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Bush Signs AMBER Alert Into Law

Aired April 30, 2003 - 14:01   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Ahead this hour, President Bush scheduled to sign the PROTECT Act bill minutes from now, two minutes from now, which sets up a national AMBER Alert system. We will bring it to you live when it happens.
CNN's Suzanne Malveaux is at the White House, as a matter of fact, where the signing ceremony is about to get under way. I guess a lot of people, Suzanne, would be wondering, as we look at the Smart family there, by the way, we all remember the case of Elizabeth Smart. A lot of people would be wondering why it took so long to make this national? Suzanne? I don't believe we have Suzanne Malveaux there.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, just within moments, the president is going to sign into legislation the Protection Act of 2003, it is also the AMBER Alert Act. This, of course, marries a partnership between broadcasters as well as law enforcement, local law enforcement to use the system of TV and radio announcements to alert, to warn when a child is kidnapped or abducted or missing, and it would become a national program that would provide funds for those states and local programs, as well as training through the Justice Department as well as the Department of Transportation.

Very interesting to note who is there. There are families, eight families of either children who have been missing or kidnapped. Among those is the Elizabeth Smart, as well as her parents. Elizabeth Smart, as you may recall, was the Salt Lake City teenager who was recently kidnapped out of her bedroom just last June and then recently reunited with her parents. It was just last month, an extraordinary case.

Also, other members, family members, and John Walsh of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children there as well with the president. We're expecting him momentarily.

But significant on both sides, both members of the Senate as well as the House overwhelmingly supported this legislation, and it would really put not only this AMBER Alert, making it a national system, but put much greater teeth, sharper teeth in the federal criminal penalties for those who either kidnap or who abduct or sexually abuse teenagers and children. Here's the president, as well as Attorney General John Ashcroft.

JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good afternoon. It's a great honor to introduce the president on this joyful occasion.

Thanks to our president's leadership these are good days in the history of freedom. As we look abroad we see a world that is safer, more secure. The brave young men and women of our nation's armed forces have liberated the people of Iraq using a swift and decisive combination of communication, of cooperation and of courage.

Here at home the principled leadership of the president is making our communities and our families safer and more secure also. The PROTECT Act of 2003, the legislation we celebrate today, is a tribute to that leadership, leadership that calls our nation and the people of our nation to their highest and best to protect the innocent and to defend the helpless.

The PROTECT Act of 2003 is a comprehensive effort to defend our children. It delivers on our promise from a year ago to thwart child pornography and to prosecute offenders. It also increases penalties for convicted child predators to ensure that they do not strike again and again.

The PROTECT Act of 2003 will add to administration efforts to create a seamless AMBER Alert system. It will strengthen the state and local teamwork led by our national AMBER Alert coordinator Assistant Attorney General Deborah Daniels.

Many families here today know the heart-wrenching pain of losing a child. Those families have shared with us the experience of that immeasurable loss, the trauma and tragedy that it entails. And their experience has convinced all of us that our nation should do more to protect our children.

The AMBER Alert system is a critical tool, born out of that tragedy, destined to save lives.

When a child is abducted, every second counts. From that first terrifying moment when a mother or a father realizes something is very wrong time must not be lost. The AMBER Alert system is a call to each and every citizen in our land for swift, decisive, united action. It is a call to save a precious life; a call that must be heard.

Our president has shown a steadfast dedication to ensuring that every child in America has an opportunity to grow up safe, strong and free. With his leadership, this law and your efforts that have been waged by so many of you who have supported this effort will make a profound vision a vision that becomes reality.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor and pleasure to introduce the president of the United States, President George W. Bush.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you all. Good afternoon. Thank you. Please be seated.

Thanks a lot for the warm welcome, and welcome to the Rose Garden and the White House. What a beautiful day. I'm glad you all are here, and I'm pleased that you could join us on a day a vital piece of legislation becomes the law of the land.

I appreciate the hard work of the Congress. I want to thank the members of the Congress, the Senate who are here, and the members of the House of Representatives who are here.

I want to thank you all for your very hard work in getting this bill to my desk as quickly as you did.


This law, the PROTECT Act of 2003, will greatly assist law enforcement in tracking criminals who would harm our children and will greatly help in rescuing the youngest victims of crime. With my signature, this new law will formally establish the federal government's role in the AMBER Alert system and will make punishment for federal crimes against children more severe.

This law carries forward a fundamental responsibility of public officials at every level of government to do everything we can to protect the most vulnerable citizens from dangerous offenders who prey on them.

I want to thank our attorney general, John Ashcroft, for his leadership on this issue. He is strong. He is steady. And he will see to it that this law is executed in its fullest.


I appreciate so very much Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who worked hard to make sure this bill encompassed a lot, that it fulfilled a lot, that it met the aspirations of those who were anxious to make sure our children are protected.

Chairmen, you did fine work. Thank you very much.


I appreciate the members of your committee who are here today. And I appreciate the fact that chairman, Senator Orrin Hatch is with us as well, who shepherded the bill through the United States Senate in record time.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for your hard work as well.


I appreciate my friend, the governor of Connecticut, Johnny Rowland, being with us today.

