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FBI Recognition Ceremony
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, DC, Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Thank you very much. Director [of the FBI, Louis] Freeh, let me thank you for your overly generous remarks. I would say they are more generous than just, but I accept them nonetheless. Archbishop [of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, Edwin] O'Brien, of Boston maybe, but the Bronx? [Laughter.] You really had me fooled. And, of course, what a beautiful Irish tenor that we had here today, no doubt in your honor. Being half-Irish myself, it was a special treat.

I want to thank you, Director Freeh. And I should point out to this great audience that Director Freeh had somewhat of a going away party for me four years ago in his office, and we had maybe six or eight or 10 people present. And at that time he said, "Well, you're on your way out of public service. Keep going. Don't look back." [Laughter.] He apparently had heard some rumors floating around that I might once again be asked to serve in a different capacity. But I did look back, and I was called back, and I must tell you, as I told so many, it's been really the best four years of my life of public service, which now totals some 31 years.

But I want to say that the best four years have been due to our men and women in uniform, some of whom are here today and to be able to serve you. But to work with someone like Louis Freeh at this level is an experience that few people could ever enjoy.

You have served this nation with distinction in the past, and if the press counts are accurate, maybe in the future, too. [Laughter.] I hope so. And I think that those of us who have had the great and good fortune to work with you have marveled at how you can command close to 28,000 people in the Bureau and a small army of six at home. [Laughter.] And I am not going to make any judgment in terms of which has been the more difficult task. [Laughter.] And while we may not know the secret of your success, "the truth is out there." [Laughter.]

Men and women of the FBI, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Three months ago, as Director Freeh has just indicated, we awoke to some rather stunning and tragic news—that a terrorist bomb had ripped a hole in the side of the USS Cole and, really, one in the heart of our country. In one violent, unsuspecting moment, death had snatched away some 17 lives of our young sailors, and wounded another 48 or 49.

I think moments like that force us to pause and to reflect on how quickly our hearts can be stopped and our voices silenced. They remind us always of how thin the membrane is that separates us from our mortality. And I think there's always that futile wish that we could turn back time's immutable hand and reverse the evil that we have seen committed. But of course, we cannot do that. But what we can do is to renew our commitment to our fellow citizens and to our friends, to resolve to protect the security of our country and protect our freedom, and to rededicate ourselves to the principles of truth and law and justice.

And today I wanted to come here to say that we in the Department of Defense are here to honor and to express our gratitude to those of you in the FBI for elevating these ideals to the highest possible expression. Time after time, and too often for me, we have depended upon you. We have depended upon your quick and resolute response to some of the most difficult challenges facing us within our borders, and some of the greatest tragedies befalling Americans who are serving beyond our borders.

Whether combating the dangerous cyberattacks that Director Freeh mentioned a moment ago on our critical computer systems; preparing our cities and towns all across America to be able to respond to incidents that involve these weapons of mass destruction--nuclear, chemical biological; deploying the world over as you sift through the scenes of wreckage and ruin in your search for truth; in every instance you have responded with the greatest expertise and insight, and you have made a profound difference in the lives of countless Americans in uniform.

Oftentimes I think your work has been as dangerous and just as demanding as that of our military men and women. And as we saw in the days following that great tragedy of the Cole, most Americans didn't see, really, what happened. They saw the hole. They did not see the sailors aboard that ship or the heroic deeds that they had to perform. They lost power. They had 17 people who were dead, others were dying and in danger of dying. They had torn steel ripped apart. They had no lights, no electricity, no power. And water was coming in at a rate of three feet a minute. And they were down at that water level bailing that ship out with buckets by hand, working 18, 22, 26 hours without any rest. Very few people saw any of that. But they were determined to save their fellow sailors and to save that ship.

What even fewer heard about or saw were the reports of your determination, because within hours of that blast, you were on the ground. Within a day, you had the investigation well underway. And within days, Director Freeh was in Yemen meeting with leaders there to personally insist and ensure a rapid investigation. Director Freeh, you met with the crew of the Cole. I think in words that carried meaning for all of our men and women, you reassured them that this department was going to do everything in its power to seek out and to hold accountable those who had committed this heinous crime.

