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  6. Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson at the Woodrow Wilson Center

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Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson at the Woodrow Wilson Center

Release Date: February 7, 2014

I begin by thanking the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Aspen Homeland Security Group for inviting me to speak here today.

I also want to thank Jane Harman for your leadership, your continued service to our country, and your willingness to be a supporter, mentor and advisor to me and to numerous others around this town. When Jane Harman advises, I listen.

As many of you have heard me say before, September 11 is my birthday. On September 11, 2001, I was in the private practice of law in New York City. Like millions of others, I was an eyewitness to the events that day. I watched in shock as a beautiful, serene and ordinary work day was transformed in an instant to one of the worst days in American history, while thousands of people – and ultimately a nation – coped with a tragedy that theretofore was unimaginable. 

It was out of that day that the Department of Homeland Security was born. 

And, it was out of that day that my own personal commitment to the mission of homeland security was born.

For the next several minutes I would like to take the opportunity Jane has provided me to spell out my vision for the Department I am privileged to lead.

A cliché too often used is “we are in a time of transition.” The Department of Homeland Security must always be in a time of transition. 

We must be agile and vigilant in continually adapting to evolving threats and hazards. We must stay one step ahead of the next terror attack, the next cyber attack, and the next natural disaster.  The most important part of my day as Secretary is the morning intel brief, which ranges in scope from the latest terrorist plotting to a weather map.

We monitor world events real time and take action, when necessary, to confront and respond to these threats. In support of Russian authorities, we are keeping a close eye on the Sochi Olympics, which are beginning pretty much as I speak.  Within the last 48 hours, we have, out of an abundance of caution, issued advisories to air carriers and others based on what we’ve learned, adjusted TSA security measures, and are continually evaluating whether more is necessary.     

Also within the last 48 hours, in response to a very different type of hazard, FEMA has delivered 95 generators to the state of Pennsylvania, where several hundred thousand people are without power due to the snow and cold weather.

In the homeland security world, no news is good news, and no news is often the result of the hard work, vigilance, and dedication of people within our government who prevent bad things you never hear about, or at least help the public protect itself and recover from the storm we cannot prevent.   

Our overall challenge within the Department of Homeland Security, and within the homeland security community of the federal, state and local governments of this Nation, is to learn from and adapt to the changing character of the evolving threats and hazards we face. 9/11; Hurricane Katrina in 2005; the underwear bomber in 2009; the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010; Hurricane Sandy in 2012; and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 illustrate these evolving threats and hazards. 

The terrorist threat we face is increasingly decentralized, self-motivated, and may be harder to detect. The cyber threat we face is growing and poses a greater concern to a critical infrastructure that is becoming increasingly interdependent. Natural disasters are becoming more severe, causing significant economic losses, and with more variable consequences driven by climate change and aging infrastructure.

The basic missions of the Department of Homeland Security are, and should continue to be, preventing terrorism and enhancing security; securing and managing our borders; enforcing and administering our immigration laws; safeguarding cyberspace; safeguarding critical infrastructure; and preparing for and responding to disasters.

As we all know, at the time DHS was created in 2003 it was the most substantial reorganization of our government since 1947. In my opinion the creation of a Department of Homeland Security in 2003 was long overdue. Many other nations who face threats similar to ours had Ministries of the Interior or a Home Office with the similar basic missions of bridging national and domestic security, counterterrorism, and border and port security.  Perhaps because our nation was protected by two big oceans from many of the world’s hot spots, we thought that one department of the United States government, devoted to the mission of “homeland security,” was unnecessary. That thinking obviously changed on 9/11. 

Further, consider where all the 22 components of Homeland Security existed before the creation of the Department in 2003 – scattered across the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Justice, Treasury, Transportation, Defense, Health and Human Services, and the General Services Administration, including departments that do not have national security or law enforcement as their core mission. 