Johnny, thank you. Thank you for your concerns about the children of the state of Ohio -- of Connecticut.


The attorney general, Jerry Kilgore, is here from the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Attorney General, thanks for coming.


And of course, it's always good to see the mayor, mayor of Washington, D.C., Anthony Williams. There are no potholes in front of the White House today.



Good to see you, Mr. Mayor.

Also with us today are some families who understand better than most the need for this law. In your great suffering and loss you have found the courage to come to the defense of all children. Because of you, this critical measure is now becoming law. Because of you, children and parents you may never meet will be spared from the harm and anguish your families have known.

We are honored to have you all here today.


When a child is reported missing, that case becomes a matter of the most intensive and focused efforts by law enforcement. Entire communities join in the search. And through unrelenting efforts, many children have been saved.

AMBER Alerts have become an increasingly important tool in rescuing kidnapped children.

By quickly getting key information about the missing child and information about the suspect out into the public, through radio broadcasts or highway signs or other means, an AMBER Alert adds thousands of citizens to the search in the crucial early hours.

At present, state-wide AMBER Alert systems exist in 41 states. The bill I will sign this afternoon authorizes matching grants to those and other states to help ensure that we have effective AMBER Alerts wherever they are needed.

Last year, at my direction, Attorney General John Ashcroft appointed an AMBER Alert coordinator to oversee this nationwide effort. This new law formally establishes that position and empowers the coordinator to set clear and uniform voluntary standards for the use of AMBER Alerts across our country.

It is important to expand the AMBER Alert systems so police and sheriff departments gain thousands or even millions of allies in the search for missing children.

Every person who would think of abducting a child can know that a wide net will be cast. They may be found by a police cruiser or by the car right next to them on a highway. These criminals can know that any driver they pass could be the one that spots them and brings them to justice. This is exactly what happened last summer in California when several drivers heard an AMBER Alert over the radio and soon passed a vehicle meeting the description they heard. Within hours two teenage girls were rescued and their abductor cornered by the police. We're so happy these two young ladies are healthy and with us today: Tamara Brooks and Jacqueline Marris.


Tamara's brother is somewhere around here. He showed me -- guess what happened to him today? One, he brings his little sister to the White House, and secondly, today he was accepted to West Point.


He's following in the footsteps of two older sisters.


The new law also confronts an evil that is too often a cause of child abuse and abduction in America, the evil of child pornography. In the past prosecutors have been hindered by not having all the tools needed to prosecute criminals who create child pornography. Under the PROTECT Act, seeing images of children, even those created with computer technology, will now be illegal, giving prosecutors an important new tool.


Obscene images of children, no matter how they are made, incite abuse, raise the dangers to children and will not be tolerated in America.


The new law will also strengthen federal penalties for child kidnapping and other crimes against the young. Judges will now have the authority to require longer supervision of sex offenders who are released from prison. And certain repeat sex offenders into our society will now face life behind bars so they can never do harm again.


In addition, this law creates important pilot programs to help nonprofit organizations which deal with children to obtain quick and complete criminal background information on volunteers. Listen, mentoring programs are essential for our country, and we must make sure they are safe for the children they serve.


Amber Hagerman, whose mom is with us today -- a good Texan, I might add...

(APPLAUSE) ... was 9 years old when she was taken away from her parents. We're acting today in her memory, and in the memory of so many other girls and boys who have lost their lives and innocence in acts of cruelty.

No child should ever have to experience the terror of abduction or worse. No family should ever have to endure the nightmare of losing a child. Our nation grieves with every family that has suffered unbearable loss and our nation will fight threats against our children.

This law marks important progress in the protection of America's children.

And now it is my honor to sign the PROTECT Act of 2003.


Thank you all very much. Thanks, guys.

O'BRIEN: An emotional scene in the Rose Garden as the president signs the AMBER legislation into law, embracing and reaching out to family members who in many cases who have lost young loved ones over the years. January of 1996, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, for whom this legislation is named, was riding her bicycle on a warm Saturday afternoon in Arlington, Texas when she was snatched by someone in a pickup truck. She was later found murdered. Her name now is immortalized in a piece of legislation that we all hope will go a long way toward preventing future AMBER Hagermans from happening.

Let's talk a little bit more about what this means to law enforcement. Joining us now here in our Atlanta bureau, the Atlanta newsroom, is Mike Brooks, our law enforcement correspondent, and Don Clark, who is out of Houston, a former FBI investigator who is involved in this sort of investigations and has been in the past.

Don, I want to begin with you. Why did it take so long for this legislation to become a national item?

DON CLARK, FORMER FBI INVESTIGATOR: Well, you know, Miles, first of all, this is a phenomenal thing for this AMBER alert in and of itself to become national, and it's probably taken long because of resources and independent states having to look at their own situation to determine if they really need it, but now that we're at this point, Miles, the ceremony's over now, and there are a lot of things that are going to be attached to this AMBER Alert bill, and the law enforcers and the people that they work for are going to have to work through this to see how it fits to the person on the street that's actually going to be doing the job, and I think Mike there will definitely agree that that's how they're going to have to really define this, and that will help us a lot. But the AMBER Alert itself is a great idea, and it's just unfortunate that it did take this long.

