U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Government Website

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Safely connect using HTTPS

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.


  1. Home
  2. About Us
  3. Site Links
  4. Archived
  5. News Archive
  6. Home and Away: DHS and the Threats to America

Archived Content

In an effort to keep DHS.gov current, the archive contains outdated information that may not reflect current policy or programs.

Home and Away: DHS and the Threats to America, Remarks delivered by Secretary Kelly at George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security

Release Date: April 18, 2017


Thank you, Frank. Thank you, President Knapp, and thank you to GW for hosting the Department here today.

When I retired from the Marine Corps after 45 years, my biggest fear was being offered a full-time position in the government. I really didn’t want to come up the Beltway every day. I didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy, didn’t want to mess with the politics…

You see how that worked out.

So I make my way up the Beltway every day, and I use that hour or so to read the news clips about DHS. It’s one of the first two things I do every day—the other is the daily intelligence briefing.

In one, I read what other people are saying about me—and more important, what they’re saying about my people. In the other, I learn about what’s really going on.

There’s a big gap between the two. So today, I want to set the record straight.

DHS Every Day

I’ll start with something that doesn’t make headlines, but should: I could not be prouder to serve alongside the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security. And we, as a nation, owe them a debt of gratitude for taking on some of the toughest, most important jobs in America.

While you’re having your morning coffee, the Coast Guard is pulling a fisherman aboard after his boat capsized in stormy seas.

While you’re deciding what you want for lunch, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center is teaching law enforcement officers how to respond to an active shooter.

While you’re scrolling through Facebook, our Science and Technology Directorate is helping local bomb squads defeat IEDs.

While you’re zoning out on your commute home, Homeland Security Investigators are closing in on a dangerous child predator.

While you’re binge-watching Mad Men on Netflix, TSA is stopping an actual mad man with a loaded gun from boarding a flight to Disney World.

While some members of congress, or state and local politicians, or a member of an advocacy group read or listen to a partial or inaccurate media report on some alleged event at an airport, in a courthouse, or at a border crossing and assume the men and women or DHS are intentionally abusing innocent individuals while breaking or ignoring US law or court orders—instead of assuming as they should that the men and women of DHS are carrying out their assigned mission in accordance with the law—the professionals at DHS are protecting the homeland and in many cases putting their lives on the line for a population the vast majority of whom will never know they are protected by such dedicated and well trained public servants.

And that’s an ordinary day, one that doesn’t make the papers.

Every day, in a million different ways, DHS employees are making our country more secure. They are standing guard against all the hazards we face. They are enforcing the laws the congress has passed, because we are lucky to live in a nation of laws.

We do our jobs so you and your families can live a peaceful life in a free country.

Illustrating the Threat: TCOs

But make no mistake—we are a nation under attack.

We are under attack from criminals who think their greed justifies raping young girls at knifepoint, dealing poison to our youth, or killing just for fun.

We are under attack from people who hate us, hate our freedoms, hate our laws, hate our values, hate the way we simply live our lives.

We are under attack from failed states, cyber-terrorists, vicious smugglers, and sadistic radicals.

And we are under attack every single day. The threats are relentless.


When people think about DHS, they think about how we respond to terrorism. This is our foundation, given our origin story, and a critical part of what we do. But our jobs are to secure the nation from the many other threats we face—from all hazards. And one of the greatest of which is from transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).

Like terrorists, TCOs inflict unthinkable brutality, and regularly behead their victims.

They intimidate, kidnap and torture those who try to bring law and order.

They buy, sell, and exploit desperate people for their own sick purposes.

They destroy their own communities and bring great shame on their own nations.

They are utterly without laws, conscience, or respect for human life. They take the form of drug cartels, or international gangs like MS-13, who share their business dealings and violent practices. Their sophisticated networks move anything and everything across our borders, including human beings.

Human Smuggling

Human smugglers take thousands of dollars from truly desperate people—people overwhelmingly escaping a lack of economic opportunity and in some cases high rates of violence in their home country—and then send them on a course that rivals Dante’s journey to hell.

Along the way, these desperate people are often beaten, raped, starved, and robbed of whatever possessions they’ve carried with them. The smugglers make few guarantees—and they offer no refunds.

Special Interest Aliens

But not every person moving through these TCO pipelines is an economic refugee trying to escape poverty. We face very real threats from so-called Special Interest Aliens that move at great expense from vast distances outside the hemisphere along the network into the US. The “special interest” is that they are from parts of the world where terrorism is prevalent, or nations that are hostile to the United States.