In just seven weeks in office as Secretary, I have already seen the wisdom of combining a number of these capabilities within one department of government: when I convene a meeting to discuss how the latest terrorist threats might penetrate the homeland, the participants include DHS’ Intelligence and Analysis Office, Customs and Border Protection, TSA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Citizenship & Immigration Services, the Coast Guard and DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate. Put another way, with the creation of DHS, a terrorist searching for weaknesses along our air, land and sea borders or ports of entry is now met with one federal response – from me.

Preventing terrorist attacks on the homeland is and should remain the cornerstone of homeland security. Through our government’s counterterrorism efforts in both the Bush and Obama Administrations, we have put al Qaeda’s core leadership on the path to defeat. But the threat has evolved.   

Since about 2009, we saw the rise of al Qaeda affiliates, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has made repeated efforts to export terrorism to our homeland. Our government, working with others, must continually deny these affiliates a safe haven, a place to hide, train and from which to launch terrorist attacks.  

We are very focused on foreign fighters heading to Syria. Based on our work and the work of our international partners, we know individuals from the U.S., Canada and Europe are traveling to Syria to fight in the conflict. At the same time, extremists are actively trying to recruit Westerners, indoctrinate them, and see them return to their home countries with an extremist mission. Last night I returned from Poland where the Attorney General and I met with my six counterparts from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Poland.  Syria was the number one topic of conversation for them and for us. Syria has become a matter of homeland security.  DHS, the FBI and the intelligence community will continue to work closely to identify those foreign fighters that represent a threat to the homeland.

We face threats from those who self-radicalize to violence, the so-called “lone wolf,” who did not train at an al Qaeda camp or overseas or become part of an enemy force, but who may be inspired by radical, violent ideology to do harm to Americans. In many respects, this is the terrorist threat to the homeland – illustrated last year by the Boston Marathon bombing – that I worry about the most; it may be the hardest to detect, involves independent actors living within our midst, with easy access to things that, in the wrong hands, become tools for mass violence.             

We must remain vigilant in detecting and countering all these threats. 

At the Department of Defense, I was witness to the extraordinary efforts of our military and the other national security and intelligence components of our government in countering terrorist threats from overseas. 

Here at home, given the evolving and increasingly diffuse and decentralized threat, I believe it is critical over the next several years that DHS continues to build relationships with state and local governments and the first responders in those governments. We must also continue to encourage public participation in our efforts on their behalf, through the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, and campaigns such as “If You See Something, Say Something,” which is on prominent display at airports and even at the Super Bowl five days ago. Homeland security is a team effort. 

Border and port security is indispensable to homeland security. Good border security is a barrier to terrorist threats, drug traffickers, transnational criminal organizations, and other threats to national security and public safety.

In my first month in office I visited our southwest border. Smuggling organizations are responsible for almost all those who cross the border illegally.

By boat I saw the south Texas border on the Rio Grande, and the shallow places in that river where someone could walk about 200 feet across without getting his knees wet. By helicopter I saw the Arizona border. At the Port Isabel Detention Center near Brownsville, Texas I saw about 1,000 detainees, only about 18% of whom were Mexican, and the rest representing over 30 different nationalities who migrated through Mexico in an effort to get to the United States. In Arizona I visited with ranchers who live and work on the border, frustrated by the damage to their property caused by those who cross the border illegally. I have met a number of groups and individuals representing a wide range of views about the border, and will make it a practice to continue to do so. 

With the recent addition of funding for staffing and surveillance by Congress, we’ve made great progress in border and port security. There is now more manpower, technology and infrastructure on our borders than ever before. But, we must remain vigilant.

The answer is not simply to build longer or taller fences. As my predecessor used to say, show me a 50- foot fence and I will show you a 51- foot ladder. Border control experts preach an intelligence-driven, risk-based approach that focuses resources on the places where our surveillance and intelligence tells us the threats to border security exist, and be prepared to move when the threat moves. I believe in this approach, because it is a smart, effective and efficient use of resources.

