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. Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson at the American Bar Association Annual Convention – As Prepared for Delivery

Archived Content

In an effort to keep DHS.gov current, the archive contains outdated information that may not reflect current policy or programs.

Remarks by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson at the American Bar Association Annual Convention – As Prepared for Delivery

Release Date: August 9, 2014

For Immediate Release
DHS Press Office
Contact: 202-282-8010

Hynes Convention Center
(As prepared for delivery)


Thank you, Elizabeth, for that kind introduction. I also thank the American Bar Association for the invitation to speak here today.

I believe in the importance of the bar association. For starters, I pay my dues very year. For years I served on the ABA’s Committee on Law and National Security – an experience that helped prepare me for the job I hold today. In 2013, I was a member of the Judiciary Committee of the ABA, until I resigned when I was nominated to take this job.

As you heard her say, I got to know Judge Stong through our service together with the New York City Bar Association. I served that bar association  as a member of the Ethics Committee, the Judiciary Committee, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, and then as a member of the City Bar’s Executive Committee.

So, I love the bar association!  You raise the standards of the legal profession and advance the rule of law.

Today, I want to talk to you about what your Department of Homeland Security is doing. I say your Department of Homeland Security, because you are the public and we are the public servants. Like my boss the President, I work for you.

DHS is the third largest department of our government, with 240,000 employees, 22 components and a total budget authority of about 60 billion dollars. The Department is responsible for, among other things: counterterrorism; the administration and enforcement of our immigration laws; cybersecurity; aviation security: maritime security; border security; the security of our land and seaports; protection against nuclear, chemical and biological threats to the homeland; protection of our national leaders; protection of our critical infrastructure; training of federal law enforcement personnel; coordinating the federal government’s response to natural disasters; and emergency preparedness grants to state and local authorities.

The 22 agencies or components that make up DHS include: the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (which, by itself, is the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country); U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE); U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS); the U.S. Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the U.S. Secret Service.

As Secretary of Homeland Security, I am committed to ensuring that DHS is agile and vigilant in continually adapting to evolving threats and hazards. We must stay one step ahead of the next terrorist, the next cyber attack, and the next natural disaster. The most important part of my day as Secretary is the morning intelligence brief, which ranges in scope from the latest terrorist plotting to a weather map.

Border Security

Border and port security are indispensable to homeland security. Good border security is a barrier to terrorist threats, drug traffickers, transnational criminal organizations and other threats to national security. At the same time, DHS must be responsible for facilitating lawful trade and travel at our ports, which is crucial to our economy.

Overall, in the last ten years, in both the Bush and Obama Administrations, we’ve made great strides in border security. We’ve put an unprecedented amount of resources on the border. Apprehensions are an indicator of total attempts to cross our border illegally. And in the last ten years total apprehensions have gone down significantly – from over one million in the years 2004, 2005 and 2006, down to 420,000 in 2013.

But challenges remain. Overall, apprehensions are still down significantly from ten years ago, but this year we will likely see an increase over last year, owing to the spike in migration this year into South Texas, or, as we call it, the Rio Grande Valley Sector. This spring illegal migration there spiked to unprecedented levels. Most of these migrants are coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. I’m sure everyone here has seen the pictures of the kids -- as young as five, seven, ten years old -- who are part of this migration.  

This is a challenge to our border security, and, especially because of kids, it clearly has an humanitarian dimension. But, in the final analysis we know that our borders are not open to illegal migration, and our message to people in Central America is if you come here illegally, we will send you back, consistent with our laws and our values.

To respond to this, current situation, we have done a number of things:

We put additional border security and law enforcement resources in to South Texas. We have reduced the time it takes to repatriate an adult from an average of 33 days down to four days. We are adding additional flights to repatriate people back faster to their home countries. We have built more detention space. Two weeks ago the Department of Justice and I announced “Operation Coyote” which dedicates resources to the prosecution of the criminal smuggling organizations that are inducing people to take the long, dangerous journey from Central America. We have launched a renewed public messaging campaign in Central America, highlighting the dangers of the journey, and correcting the misinformation the coyotes are putting out about supposed “free passes” if you come to the United States. We are working with the governments of Mexico and in Central America to stem the tide.   

We are making progress. Since mid-June, the numbers of illegal migrants crossing into South Texas have gone down considerably. For example, on June 10, there were 1,628 apprehensions of migrants crossing the border into South Texas, including 455 unaccompanied children. Over the last two weeks, total daily apprehensions in South Texas ranged from 700 to 500, including only about 60-120 unaccompanied kids a day. But we are not declaring “mission over.”  The numbers of apprehensions are still considerably higher than they were last year. The poverty and violence that are the “push factors” in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador still exist.

We asked Congress for additional funding to address this problem. We are disappointed that Congress left town a week ago for its August recess and did not act last week to help us. You can’t fly an airplane without fuel, and I cannot fund a massive immigration enforcement effort without money. To sustain our campaign, I therefore had no choice but to re-program hundreds of millions of dollars away from other vital homeland security missions. There were no good choices.

