Thank you all for being here today, particularly those of you who have traveled from outside the Capitol region to join us. We are also very grateful to President Biden for joining us to mark this occasion today and for his leadership and helping our Department being more ready and more capable to serve the American people.
Twenty years to the day after the Twin Towers fell, the New York City Police Department Counterterrorism Bureau presented me at Ground Zero with an American flag that had flown over the 9/11 memorial that day. Upon receiving the flag, I directed that it be flown by our 27 different agencies and offices in locations across the world before it was installed in our headquarters here in Washington, D.C. Over the course of the next almost 18 months, the flag was hoisted across the nation and the world, proudly leading runs at FLETC, saluted during colors aboard Coast Guard cutters, and unfurled in the stillness of the Rose Garden at the White House.
Earlier today, the flag joined a piece of the twisted metal from the wreckage of the Twin Towers here at St. Elizabeths. Both items now rest in a place of honor; they are the first thing we see each morning as we enter our DHS headquarters, and they are the last thing we see as we depart each day.
In the last two decades that separate these touchstones of our Department, we see our origins and our future. This Department was born of tragedy and necessity. But in that necessity, we evolved and grew, and we attracted and retained the very best America has to offer to solve its greatest challenges. As I speak before you now, Americans are in the skies and on the seas, traveling through our land ports, enjoying imported goods, protected from online and other criminal actors, relying on critical infrastructure, and so much more. They are doing so safely because of the United States Department of Homeland Security – because of you and those who came before you over the past 20 years. This legacy is thanks to each and every one of you here today; it belongs to you, your families and loved ones, and your communities.
You honor the victims of 9/11 through the work you perform every day. Through your work, you also honor those colleagues of ours who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. We have lost friends and members of our community who died of cancers they developed after recovering evidence at the site of the World Trade Center, of gunshots from drug traffickers and while protecting our federal buildings, in vehicles on land and vessels at sea, on the frontlines from the pandemic; and too much more. We began today’s ceremony recognizing these fallen heroes.
All of you who serve in our Department are heroes. The tragedy of 9/11 forced us to realize that our country was not prepared to address the threat of foreign terrorism, and we resolved then to never again take our security for granted. Many of you sought a way to serve, to make a meaningful contribution to the safety and security of our homeland.
Our Department was born of that urgent moment. We are grateful for President Bush’s leadership of our country through that time, and we are honored that he addressed us on this special day.
Less than two years after 9/11, 22 agencies and 180,000 public servants came together with a mission to safeguard the American people and our way of life. Today, 20 years later, we pay special tribute to those who came together to form the Department. These first dedicated public servants – our plank holders – are a shining example of the dedication and talent of our entire DHS workforce. We are also deeply honored that our first and founding Secretary, Secretary Tom Ridge, addressed us today and expressed his enduring admiration of, and gratitude for all of you.
32,000 plank holders are still proudly serving the country at DHS, and today we are honored to be joined by 100 plank holders from across the Department who are here with us in person. Would the plank holders in the audience please stand and be recognized.
We have more than 54,000 veterans, comprising nearly 21% of our workforce, who continue their service to our country through their work in our Department. Members of our armed forces who now work on the front lines in a different uniform, or who work in offices across the country and the world and selflessly keep giving of themselves for the safety and security of others. Would the veterans here with us today please stand and be recognized.
All of us know very well that public service involves sacrifice. I spoke earlier of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Lesser sacrifice is often very significant, including the sacrifice of self – whether that be the missed vacations, the abandoned hobbies, or the loss of precious time with loved ones. It also includes the sacrifice of our families. Nobody serves alone; when one serves, the family serves. Our families and loved ones deserve our admiration, our appreciation and respect.
They too sacrifice a great deal and face danger and hardship in the service of the American people. Would the family members and loved ones present today please stand and be recognized.
Today President Bush reminded us of the remarks he delivered on national television in 2002 when he urged Congress to create our Department. He envisioned a community where, and I quote:
“Employees of this new agency will come to work every morning knowing their most
important job is to protect their fellow citizens.”
That is indeed what you have built throughout the past 20 years. Congress may not have predicted today’s diverse and complex threat environment when our Department was first created, but our mission has never been more vital, our components have never collaborated more closely, and our nation has never been more prepared because of your unwavering commitment and boundless ingenuity. You fulfill our mission every day amidst a dynamic and ever-evolving threat landscape.
Twenty years ago, our focus was on the foreign terrorist who sought to enter our country and do us grave harm. Back then, we did not have uppermost in our minds the threats from within, the lone offenders, for example, radicalized to violence by different ideologies spread online. Nor did we have uppermost in our minds the threats that would materialize in cyberspace, a time when schools, hospitals, law enforcement offices, and other institutions and infrastructure in large cities and small towns would be held ransom by cybercriminals resident across the globe.
Today, thanks to you, we have the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnership to support communities in their efforts to detect and prevent the threat of the lone offender from materializing. We have the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to build our nation’s defenses to the cyber threat posed by criminals and adverse nation states. We have adapted and built capabilities to address the threats and challenges as they have evolved.
We were created twenty years ago in the largest restructuring of the federal government since World War II. Now we are a critical part of people’s lives, interacting with the American people on a daily basis more than any other department or agency in the federal government. Twenty years ago, we were assembling chairs and desks in front of elevators, drafting initial plans and organization charts, thinking about new offices, searching for physical space and striving for a seat at the table.
Now, in the blink of an eye when it comes to the restructuring of government, we are the third largest department in the federal government, leading task forces and interagency initiatives, harnessing new technologies and innovating in ways that other nations seek to follow, forming unprecedented partnerships in communities and with the private sector across our country and around the world, and creating groundbreaking legislation. We save victims of crime and hold perpetrators accountable, promote lawful trade and travel, advance the United States’ interests on frontiers from the Arctic to the Indo-Pacific, provide the best protection services in the world, deliver heroic relief when disaster strikes and people are at their most vulnerable, advance the security of cyberspace, affirm our country’s stature as a beacon of hope and opportunity that shines brightly across the globe, and so much more. All in the interest of keeping the American people safe and secure. We developed these extraordinary capabilities in such a short period of time – we are able to do this extraordinary work to make life better for others – because of your talent and your tireless dedication to mission. You have built the United States Department of Homeland Security, and your achievements are and continue to be remarkable.
Over the next twenty years, our mission is going to grow even more complex as new threats emerge with increasing speed and perhaps even greater potential for harm. Foreign adversaries are waging new kinds of war, no longer constrained by borders or military maneuvers. They do so through trade and investment flows and through the rapidly evolving technologies that connect us. While, for example, we harness the power of artificial intelligence to become effective and efficient in our work to secure the homeland, its potential for harm in the hands of a nefarious actor has yet to be fully assessed. In our increasingly interconnected world, our work to reinforce our homeland security has never been more important to our national security.
Our Department will continue to evolve and meet the challenges not only of today, but those of tomorrow. I express confidence in the security of our future because of all of you. The foundation of the work we perform now and will perform in the years ahead is the legacy of your service over the past twenty years.
From the beginning, the greatest strength of the Department of Homeland Security has been all of you – all who have come before us and all of you here today and around the country and the world who, in the service of the flag that was given to us on the 20th commemoration of 9/11, the flag that has flown throughout our Department and now rests in our headquarters’ entrance – all of you who, in the service of our country, dedicate your talent, so much of your lives and the lives of your loved ones, to the safety and security of the American people.
It is the highlight of my life to support you and to serve alongside you.
Thank you for everything you do.