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  6. Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano at the National Press Club

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Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano at the National Press Club

Release Date: August 27, 2013

Washington, D.C.
The National Press Club

Good morning and thank you for joining us today, and I’d like to thank the National Press Club for hosting us.

And I want to thank the men and women of DHS. In my four-and-a-half years as Secretary I’ve come to know many of these men and women, hear their stories, and see them perform important work of the department every day.

Getting to know them has been one of the most rewarding parts of being Secretary, and any success we have achieved flows directly from their dedication and service.

I’ve also had the chance to engage partners across the homeland security enterprise: governors and mayors; police, firefighters, and first responders; and business and faith-based community leaders.  All are essential partners in the shared responsibility for homeland security, and I’m grateful to have their strong support.

You know, the job of securing our nation is a large one.  It requires us to enlist the talents and energies of people all across the United States. In that way, all of us are stakeholders in this department’s work. All of us share in its ultimate success.

Together, we have faced many challenges these past four and a half years.  To list them all would take more time than we have today.

Among them was an H1N1 flu pandemic that affected the health of people in every state in our nation, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, which remains one of the worst environmental disasters in our history, and the threat of drug cartel violence along our Southwest border.

We also confronted numerous terrorist plots and threats, both international and homegrown, and a set of catastrophic natural disasters that included hurricanes, floods, fires, and even an earthquake in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, during my tenure as Secretary, we managed 325 federally-declared disasters and issued more than 60 emergency declarations, in some cases providing our state and local partners with assistance before the disaster even took place.

Each of these challenges tested us in new ways.  They presented new opportunities for us to learn, grow, and get better at what we do … as a department and as a nation.  And they allowed us to build on the knowledge gained from past events and refine our approach as the threats changed and our own understanding increased.

Looking back over the past four and a half years, I can say that if there is one take-away, one object lesson and core operating principle that I’ve learned and embraced as Secretary, it is this: in a world of evolving threats, the key to our success is the ability to be flexible and agile, and adapt to changing circumstances on the ground – whether that is across the globe, or here at home.

At DHS, to be flexible and agile means being forward-looking in our preparations, early and active in our engagement, nimble in our response, and resilient in our recovery.

It means taking every necessary step to prepare for a range of potential outcomes, and understanding that if things don’t go according to plan, or the unexpected occurs, we are ready and able to shift resources and adjust operations, learn from our mistakes, and put ourselves in a position to succeed in the future.

And being flexible and agile means acknowledging that we may not be able to stop all threats all the time, but we can – and must – be prepared to address them quickly when they happen, minimize their consequences, draw pragmatic lessons, and emerge stronger and better.

These are the most critical elements of our ability to meet our complex mission, and I believe we are seeing that approach bear fruit in a profound, positive way.

Today, I will talk about how we have made the department more flexible, agile, and adaptable, and how that has led to a more integrated and effective response to terrorist threats, more prepared and resilient states, cities, and communities, and a more engaged public.  And I will give you just a few examples to illustrate this point.

As many of you know, this year DHS achieved an important milestone: our 10th anniversary.  The 9/11 attacks served as the impetus for our creation a decade ago, and while it is not our only mission, enhancing our nation’s ability to prevent, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks remains our primary focus.  And too often, our country is reminded of this ongoing threat.

On April 15th of this year, our nation suffered a serious and damaging terrorist attack against the Boston Marathon.  Like 9/11, the day began with clear and beautiful weather.

And like 9/11, by nightfall we knew that innocent lives would be lost, hundreds more injured – many gravely – and one of our great American cities scarred by the blast of two improvised explosive devices.

No two terrorist events are ever the same.  The tactics, means, methods, and motivations differ.  But the pain and loss endured by the victims and their families is singular and incomparable.

The Boston Marathon attack was a despicable act of violence directed at a symbolic, peaceful sporting event that each year draws athletes and fans from all over the world.

In the perpetrators of that bombing, we saw the worst of humanity:  cowardice, hatred, violence, and intolerance.

But on that day, and in the days that followed, something else also emerged … the very best of humanity. Communities banded together, over silent vigils, and a determination to be “Boston Strong.”

One thing I’ve learned in dealing with terrorism, both as Secretary and as a former State Attorney General and Governor, is the importance of working closely and actively with partners at the state and local level.

They bear the immediate brunt of an attack.  They are the first on the scene to respond.  And they know the needs and capabilities of their communities better than anyone.