Immigration Reform

Congress has also failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation, which is supported by the business community, organized labor, and, if the polls are to be believed, a majority of the American people.

Our immigration system is broken - everyone agrees with that. Yet Congress has refused to act to fix it. We in the Executive Branch cannot wait any longer. Therefore, within weeks the President will announce a series of comprehensive reforms to the system that we believe we can undertake, within the confines of existing law.


One of my other major goals in office is to make progress on cybersecurity. I am well-armed to do that with our very capable Under Secretary in charge of our National Protection and Programs Directorate, Suzanne Spaulding. Suzanne is herself active in the ABA, including as the former Chair of the Committee on Law and National Security from 2001 to 2004. That’s how I got to know Suzanne.

We face a cyber threat in multiple forms: from private criminal actors to nation-state actors, ranging in purpose from identity and data theft to espionage and destruction. Indeed, there is no longer just a cyber-threat to this country. Virtually every minute of the day we suffer an actual cyber attack of some form in this country.

At DHS, our National Cybersecurity Communications Integrations Center (NCCIC) works 24/7 on cyber incident response and information sharing. For example, earlier this year, our NCCIC – that’s the acronym – quickly and effectively scanned the systems of every agency in the federal government to identify the Heartbleed vulnerability and helped agencies mitigate it. We have built solid relationships with the cyber security experts employed in multiple business sectors, and in the interagency of our government. We received a positive response from the business community to the cybersecurity “Framework” issued in February, and our C-Cubed Voluntary Program to help companies implement the framework. I have personally met with groups of corporate CEOs to build relationships for cybersecurity. I am relying on my friendships with FBI Director Jim Comey, who I’ve known for 25 years, and with Admiral Mike Rogers, the new Director of NSA, to ensure we’re working together as a team on cyber.

At DHS, we are pleased that Congress is taking action on cybersecurity. I salute the House for passing H.R. 3696, the National Cybersecurity Infrastructure Protection Act with bipartisan support. I thank Chairman McCaul and Ranking Member Thompson of the House Homeland Security Committee for their work and leadership on this bill. On the Senate side, Chairman Carper and Ranking Member Coburn have also moved cyber legislation out of their Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee has also voted out cyber legislation.


Under the leadership of John Pistole, TSA is moving toward a risk-based approach to aviation security. This means focusing resources on where the risks exist. This is a smart, efficient and effective use of taxpayer resources. TSA pre-check is an example of this. For those who provide basic background information to enroll in TSA pre-check, the wait time at the airport is shorter and the screening less obtrusive. This enables us to focus our attention on the class of air travelers moving through the lines that we know less about, and it has the added benefit of being popular with the public.  People are actually saying good things about the TSA experience.    


Under the leadership of Craig Fugate, FEMA has come a long way from the days of Katrina. Leaving a disaster scene earlier this year, another official said to me “this is what the federal government does best.”  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. And we will continue to be vigilant in preparing for and responding to disasters, including floods, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, chemical leaks, oil spills and mud slides.

The Coast Guard

With help from Congress, we are in the midst of rebuilding the Coast Guard.  I am personally committed to doing this, even in these times of fiscal constraint. I am excited about the future of the Coast Guard, particularly with its new leaders, Commandant Paul Zukunft and Vice Commandant Pete Neffenger.

The Secret Service

Next, it’s great to have a component within DHS that is the subject of so much fascination – and a workforce portrayed in the movies by Clint Eastwood, Michael Douglas, and Scott Glenn. Many know the Secret Service for the protection of our national leaders and visiting heads of state. It is the finest protection service in the world. A testament to the skill of the Secret Service was the carefully coordinated manner in which it protected 46 different African leaders who came to Washington this past week. Less well known but equally extraordinary is the Secret Service as a law enforcement agency, principally financial crimes – bank crimes, counterfeit currency and most notable of late, the Secret Service is the lead investigative agency for the cybercrimes on the Target Stores.

Management Issues

On the management front, in April I announced our “Unity of Effort” initiative, to centralize and bring a more strategic focus to our budget and acquisition process – an initiative that has won bipartisan praise in Congress, including from Dr. Tom Coburn, a Senator whose views I trust and respect.

Just before I took office in December the Department of Homeland Security had no Secretary, no Deputy Secretary and a number of vacancies at the senior-most levels of the Department. We’re filling the vacancies. Including myself, there have been eight Senate-confirmed presidential appointments to DHS senior positions since December. This includes our terrific new Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the former U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, and Suzanne Spaulding, who I already told you about.

We are doing a number of things to raise morale in the Department. We are more transparent about hiring and training opportunities, and I have brought back a number of awards programs, to say thanks to people for a job well done.

Though there are 92 or 88 (depending on how you count) committees and subcommittees of Congress that claim oversight jurisdiction over our Department, we are working to be more responsive to Congress, and follow a general rule that every piece of congressional correspondence must be answered in 14 days.