O'BRIEN: Mike, let's talk a little bit about how this, actually, will work on the street. Just this past week, I read with interest a case in Maryland, it essentially was a bogus case, someone called up, reported their boyfriend, an AMBER Alert went out. It was not something that should have been part of the AMBER Alert system. There is that risk that people would take advantage of this for means that would not be what the whole thing is intended for.

How do you guard against that?

BROOKS: Well, that is -- that is something that is a concern to law enforcement, Miles, and -- but that can happen anywhere. Even if we didn't have the AMBER Alert, it's still a false police report, and law enforcement should make sure that if they do, in fact, find that someone is making a false report, that they go ahead and try to prosecute that particular person for filing a false police report.

But we also get into the fact of training. Don touched on this that the folks that are out there, they are going to be deciding whether an AMBER Alert is issued or not, that's the law enforcement officer who is on the scene, is taking a report, that is talking to the victims, the parents, and they have to decide, No. 1, they have to confirm that a child has been abducted. Secondly, they have to believe that the circumstances surrounding the abduction is putting the child in imminent danger, and thirdly, they have to have enough descriptive information, Miles, to actually put it out there, and then a fax is sent to the broadcast radio or television station, television station will then put a crawl underneath, and then if there is any updates, they can also update it.

And also, you and I spoke before about a case where there was some information that was put out there, and they couldn't retract it. Apparently, there was a computer problem. Again, a lot of these alerts -- and we saw it before, and I was in San Diego during the Super Bowl, covering the Super Bowl, and saw my first AMBER Alert out there on the freeways, and it tells you to switch to the media. So again, turn on your radio and the emergency alert system, emergency broadcast system will tell you exactly what descriptive information they have, and if they do need to retract some of that information, they can do it via the same way.

O'BRIEN: Don, I guess what Mike is pointing out is that what we are talking about here are the same kinds of problems that police deal with all the time, false reports, problems with computers, whatever the case may be. I guess the concern here is that it all becomes amplified to such a great degree because of the power of an AMBER Alert.

CLARK: Well, it will become amplified, but again, I think you're right, and I think what I hear Mike say is that you're really talking about standards, and they mentioned that in the press conference here just a few moments ago, and I think many of us listened to, about standards as to what goes into that piece of equipment that's going to get out there and really get everybody going, and I think that's really going to be the key and again, we talk again about getting this down in a usable, working format so that the cop on the street, the agent on the street and the managers can really prevent some of these things from escalating and causing people to say, Oh, well, it's just another hoax, or it's just another bit of information and we don't need to respond to it. O'BRIEN: And we don't want people thinking that authorities are crying wolf. That would be the worst case scenario, right, Mike?

BROOKS: Exactly, and that is one of the things that the bill does provide for: funding and training. Training of the law enforcement officers who are going to be responding to these incidents, and also training of the people who are going to be managing the whole overall program, and we've seen now, that was put in place at the Department of Justice a coordinator for the AMBER Alert system who will oversee all of the funding and the training issues for the whole program.

O'BRIEN: All right. We have some pictures of the Smart family. That's the case that might be on our minds most. There's Elizabeth Smart with her parents flanking her there in the Rose Garden. It was Mr. Smart's use of his moment of most intense attention to use that leverage to call on the president to move this legislation forward -- actually to call on Capitol Hill to move this legislation forward, I should say, and he successfully did that. But the power of these families is not to be trifled with, is it, Don?

CLARK: No, not at all. I really think that it really comes at a good time, and it really shows that what these families can do to try and move things like this forward so that we can protect our kids a little bit better. We know all too well down here, Miles, in Texas, that we've had just a number of these types of kidnappings, and to have that alert sign out there and to have it be displayed on television and on the radio is a significant help. It's not the cure- all, but it's certainly going to enhance the ability to quickly recover a victim.

O'BRIEN: All right. Well, let's quickly, hypothetically here, if you will, I want you both to weigh in on this, if the AMBER Alert had been up and running in Utah at the time of Elizabeth Smart's disappearance, do you think it would have made a difference? Don, you go first.

CLARK: Well, it is very hard to speculate, but I would say this, Miles, that if the AMBER Alert had been up, it may have enhanced the opportunity for someone to do exactly what the lady did once Elizabeth Smart was recognized. And keep in mind, she was recognized because her picture was out there on milk cartons and papers and posters and so forth. So, had that same bit of information been put on the alert, it certainly, in my opinion, would have enhanced it.

O'BRIEN: Mike Brooks?

BROOKS: Well, it is also incumbent upon the parents, the people who are reporting the children as missing to do this in a timely fashion. In the Smart case, apparently there was some delay in the reporting to police. So, would it have been effective in this? We can "what if" all we want, but again, the more eyes and ears that are out there to assist law enforcement, I think the better off we are. It fits into the whole community policing theory and programs that police across the country are engaged in right now -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: So I guess we can all agree it's not a silver bullet, but a useful tool, we hope, if used properly.

BROOKS: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: Don Clark, Mike Brooks thank you both for shedding some light on all this. We appreciate it.


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