I also believe in smart and effective use of our resources when it comes to removals. We must prioritize our resources on those who represent threats to national security, public safety and border security. In the Senate confirmation process I pledged to continually evaluate our removal priorities to ensure we get this right, and I have already begun this process.

We must also continually review conditions at our detention facilities to ensure they are safe and humane. 

We are gratified by the support Congress has provided to our border and port security efforts.

And, we need the additional border and port security resources that immigration reform legislation would provide.

In this regard the Republicans’ recent statement of principles on immigration is a serious step forward on immigration reform, and contains a lot to work with. With both parties’ recognition that our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed, this should not be an issue used in one way or another for political advantage; rather, we must look to find common sense solutions to a problem we all know we have.  

The President, the business and labor communities, people of both parties, and others all recognize that immigration reform is a matter of economic growth.  Immigration reform is also a matter of homeland security. There are an estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants living in this country.  They are not going away. They are not going to “self-deport.” Most have been here for years. Many have come here as children. 

As a matter of homeland security, we should encourage these people to come out of the shadows of American society, pay taxes and fines, be held accountable, and be given the opportunity to get on a path to citizenship like others. This is not a special path to citizenship as I see it; it is an opportunity to get in line behind those who are here legally. This is not rewarding people for breaking the law; it is giving them the opportunity to get right with the law. And it is preferable to what we have now.  

When reform legislation is enacted, DHS must be prepared to implement reform. So, to prepare for this potential outcome, I have already directed the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security to coordinate the process to ensure we are ready to implement the law. 

Next, DHS must continue efforts to address the growing cyber threat, illustrated by the real, pervasive, and ongoing series of attacks on things like stores, banks, email services, power substations, and the public that depends on them.        

Here, the key to the government’s efforts is to build trust with the private sector, and attract the best and the brightest from the private sector to come work for us – people like Dr. Phyllis Schneck, our Deputy Undersecretary for cybersecurity who came to us six months ago from the position of chief technology officer of the security software company McAfee. I am personally going on a talent search. Next week Phyllis and I are traveling to Georgia Tech, where she received her Ph.D., to recruit more like her.

I am also a big fan of programs like our Cyber Student Volunteer Initiative, which allows college students, on a volunteer basis, to come work for DHS in support of cybersecurity, and allows us to educate them on our mission. 

Through the President’s Executive Order 13636 (on critical infrastructure cybersecurity) and President Policy Directive 21 (on strengthening the security and resilience of critical infrastructure), both issued a year ago, we are making good progress at furthering partnerships with the private sector, but there is more to do.

Many in Congress have expressed a willingness to help in cybersecurity. We appreciate those efforts.  Our basic legislative goals are (i) new hiring and pay flexibility to recruit cybersecurity talent, (ii) modernizing the Federal Information Security Management Act – also called FISMA – to reflect new technology, (iii) additional clarity for, and codification of, existing DHS responsibility to protect the federal government’s civilian cyber networks, (iv) legal clarity that DHS may provide assistance to the private sector when requested, (v) legal clarity that the private sector may exchange cybersecurity information with the federal government, and (vi) enhanced criminal penalties for cybercrimes. We could also support some form of limitation on potential civil liability for private sector entities, provided it is narrow and targeted in a way necessary to protect networks.

We must continue to be vigilant in preparing for and responding to disasters, including floods, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and most recently, chemical leaks like the one into the Elk River in West Virginia that threatened the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people. FEMA has come a long way from the days of Katrina. We have improved disaster planning with public and private sector partners, non-profit organizations, and the American people.

We have learned how to pre-position a greater number of resources. We have strengthened the Nation’s ability to respond to disasters in a quick and robust fashion. We are helping cities and communities recover and rebuild faster. We will continue this progress.

Finally, we must be mindful of the environment in which we pursue these missions. 

We operate in a time of severe budget constraints. The days when those of us in national and homeland security can expect more and more each year to our top line budgets are over.  I am therefore obligated to identify and eliminate inefficiencies, waste, and unnecessary duplications of effort and expenditures, while pursuing important missions such as the recapitalization of the Coast Guard fleet.