When I became Secretary, we made it a priority that states, cities, and communities have the tools, training, and resources they need in a crisis.  And we have spent the last several years working toward that goal.

Across the country, we have supported stronger information sharing through state and local fusion centers, where we have deployed DHS personnel and strengthened our analytic capabilities.

We have trained law enforcement to recognize trends, tactics, behaviors, and other indicators of potential terrorist activity. 

We have provided federal knowledge regarding terrorism and other threats so that it can be incorporated into state and local community-based efforts to prevent violence, whether it is the result of violent criminals, extremists, or active shooters.

And we have improved the ability of local communities to respond to critical incidents, including in the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

For example, we provide homeland security grants to equip and train special response teams in improvised explosive device detection, prevention, response and recovery.

Over the years, DHS has supported more than a dozen exercises in Boston, including a large, mass-casualty event involving hundreds of responders just last November.

And we supported the creation of the Medical Intelligence Center – the only one of its kind in America – to enable information sharing across the Boston medical community.

The well-timed and coordinated emergency response that immediately followed the marathon attack was not accidental.  It was the product of years of planning, training, and investment in building state and local capacity.

And the quick, orderly, focused, and comprehensive response by law enforcement, first responders, and the larger Boston community on that day saved lives.

Immediate control over the scene by law enforcement and assistance from first responders and medical personnel helped triage, evacuate, and treat the fallen and injured – a scenario they had practiced to ensure no one facility would be overwhelmed.

Citizens stepped up and played a critical role – caring for the wounded, donating blood, and submitting videos that helped identify the suspects, a powerful reminder of the role the public plays not only in providing aid, but also providing useful information …

… and the reason why after I became Secretary I called for the creation and then expansion of the department’s “If You See Something, Say Something™,” campaign to more than 250 states, cities, transportation systems, universities, and private sector entities nationwide to encourage the public to play an active role in reporting suspicious activity.

Without the selfless service of so many heroic individuals and first responders, the toll from the Boston attack could have been far greater, and this terrible tragedy could have been far worse.

And so for me, the lesson is clear:  For every attack we experience, every threat we face, and every piece of intelligence we come across, we learn. We assess our preparations and capabilities.  We make changes.  We become more flexible in the actions we take.  And we get stronger and more nimble.

Now, the Boston attack wasn’t the only terrorist plot we confronted over the past four and a half years.  We dealt with the attempted Christmas Day bombing aboard an airliner bound for Detroit, the 2010 air cargo threat, as well as other plots that were effectively mitigated.

Some were international in scope and origin, like the Christmas Day plot, which involved a Nigerian citizen who purchased his ticket in Ghana, flew from Lagos to Amsterdam, and attempted to ignite a bomb en route to America.

From that attempted attack, we learned that relevant information possessed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection needed to be available overseas – at the last point of departure for the United States.  We fixed that.

We learned that our adversaries were moving to non-metallic devices.  We adapted our screening technology and tactics to counter that. 

And we learned that a single vulnerability in any part of the aviation system can make everyone connected to it vulnerable.  Since we don’t control security in foreign airports, we have to work even more closely with international partners to raise the overall security of the system.  We did that.

Shortly after the Christmas Day plot, I launched a worldwide initiative to make these needed changes, in close collaboration with our strongest allies.

And I’m proud to say that by October of 2010, this effort led to 190 countries signing onto a historic agreement to improve aviation security standards and technology, and information sharing.  I’ve had the chance to visit many of those countries over the past four-and-a-half years … 40 in all, across six continents.

However, our work did not end there.  Following the 2010 air cargo threat, which involved bombs hidden inside printer cartridges departing on international planes to the United States, we launched a second initiative to work with international partners and the private sector to ensure air cargo coming to the U.S. was effectively screened.

We faced a threat, we responded, and we addressed the weaknesses in our systems.  And while there is always more work to do, our aviation system is now stronger and more resilient, we have a far better idea who is seeking to board aircraft to the United States, and we have improved security measures at home and abroad to make sure we are focused on those who seek to do us harm.

Of course, not all threats result from terrorism or violent behavior.  Some come from Mother Nature and the impact can be just as severe, if not more so.

Over the past four and half years, our nation has faced hundreds of disasters, including Hurricane Irene, which happened during a period where multiple states were already dealing with historic floods, making a bad situation even worse.