These individuals pay TCOs huge sums of money to transport them from, for example, the Middle East or Asia, through South and Central America and into the United States. We don’t get to vet them. We don’t know their intentions. We don’t know they’re here. They slip into our country unnoticed, living among us, and we are completely blind as to what they are capable of.

Drug Trade

But the damage TCOs do is not only violence and potential terror. It is also vast tonnages of marijuana and hard drugs—cocaine, heroin, counterfeit opiates, fentanyl, and meth amphetamines—they smuggle across our borders to feed both the recreational and addictive U.S. drug demand.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Coast Guard all bear witness to the massive quantity of drugs TCOs are bringing to our homeland every day—with devastating consequences.

In 2015, which is the most recent data we have, there were 52,404 [1] deaths in the United States caused by a drug overdose.

It’s the highest number of drug-related deaths our country has ever seen. It’s more deaths than the peak of the AIDS epidemic in 1995 [2]. In a single year, we’ve lost nearly as many Americans to drug overdose as we lost in battle in World War I [3]. Almost as many as was lost in 12 years in Vietnam.

And that’s just overdose deaths. That number—as high as it is—says nothing about the long-term health damage to our citizens who survive, to say nothing about the human misery, the families ripped apart, and the extremes of crime and violence inherent in the illegal-drug enterprise.

And let me be clear about marijuana. It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs. Additionally, science tells us that it is not only psychologically addictive but can also have profound negative impact on the still developing brains of teens and up through the early 20s. Beyond that, however, its use and possession is against federal law and until the law is changed by the U.S. Congress we in DHS are sworn to uphold all the laws on the books.

DHS personnel will continue to investigate marijuana’s illegal pathways along the network into the U.S., its distribution within the homeland, and will arrest those involved in the drug trade according to federal law. CBP will continue to search for marijuana at sea, air and land ports of entry and when found take similar appropriate action.

When marijuana is found at aviation checkpoints and baggage screening TSA personnel will also take appropriate action. Finally, ICE will continue to use marijuana possession, distribution and convictions as essential elements as they build their deportation / removal apprehension packages for targeted operations against illegal aliens. They have done this in the past, are doing it today, and will do it in the future.

Illustrating the Threat: Terrorism

But while TCOs have a devastating effect on our homeland security, we still face the highest terror threat level in years.

For a brief moment after the attacks of 9/11, our nation shook off its complacency, and realized our American values had a mortal enemy called radical Islam. But as the years have passed we’ve grown complacent protected by the effectiveness of our worldwide intelligence collection, and the heroics of all those in uniform including our military, local law enforcement, and the men and women of DHS.

The threat to our nation and our American way of life has not diminished. In fact, the threat has metastasized and decentralized, and the risk is as threatening today as it was that September morning almost 16 years ago.

As I speak these words the FBI has open terrorism investigations in all 50 states [4], and since 2013, there have been 37 [5] ISIS-linked plots to attack our country.

This is all bad news, but it gets much worse. Experts estimate that perhaps 10,000 [6] citizens of Europe have joined the caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Thousands more are from nations in Asia, Africa and the Western Hemisphere. They have learned how to make IEDs, employ drones to drop ordnance, and acquired experience on the battlefield that by all reports they are bringing back home.

And as the coalition we lead wins against what are best described as conventional-terrorist formations in the caliphate, the expectation is that many of these “holy warriors” will survive departing for their home countries to wreak murderous havoc in Europe, Asia, the Maghreb, the Caribbean and the United States. And because many are citizens of countries in our Visa Waiver Program, they can more easily travel to the United States which makes us a prime target for their exported violence.

Homegrown Terrorism

But the dangers don’t just come from overseas. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an unprecedented spike in homegrown terrorism.

In the past 12 months alone, there have been 36 homegrown terrorist cases in 18 states [7]. These are the cases we know about—homegrown terrorism is notoriously difficult to predict and control.

And what’s feeding this homegrown violence? Most experts agree a major contributor is the internet.

From anywhere, all across the world, terrorist organizations are sharing hateful propaganda with impressionable people. They publish revolting how-to manuals, teaching their followers how to build bombs and kill innocent people. They trade dehumanizing pictures with grotesque captions—headless bodies, innocent people being thrown from buildings, rape victims being stoned to death.

If you are a terrorist with an internet connection, like the one on your ever-present cellphone, you can recruit new soldiers, plan attacks, and upload a video calling for jihad with just a few clicks. And thanks to new and ever improving and proliferating encryption and secure communication techniques, it’ll be a lot harder to find you and stop you before you take innocent lives.

And until community leaders, social service providers, teachers, and local law enforcement are more aware of their options to prevent that message of hate from taking hold, our nation’s youth are prey for manipulative predators.