DHS also operates at a time when the public’s confidence in the government’s ability to function and work for them is low. 

DHS is unique among Federal agencies for the large, daily engagement it has with the public at airports, seaports, and land ports of entry. The public’s attitude toward the entire Federal government can be shaped by interactions with DHS. We must be mindful of this, as we seek public support for our work. 

This is why I am pleased to announce that the Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection will soon make CBP’s use of force policy public.  

We must do a better job of highlighting the good things we do on behalf of the American people, with the resources they give us.  

In January I opened a new TSA Pre✓™ application center at Dulles Airport. TSA Pre✓™ illustrates the risk-based approach to homeland security that I talked about earlier.  It is smart, effective and an efficient use of resources and taxpayer dollars. In December, we extended TSA Pre✓™ benefits to all military, including those serving in the Coast Guard, the Reserves and the National Guard. By permitting travelers to provide information about themselves ahead of time, we expedite the process for them at airports, and better focus resources to the pool of people we know less about. This advances aviation security and should be popular with the traveling public. 

Lastly, I am mindful of the surveys that reflect that morale is low within various components of DHS. Our greatest asset as a Department is our people. Each and every day, the men and women of DHS work hard to fulfill our critical and noble mission; each day, they dedicate themselves to the security and advancement of our Nation. I will be a champion for the men and women of DHS, and will advocate on their behalf.   

Morale also depends on good leaders in place at each of our components. We must inject a new energy into DHS, and good leadership starts with recruiting other good leaders to join the team to help run the organization.  With the help of the White House and Congress, we are bringing in some terrific people to fill the large number of senior management vacancies that exist within DHS.  I spend a part of almost every day on this. 

I’m pleased that in December Congress confirmed our new Deputy Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, and in October our new General Counsel Steve Bunnell.  We look forward to the Senate confirmation of Suzanne Spaulding, who’s sitting right here, to be Undersecretary for National Protection and Programs Directorate; Gil Kerlikowske to be the next Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection; John Roth to be the next Inspector General, Leon Rodriguez to be the next Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Dr. Reggie Brothers to be the next Under Secretary for Science and Technology. We are actively recruiting talented people to be Undersecretary for Intelligence & Analysis, Director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the next Chief Financial Officer, and for other key positions.

Finally, we will also continually reinforce, among all the men and women of the Department, the common, unifying mission of homeland security that binds us together. Homeland security is the most important mission any government can provide to its people. 

I told you I was in New York City on 9/11. For years my secretary at the law firm I was with in Manhattan was a woman named Gina Chiaccherri. Gina is a shy, quiet woman who works about 50 hours a week, commutes another three hours a day, raises two kids, is the wife of a retired New York City Police officer, plays by the rules and never makes waves.  

At 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, Gina was walking into the north tower of the World Trade Center with her 3-year-old daughter, to catch the subway to midtown, when American Airlines Flight 11 plowed into the building above her. Possessed by nothing but fear, survival instincts and adrenalin, Gina picked up her daughter and either walked or ran with her in her arms all the way to 14th Street – and anyone who knows Manhattan knows that’s a long way, even to walk empty-handed. 

The image of a 5’3” mother running for her life with her child in her arms on 9/11; the image of thousands of desperate and displaced Americans at the Louisiana Superdome during Katrina; the image of the finish line at the Boston Marathon turning in an instant to a blast zone – these should be constant reminders of the urgency and the importance of our homeland security mission. 

I am aware there is one other component to my job. In the name of homeland security, we cannot sacrifice our values as a Nation. We can build more walls, install more screening devices, ask more questions, expect more answers, and make people suspicious of each other, but not at the cost of who we are as a Nation of people who cherish privacy and freedom, celebrate diversity, carry our flag at the Olympics, and are not afraid. 

Thank you for listening.  



Last Updated: 09/20/2018
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