And there are other times when you've worked behind the scenes to keep ahead of those who were plotting against us. I think about Operation Solar Sunrise, when you identified those hackers who were targeting our defense computer networks; and your crusade--and I call it a crusade--to keep drugs from reaching our borders and our shores; and in your counterintelligence work to protect our forces and our citizens from those who would unleash these weapons of terror against us.

In every one of these particular missions, I think that you have demonstrated an abiding, and deep and profound sense of justice. And when you track down those people who conducted the attacks on Americans abroad, including the bombings of our embassies in East Africa and that cowardly attack upon our airmen as they slept in Khobar Towers, I don't think the American people will ever fully understand the scale of your service. But I can tell you this—those of us who have had the privilege of knowing you personally and watching you in action can attest that your dedication can be measured indeed, in terms of attacks that were averted, and in terms of lives that have been saved.

Always in the wake of an attack such as the Cole, almost the first call I'll make, other than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs or maybe the President, will be to Louis Freeh, to ask for your help. And every time, these requests have been met with unfailing cooperation and trust, and the dedication of this army--the small portion of the army that you represent--of public servants. And I would say that every time that we transport you to a scene far from these shores, every time we use our reach and our technology and our people to help you, every time you lend your talents and your lives to safeguard ours, this partnership becomes even closer.

I've seen this relationship grow closer over the last four years because of the professionalism of every member of the FBI, and because of the direction and guidance of those who lead you--leaders like Director Freeh, [Deputy Director] Tom Pickard, [Director of the Washington Field Office] Jimmy Carter, [Director of the New York Field Office Barry Mawn], [Assistant Director for Counter-Terrorism] Dale Watson, [Head of the Lab Division] Don Kerr, and [Chief of Staff] Bob Bucknam. And I would like to offer my appreciation on behalf of the department to each of you. [Applause.]

We have a number of cameras here. I've found it intriguing that during the final two weeks of my tenure, I've had more coverage than I ever had. [Laughter.] And I see a whole bevy of cameras that have been lined up, and they're all waiting for me to say something provocative--you know, final words, warnings, instructions, wisdom, whatever. And inevitably, they go away disappointed because I have no intention of making any dramatic claims during the final moments in office.

What I have been able to do, however, is to try to call attention to what you do, what each and every one of you do in relative anonymity. You work behind the scenes. You put in long hours. You make sacrifices and your families make sacrifices. And people just don't see it. It's one thing that we have tried to do in the department by so-called reconnecting the American people to their military, to remind them that there are people out there who are jeopardizing their own lives every day so that the rest of us can remain free. And it's something that we need to do more of, and we have to rekindle this passion for patriotism and remind people whenever they can to express it.

So I've taken the last couple of weeks sort of winding up my four years at the Department of Defense by calling attention to the service and sacrifice of those of you and others who have dedicated yourselves to serving the public good.

As I was coming in this morning, I came through the courtyard, past the statue of the agent who was shielding a woman and her child. And I was reminded, as I have been on so many visits out in the field to our men and women in uniform, of this truth—when we choose careers of public service, we make a decision that has profound consequences, certainly for us, but for millions of people that we will never see.

I think that each of you is here today because you made just such a decision, to serve your country, to protect your fellow citizens from harm. You took this obligation knowing that your service would often require risk and sacrifices that most of your civilian peers will never see and, frankly, couldn't possibly even comprehend or endure. And so today I wanted to just take his moment to shine a light on your service.

And I would like to close with the words of another great American whose life was dedicated to the ideals of law, truth and justice, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He once wrote to a colleague of his on the bench. He said, "I've always thought that not place or power or popularity brings one the success that one desires, but the trembling hope that one has come near to an ideal."

I would like to say to the men and women of America's FBI, on behalf of all the civilians and service men and women of the Department of Defense, we thank you--for who you are, for what you've done for our country, what you continue to do for the American people, and indeed, for all those you serve, in this nation and, again, on foreign soil. Through your service and sacrifice and success, you've not only come close to the ideal, you've actually surpassed it. And for that, we're eternally grateful. Thank you. [Applause.]