We are under attack from terrorists both within and outside of our borders. They are without conscience, and they operate without rules. They despise the United States, because we are a nation of rights, laws, and freedoms. They have a single mission, and that is our destruction.

And I tell you, without exaggeration, they try to carry out this mission each and every single day and no one can tell you how to stop it. No one.

Illustrating the Threat: Cyber

But the threat is more than bombs and guns; it’s also playing out across our nation’s computer networks. We are under constant attack by a wide range of adversaries with an even wider range of capabilities.

There are nation-state actors with extremely sophisticated tools.

There are global criminal organizations that operate like a legitimate businesses, right down to customer service support.

There are even lone wolves, cyber terrorists that simply buy malware on the internet.

Their motivations vary, from military to espionage, from financial to political—and sometimes, they just want to wreak havoc.

They target our government networks. They target our critical infrastructure. Systems throughout America are being bombarded on a daily, even hourly basis—our water treatment plants, our transportation systems, our electric grid, our financial sector and beyond.

These attackers steal intellectual property, personal data, and health information. They are thieves, vandals, saboteurs, enemies of democracy, and potentially so much more.

We live in an interconnected world—that’s not a trend, that’s reality. We rely on technology for everything from programming our coffee makers to running global corporations. This reliance brings risks.

What would happen to our economy if the stock market couldn’t process trades?

What would happen to our transportation system if the navigation satellites suddenly went down?

What would happen if a major American city lost power?

Cyber threats present a tremendous danger to our American way of life. The consequences of these digital threats are no less significant than threats in the physical world. And so every day, we prepare to fight what many people can’t even imagine.

Rule of Law

It’s a big job. As a Department, we’re up against criminal organizations, terrorists, cyber-attacks, wannabe assassins, pandemics, hurricanes, and oil spills. The danger is real—but so is our dedication, our professionalism, and our expertise. These risks, these hazards—they are why we do what we do.

Sixteen times in my life, I have raised my right hand and solemnly sworn before my God that I would support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Our nation is unique in that we swear allegiance to the Constitution—not to a king, or to a president, or to a party—but to the supreme law of the land.

Every single DHS employee has taken an oath to the Constitution as well. We vow to uphold the law, and to operate within it. We have a sacred duty and that is the continuation of the United States as we know it. To protect our way of life and the exceptional people we are.

Every day, we take a stand against the forces that endeavor to take that exceptionalism away from us. I am proud to say that, with help from our international, interagency, private sector, and state and local partners, we are standing strong and winning the battle. But as we must be effective 100% of the time, our adversaries must be effective one time and try they do every day, day-after-day, and will stay at if for years to come.

Fighting Back: Securing Borders and Enforcing Laws

Take TCOs.

There is no better argument for secure borders than TCOs. And since the first week of President Trump’s administration, we have been actively securing our borders and enforcing our immigration laws. Not only is this our right as a sovereign nation—it is our responsibility to ensure the safety of the American public.

People who illegally cross our borders do not respect the laws of our nation. We want to get the law breakers off our streets, and out of the country, for the good of our communities.

But being serious about our borders and our laws is not just good for the American people—it will also save lives. In FY 2016, CBP saved nearly 4,000 [8] near-death individuals who found themselves lost in the desert trying to cross our border.

Much has been made of our efforts to discourage women from endangering themselves and their children at the hands of human smugglers. But it’s working. While more than 16,000 family units were apprehended at the border in December, only 1,125 were apprehended in March [9]. That means fewer women and children are making this dangerous journey, and we will do anything in our power, and within the law, to end this flow of illegal migrants.

Fewer people crossing the border illegally means fewer deaths in the desert, and fewer people submitting themselves to the TCOs’ dark and dangerous networks. But most of all it means our borders are secure and our people protected.

There is nothing I’d like more than to put human smugglers out of business and we will do anything within the law to do so.

Drop in Illegal Migration

As I reported back in March, we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in illegal migration across the southwest border. In fact, March apprehensions were 30 percent lower than February apprehensions—and 64 percent lower than the same time last year [10].

These numbers are lower because we’ve shown that we’re serious about border security and enforcing our immigration laws. We have ended catch and release and also focused on apprehending, prosecuting and convicting the traffickers, or “coyotes,” themselves. We have significantly increased detainers for deportation. And we have arrested more criminal aliens. We will continue to expand our approach to include the prosecution of anyone—including family members—that pay the traffickers especially when it involves children under the age of 18.

Our DHS folks who enforce these laws—primarily ICE and CBP—know they have a job to do, are trained to do it, and are doing it humanely, and in accordance with the laws as passed by the U.S. Congress. These dedicated and selfless men and women have the knowledge, the training, and the resources, and—and this is a big one—they know that they have an Administration and a Department that “have their back.”

