administration has relied upon in keeping the nation safe over the past seven years. I am neither so proud as to think that the next Administration will be unable to make improvements, nor so naive as to think that the policy choices, or even the legal judgments, that they make will be identical to ours.
What I do hope, however, is that the next Administration understands the threat that we continue to face and that it shares the priority we have placed on remaining on the offense to prevent future terrorist attacks. Remaining on the offense includes not simply relying on the tools that we have established, but also encouraging a climate in which both legal and policy issues are debated responsibly, in a way that does not chill the intelligence community and deter national security lawyers from making the decisions necessary to protect us.
And I am hopeful that some time from now, after the next Administration has had the chance to review the decisions made and the legal advice provided, it will acknowledge that despite any policy differences, the national security lawyers in this Administration acted professionally and in good faith and that the country was safer as a result.
The loyal opposition, of course, remains as important a part of democracy as the majority in power. In that regard, I take comfort in the fact that whether in office or not, many members of this Society will remain a part of the public debate and will help ensure that the next Administration acts responsibly and effectively to protect our country and to protect the ideals on which it is based. For that, and for your support based on the principles that support this Society, I am grateful, and I can say with certainty that the Nation is grateful.
SOURCE U.S. Department of Justice