We confronted deadly tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Moore, Oklahoma.  And today, as we find ourselves every summer, we are fighting devastating wildfires in the western states, particularly in California.

As with our counter-terrorism efforts, we drew important lessons from each of these events.  Most notably, we built upon the lessons of Hurricane Katrina to put us in the best possible position to support the response to a major hurricane and make sure that response would be fast, flexible, and comprehensive.

We understood the importance of prepositioning mass quantities of assets before the storm so they will be quickly available to those in need.

We recognized the value of early outreach to governors, mayors, and emergency managers so everyone knows the plan and how to execute it.

We incorporated pre-disaster declarations into our planning so localities would have the funds they need to make preparations and pay for overtime for police and first responders.

We understood the role of organizations like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and others who are so essential in providing support to survivors, as well as federal partners like the Department of Defense.

In short, we knew that we needed to engage the whole community in all phases of emergency management.  And so when Hurricane Sandy threatened the United States in late October of 2012, we had a plan, we had people in place, and we had resources at the ready.

Sandy was the most damaging storm to strike the United States since Katrina, which made landfall eight years ago just this week. Sandy came ashore in the most densely populated region of our country.

It damaged or destroyed more than 650,000 homes, costing more than $50 billion in losses and effecting 24 states. Its tropical storm force winds could be felt for a thousand miles, blizzards hit North Carolina and West Virginia, dumping up to three feet of snow, and the storm’s effects extended as far west as Wisconsin. In all, Sandy took more than 70 lives in the United States.

Sandy also affected some of our nation’s key financial systems and left a large part of New York City without power for more than a week.

Now, our posture in the response to this epic storm was to lean forward in our preparations, surge assets and people into the disaster zones as soon as possible, streamline assistance to the victims and cut red tape, and find solutions to problems when they arose.

Before the storm hit, FEMA teams already had deployed or been activated in multiple states.  We prepositioned millions of liters of water, food, blankets, and essential supplies in strategic locations along the East Coast. And the President provided emergency declarations for 12 states, freeing up federal resources.

After the storm passed, FEMA sent teams into impacted areas to set up Disaster Registration Centers and conduct damage assessments. The Coast Guard immediately conducted search and rescue. 

For the first time, we activated the DHS Surge Capacity Force, an all-volunteer corps that we created in 2011 to leverage the shared talents and experience and capabilities of employees from across the department. 

Hundreds of employees from DHS components like TSA came to New York and New Jersey, many of them living on Merchant Marine vessels in New York Harbor for weeks, as they provided assistance to people and their families in the affected area.

These and other DHS elements contributed to the strong, coordinated response to Sandy.  And when we encountered a snag or a problem, we moved quickly to address it and come up with an appropriate solution.

When fuel ships couldn’t enter New York Harbor because of debris in the water, we deployed the Coast Guard to clear navigation channels.  And when fuel supplies began to run low, we waived the Jones Act to allow ships from other U.S. ports to bring in their supplies to increase fuel availability.

Similarly, when the utilities struggled to get power back on, we worked with the Defense Department and our private sector partners to fly teams and assets from as far as California to help bring those systems back on line.

The collective response to Sandy reflects an emergency management system that is swift, flexible, adaptable, and united.  And it has made all the difference in our ability to speed resources to impacted areas, identify survivor needs, and help communities recover and rebuild.

Now, that said, every disaster by nature is an imperfect and challenging event.  We know there are still many who are putting their lives and communities back together after Sandy.

In any disaster or crisis, there are always challenges.  Problems arise.  The unexpected happens.  Our work on the East Coast is far from done.

But flexibility and agility aren’t only about being operational.  Sometimes they are about establishing common-sense policies and priorities, using the resources that you have.

When I became Secretary in 2009, one of my first actions was to ensure we had set the right priorities for one of the department’s most important missions: protecting our borders and enforcing our immigration laws.

Over the past four and a half years, we have invested historic resources to prevent illegal cross-border activity.  And because of these investments in manpower, and technology, and infrastructure, our borders are now better staffed and better protected than any time in our nation’s history, and illegal crossings have dropped to near-40-year-lows.

We also set common-sense immigration enforcement priorities, with a focus on criminals, national security and public safety threats, repeat offenders, and egregious immigration violators. Last year we removed more serious criminals from the United States than any time in our history.

And we strengthened our work to combat transnational criminal organizations, including those that commit cybercrimes and financial fraud, violate intellectual property, and prey upon human life.  As part of our effort, we established the DHS Blue Campaign to unify the department’s work to fight the worldwide scourge of human trafficking.