Taking on Drug Demand

While we’ve seen a drop in human smuggling, agencies across our Department continue to seize vast amounts of dangerous drugs.

At the midpoint of this fiscal year, the Coast Guard is combating a sharp uptick in cocaine flow, and has already removed nearly 243,000 pounds. CBP has also reported a 39 percent increase in cocaine seizures, for a total of approximately 43,600 pounds [11]. They’ve also seen an increase in heroin and methamphetamine seizures—and again, it’s only halfway through the fiscal year.

When you consider that CBP seized an average of four tons [12] of drugs every day in FY 2016—and that number’s going up—you see our nation has a serious drug problem.

We need a national and comprehensive drug demand strategy and commitment to reduce drug demand in the United States. A focused effort that not only employs the full resources of the federal-state-and local governments, but also Hollywood, professional sports figures and teams, high school coaches, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and community activists, as well as law enforcement like the FBI and DEA and their “Chasing the Dragon,” documentary as well as priests, pastors, rabbis and imams that lead their flocks, and, finally, involved parents because it all starts at home. We have never had such a campaign against drugs. The time is now, and because the President recognizes this as a father and a grandfather he signed an Executive Order establishing the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, and we have significantly reduced drug demand we will have a more secure border.

Conference on Central American Prosperity and Security

But it’s not enough to tackle the problems here at home. As I said in my confirmation hearing, border security starts 1,500 miles to the south of the United States with incredible partners like Colombia, the Central American countries, and Mexico.

A stable country needs a strong, accountable government that protects its citizens, upholds the rule of law, and expands economic opportunity for all its people. Without this, countries fail, and their people flee.

We know people are leaving Central America because they lack economic opportunity and experience high levels of violence in their communities. In June, the State Department, along with Treasury, Commerce and DHS and our co-host Mexico, will host a conference focused on the economic and security needs of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Canada, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Belize will attend as observers and we are also expecting European partners to come in as well. Additionally, President Luis Moreno and his Inter-American Development Bank will be fully involved along with private industry participants.

The Conference on Central American Prosperity and Security is designed to help the Northern Triangle countries find solutions, through NGO assistance and outside private investment, as well as investment by the countries themselves. Their success is our security.

Increasing Distance

The more we push our borders out, the safer our homeland will be. That includes Coast Guard drug interdictions at sea in their incredibly effective and essential National Security Cutters in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific, sharing information about suspected terrorists or criminals with our international allies, and developing technology that detects threats before they reach our shores.

We must use our relative geographic distance to our advantage. If we’re going to stop criminals and terrorists from threatening our homeland, we need to know who is coming into our country, where they’ve been, and what they’re doing here—before they arrive at our doorstep. The first step is improving our vetting process, indeed increasing the reliability of increased vetting procedures is critical.

We will use all the tools we have available—social media; new technology, like biometrics; more investigators; and top-notch intelligence.

Last year, DHS Intelligence and Analysis developed 900 new intel leads; 500 of those were not previously known to the Intelligence Community [13]. Their work helped both the Intelligence Community (IC) and DHS personnel keep people with terrorist ties out of the United States.

DHS I&A helps us improve the integrity of our cyber networks, protect against border and aviation security threats, and counter violent extremism effectively.

Operationalizing Intelligence

Our policies are based on our intelligence. As we learn about the latest threats to the American people, we turn what we know into what we do.

Recently, based on intelligence, I banned electronics bigger than a cell phone on some commercial flights to the United States. This program will likely expand given the sophisticated threats aviation faces. This was not a move against any country, or ethnic group, or religion, or foreign air carrier as some have irresponsibly alleged, but, rather, an attempt to safeguard lives.

That ban, and the intelligence that drove it, demonstrates that commercial aviation continues to be a prime target for terrorists. I do not know why they are so intent on killing innocent men, women, and children, but I will not hesitate to take any measures within my power to save lives.

Today, the intelligence suggests they’re trying to hide explosives in electronic devices, but the research and developers of numerous terrorist networks and cells are relentless in their attempts to produce the “silver bullet” of aviation destruction. Before electronic devices we had the printer cartridge bomber, before that the shoe and underwear bombers, the explosive liquids plot, and the box-cutter hijackers of 9/11. They never stop and neither can we.

Stopping Terrorism in the United States

At home, that means building relationships with targeted communities and law enforcement, so we can identify someone with potentially dangerous, violent plans before it’s too late. We will also work with our state, local, and private sector partners to counter threatening and inciting terrorist messages. That includes providing support to community members to ensure their loved ones aren’t preyed upon by vicious propagandists.