Finally -- and I saved this for last very deliberately -- counterterrorism must and will remain the cornerstone of the Department of Homeland Security’s mission. It’s the reason we were created, and for me personally, as a New Yorker who was present in Manhattan on 9/11, it’s what motivates my public service.

Thirteen years after 9/11, it’s still a dangerous world. There’s still a terrorist threat to our homeland, though it is more decentralized and more complex.

The Al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11 had, for a non-state actor, a relatively simple and centralized command and control structure. But now many of its past leaders have been killed or captured. If my single worst day as a New Yorker was 9/11, my single best day as a public servant was May 1, 2011, the day we found Osama bin Laden.   

Since about 2009, we saw the rise of al Qaeda affiliates, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP, in particular, has made repeated efforts to export terrorism to our homeland, and it remains active. Al Qaeda affiliates and adherents are growing and splintering. We see the troubling and alarming rise of al Qaeda-inspired groups like ISIL, which al Qaeda leadership has actually renounced.     

We are concerned about the independent actor, who did not train at an al Qaeda camp, or associate with or take orders from any member of al Qaeda, but who is inspired by al Qaeda’s terrorist ideology – the so-called “lone wolf” who may be lurking within our own society. We got an example of this type of actor last year at the Boston Marathon. In many respects, this is the hardest terrorist threat to detect, and the one I worry most about.

To address the domestic “lone wolf” threat, DHS depends on our partnerships with state and local law enforcement, and the public, by programs such as “If You See Something, Say Something™.”

The FBI does an effective job at detecting and investigating this threat and prosecuting those who cross into criminal behavior.

Within DHS we have programs to engage in outreach to communities who themselves are able to reach young men who may otherwise turn to violence. I personally participate in these outreach programs. In June I met with a Syrian-American community group in a Chicago suburb and I plan to do more of this around the nation.

Much of the terrorist threat continues to center around aviation security. That is why, in early July, I directed a number of steps to enhance aviation security at overseas airports with direct flights into the United States. We continually evaluate whether more is necessary, without unnecessarily burdening the traveling public. 

I am a big proponent of “pre-clearance” at overseas airports with flights to the U.S. This means inspection by a U.S. customs officer and enhanced aviation security before you get on the plane to the U.S. We now have pre-clearance at airports in Dublin, Shannon, the UAE, Canada and the Caribbean. I regard it as a homeland security imperative to build more. To use a football metaphor, I’d much rather defend our end-zone from the 50-yard line than our 1-yard line. I want to take every opportunity we have to expand homeland security beyond our borders.

Preserving our laws, liberties and values

This brings me to my last point.

The nature of our mission in homeland security is such that no news is good news. No news means no bombs, no crashes, no explosions, no natural disasters, no death or destruction.  But, no news does not mean complacency. 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.

The American public’s tolerance for homeland security should not depend upon the occurrence of a crisis, or decline with the passage of time from the last crisis.

We continue to face real enemies and real threats.

In these times, we ask all Americans to understand the need for a certain level of homeland security in their daily lives -- at airports, government buildings, public places and large public gatherings. 

We ask all Americans to understand the vital role that our intelligence agencies play in keeping the homeland safe. I am a daily consumer of the intelligence products generated by the CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies of our government. I can attest to the great value these products have in our ability to detect and guard against the latest terrorist plots at their earliest stages. Our job in homeland security is to anticipate the next terrorist attack, not react to the last one. That is what good intelligence does – detect the latest efforts, at the earliest stages, to bring new forms of terrorism to the homeland long before that can happen.

Next, I ask all members of the Bar, including the delegates and leaders of this great bar association, to encourage law students and young lawyers to consider public service. Lawyers who work in public service, or in the public interest, safeguard our laws and the American values reflected in our laws. This service can encompass many forms, ranging from a JAG in the military, a judge, a civilian lawyer for a national security agency, or – as Vice President Biden requested earlier this week -- a private lawyer pro bono for a child in an immigration court.

Those of us who are leaders of the Bar must encourage every form of public service. 

I know, first-hand, the growing disparity between private and public salaries in our profession. But, this is a national imperative.  

In the name of national security, our government can go too far. In the name of national security, government officials can become too arrogant in the use of their power. Our American history, old and recent, is riddled with unfortunate examples. Long before this Nation honored Martin Luther King with a national holiday and a street named for him in every major city, he was the target of government surveillance and harassment. Today marks the 40th anniversary of the resignation of a President who believed “If the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” 

In the name of homeland security, I can build you a perfectly safe city, but it will be a prison. I can guarantee you a perfectly safe, risk-free commercial flight, but every passenger will be strip-searched and not permitted any food, luggage or freedom of movement during the ride. We can build more walls, install more invasive screening devices, ask more intrusive questions, expect more answers, and make everybody suspicious of those different from themselves. But we should not do this at the cost of who we are as a Nation of people who respect the law, cherish privacy and freedom, celebrate diversity, and who are not afraid. This is our greatest strength as a Nation. 

Thank you for listening.


Last Updated: 09/20/2018
Was this page helpful?
This page was not helpful because the content