While important, however, we still needed to make further changes to create a more flexible, fair, and focused immigration system.

We instructed our immigration agents and officers to use their discretion under current law to not pursue low-priority immigration cases, like children brought to the United States illegally by their parents … children brought here through no fault of their own and who know no other country as their home.

Congress had a chance to give these so-called Dreamers a way to stay in our country through the DREAM Act, but unfortunately that legislation failed to garner the 60 votes needed for cloture, falling just 5 votes short, despite strong bi-partisan support.

So, in June of last year, I used my prosecutorial discretion to create Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – DACA – a process that gives young people who meet the strict criteria a two year provisional legal status to remain in the United States.

In just its first year, over half-a-million individuals have requested deferred action, and after a thorough review of each of those cases, including a background check, 430,000 requests have already been approved, allowing these young people to continue to contribute to the country they call home.

DACA, of course, is no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform, which is the only way to face the longstanding problems with our immigration system.

But it is indicative of our larger approach: to devote historic resources to the border, reorient our enforcement priorities, and build more flexibility into the system.  I believe we are a stronger, more effective department because of these changes.

I’m proud of our accomplishments and the men and women across DHS who made them possible.  I’m proud of how far we’ve come over the past four and a half years.  And I’m proud to have played a role in guiding the department to a more mature and stable state of operations. DHS is more focused, capable, and adaptable, and we are prepared to confront an even greater range of threats.

And when I look at the amazing local response to the Boston Marathon bombing, Hurricane Sandy, and many other less-well-known incidents, I see the tremendous payoff for our nation’s investment over the past decade.

That’s not to say our work is done.  Far from it.  Many things still need tending and my successor will most certainly have a full plate on his or her hands.

Perhaps the best place for me to end my remarks today is by giving him or her some advice … a kind of “Open Letter to My Successor.”

In this letter I will tell the new Secretary that you will confront everything I’ve discussed today – the evolving threat of terrorism, devastating natural disasters, and the need for strong border security and immigration enforcement.

You will need to forge strong relationships with all of our partners, including Congress, to make sure DHS has the resources it needs to meet our responsibilities to the American people. 

You will need to continue our work to move to a more risk-based, intelligence-driven security system, as we have done at our airports, with programs like TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry, which expedite known travelers through security and customs.

You will need to support science and technology research, building on the more than $2.2 billion we have invested over the past four and a half years to strengthen chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear security measures.

You will need to continue to recapitalize the Coast Guard so it can meet its ever-growing mission.

You will need to continue to ensure the security of key government leaders and events of national significance.

And you will face new challenges that we have begun to address but that need further attention. 

Our country will, for example, at some point, face a major cyber event that will have a serious effect on our lives, our economy, and the everyday functioning of our society.

While we have built systems, protections and a framework to identify attacks and intrusions, share information with the private sector and across the government, and develop plans and capabilities to mitigate the damage, more must be done, and must be done quickly.

You also will have to prepare for the increasing likelihood of more weather-related events of a more severe nature as a result of climate change, and continue to build the capacity to respond to potential disasters in far flung regions of the country that could occur at the same time.

And you must continue to integrate the department – what I’ve referred to as DHS 3.0 – and lead it into its next stage of development and operations, through challenging fiscal times including the ongoing impact of the sequester.

You will need a large bottle of Advil.

Some have said that being the Secretary of DHS is the most thankless job in Washington.  That’s not true. No doubt it is a very big and complex job.  It is literally a 24/7 job.

Yet, as my successor will soon learn, it is also one of the most rewarding jobs there is.  What you do here matters to the lives of people all across our great nation, and your decisions affect them in direct, tangible ways.

You make sure their families are safe from terrorist threats, that their local first responders have equipment and training and funding, and that when disaster strikes, people who have lost everything are given food, and shelter, and hope.

And the thanks for that is not owed any single individual or Cabinet Secretary, but to the 240,000 DHS employees, many of whom work in tough conditions, around the clock, to accomplish our shared and noble mission, and that includes some who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

They are the backbone of your nation’s homeland security. And over the past four-and-a-half years it has been my great privilege to serve with them and to build a stronger, more flexible, and more agile Department of Homeland Security.

I thank them, and I thank all of you.  God bless you, and God bless the United States.


Last Updated: 09/20/2018
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