We can’t do it alone, nor should we. The members of local communities around this country are an important part of the fight, and we look forward to their partnership. We must work together as a team, because the stakes could not be higher.

A New Approach to Cyber

We face a similar path in cybersecurity.

We have a long fight ahead of us to ensure the security of our nation’s networks. We cannot let the plodding pace of bureaucracy slow us down—that’s like sending troops to take Fallujah armed with muskets and powdered wigs. We have to be proactive, and we have to think differently.

It starts with understanding the Department’s relationship with cyberspace.

We use technology to execute our missions. We defend federal networks, and help protect critical infrastructure systems. We hunt down fraudsters and thieves—last year the Secret Service prevented half a billion dollars in cyber losses [14]. And we enforce security rules in critical sectors.

Cyber Partnerships

Given these responsibilities, we have to be more effective—the nation is counting on us. But we’re not going it alone.

We’re leading the charge in upgrading outdated systems. Part of that is partnering with industry. By integrating their cutting-edge, commercially-available technology with our interagency partner’s unique capabilities, we can aggressively defend our federal networks against the endless stream of cyber attacks.

No more muskets; our federal cybersecurity needs heavy artillery.

We’re working with our nation’s most critical businesses to build in resilience to our digital and physical infrastructure. This helps ensure criminals and other bad actors – including Mother Nature – can’t disrupt the systems and networks that drive our American way of life.

At the same time, we’re striving to foster a culture where organizations of all stripes – from Main Street to Wall Street – are able to defend themselves against cyber threats.

Our work is just beginning, but we’re on the job. Cybersecurity is a priority for our Department, because our country depends on a secure cyberspace.

It’s all part of protecting our American way of life.

Many Frontlines

We are a Department of many missions, and we fight on many frontlines. While today I talked about three threats that are on my mind, we continue to carry out our Department’s other, equally critical missions that protect our homeland every single day.

Our Secret Service continues to protect our country’s leaders. Our Coast Guard continues to patrol our nation’s waterways. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) continues to welcome our country’s newest citizens. CBP continues to make legal trade and travel possible. FEMA continues to train and support our nation’s first responders. TSA continues to make transportation more secure. And across all our components, mission support employees are making all of this work possible.

Whether they are airport security lines, Secret Service rope lines, or lines of computer code, the Department of Homeland Security is ready, dedicated, professional, and empowered to safeguard the United States. No matter how dangerous the job or how frantic the pace, we have stepped up to the challenge.

Employee Morale

But for too long, the men and women of my Department have been political pawns. They have been asked to do more with less, and less, and less.

In many ways similar to the treatment suffered by law enforcement over the last few years, they are often ridiculed and insulted by public officials, and frequently convicted in the court of public opinion on unfounded allegations testified to by street lawyers and spokespersons.

If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce—then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines. My people have been discouraged from doing their jobs for nearly a decade, disabled by pointless bureaucracy and political meddling, and suffered disrespect and contempt by public officials who have no idea what it means to serve.

During my confirmation process and in hearings, members of congress, the press and other public officials frequently asked me about the morale problems the Department has experienced over the last few years. My response has simply been –when you discourage, disable, unjustly criticize and default to believing the self-serving accusations of a wrong doer rather than the DHS police official at the point of the action, and focus disrespect on an individual for doing his or her job, what else do you expect?

It stopped on January 20.

My people—the men and women of the Department—do a difficult and at times nearly impossible job in the service of the American people. They deserve our nation’s thanks and respect. They deserve to be proud of the jobs they do.

We are moving in exactly the right direction.

Why? Because the best way to improve morale is to let employees do the jobs they were hired and trained to do, and recognize them for doing it.

Never Apologize

We will never apologize for enforcing and upholding the law.

We will never apologize for carrying out our mission.

We will never apologize for making our country more secure.

We ask for nothing more than respect and your support. We don’t do this for the thank yous—we do this keep America strong, secure, and free.

We live in a dangerous world. Those dangers are increasing, and changing speed and direction every single day.

But every day, we are vigilant. We are prepared. And we will do our jobs.

[8] CBP Data, FY 2016, 3,988 rescues

[9] CBP Data, Southwest Border Migration: https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/sw-border-migration

[10] CBP Data, Southwest Border Migration: https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/sw-border-migration

[11] CBP data

[12] CBP data, 7,910 lbs

[13] I&A data

[14] USSS 2016 Office of Investigations statistics

Last Updated: 06/10/2024
Was this page helpful?
This page was not helpful because the content