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Remarks by Secretary Of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson at the Council on Foreign Relations – As Delivered

Release Date: 
September 10, 2014

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

New York
Council on Foreign Relations
(As delivered)

Thank you for inviting me to be here today and to speak to you about the important subject of homeland security.

Supported by my friend and colleague Ted Sorensen, I became a member of the Council on Foreign Relations in July 2001.  As soon as I joined the Council, I learned by attendance at meetings here that this is a terrific organization for the receipt of information and the bipartisan exchange of ideas concerning America’s foreign policy and national security.  I’m sorry that in recent years I have not been able to visit East 68th Street much.  I’ve been busy in Washington.

A little more than two months after I joined the Council on Foreign Relations in July 2001 it was my 44th birthday.  I remember that birthday far more vividly than any other, before or since.  It changed my life.  It was a Tuesday.  The weather that day was beautiful.  The temperature was in the 60s or 70s.  There was no humidity. There was not a cloud in the sky.  It was a perfect weather day.  I decided to drive to work that day, from my home in Montclair, New Jersey to midtown Manhattan.  I looked forward to coming home that evening and celebrating my birthday, September 11th, with my wife Susan and our two children. 

All that changed at 8:46am.  In an instant, that beautiful day turned to one of the single darkest days in American history.  Like millions of others, there are images and moments I remember about that day that will never fade with time.  The image of black smoke billowing out of the towers of the World Trade Center, against the backdrop of a crystal clear blue sky, is one burned into my memory.  When the South Tower collapsed at 9:59am, it was the one moment in my life when I really could not believe my own eyes.  I kept thinking that building, which had been a fixture on the Manhattan sky-scrape for almost 30 years, was going to emerge from the cloud of dust.  I remember thinking, by the time I got to my car later that day and drove across the George Washington Bridge, Manhattan Island had suddenly been transformed to a war zone. 

Out of that tragic day, the Department of Homeland Security was born, and my personal commitment to the mission of homeland security was born. 

Today 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 has a broad and diverse set of missions. It 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: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (which, by itself, is the largest federal law enforcement agency); U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement; U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services; the Coast Guard, TSA, FEMA, and the Secret Service.

Counterterrorism must and will remain the cornerstone of the Department of Homeland Security’s mission.   

During my four years as General Counsel of the Defense Department, I was pleased to be a witness to many of our government’s counterterrorism successes.  Many of the leaders of al Qaeda from 2001 are now dead or captured.  If September 11, 2001 was my worst day as an American, May 1, 2011 – the day our intelligence community and special operations forces found bin Laden – was my best day as a public servant. 

But, thirteen years after 9/11, it’s still a dangerous world.  There’s still a terrorist threat to our homeland. 

Today the terrorist threat is different from what it was in 2001.  It is more decentralized and more complex.  Not only is there core Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – which is still active in its efforts to attack the homeland -- al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Shabaab in Somalia, the al Nusrah Front in Syria, and the newest affiliate, al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent.  There are groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, which are not official affiliates of al Qaeda, but share its extremist ideology.   

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, previously known  as al Qaeda in Iraq, is now vying to be the preeminent terrorist organization on the world’s stage. 

At present, we have no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland of the United States. 

But that is not, by any means, the end of the story.

ISIL is an extremely dangerous organization.  It has the elements of both a terrorist organization and an insurgent army.  It kills innocent civilians, and has seized large amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, which it can utilize for safe haven, training, command and control, and from which it can launch attacks.  It engages in 30-40 attacks per month, has an estimated 10,000 fighters, and takes in as much as a million dollars a day from illicit oil sales, smuggling and ransom payments.  Its public messaging and social media is as slick and as effective as any I’ve ever seen from a terrorist organization.

Though we know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present, we know that ISIL is prepared to kill innocent Americans they encounter because they are Americans – in a public and depraved manner.  We know ISIL views the United States as an enemy, and we know that ISIL’s leaders have themselves said they will soon be in “direct confrontation” with the United States. 

So, what we are doing about it?

Tonight President Obama will deliver a speech to the Nation in which he will outline this government’s response to ISIL. 

The President has already begun a military campaign to take the fight to ISIL. To date, our military has launched well over 100 air strikes against ISIL in Iraq, to protect U.S. personnel, critical infrastructure, and to support humanitarian activities there.  After 13 years of war since 9/11, the decision by the President to take on a new fight against this enemy was not an easy one.  But, the President recognizes the serious threat posed by ISIL.

  As the President will explain tonight, the United States is resolute in our efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, as part of a broad international coalition including NATO allies and partners in the region, reflecting the global community’s condemnation of ISIL and its tactics.  As part of this, we are pleased to see the formation of the new government in Iraq, with whom we intend to work closely.  We look forward to this new government addressing the rights and concerns of all of Iraq’s diverse communities, and its leaders from across the political spectrum coming together to take a united stand against ISIL.     

From the homeland security perspective, here is what we are doing:

First, to address the threats generally emanating from terrorist groups overseas, we have in recent weeks enhanced aviation security.  In early July, I directed enhanced screening at 18 overseas airports with direct flights to the U.S. Several weeks later, we added six more airports to the list.  Two weeks ago we added another airport, and additional screening of carry-on luggage.  The United Kingdom and other countries have followed with similar enhancements to their aviation security.  We continually evaluate whether more is necessary, without unnecessarily burdening the traveling public. 

Longer term, we are pursuing “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 a passenger gets 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 from our 1-yard line. I want to take every opportunity we have to expand homeland security beyond our borders. 

Second, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the intelligence community are making enhanced and concerted efforts to track Syrian foreign fighters who come from or seek to enter this country.  The reality is that there are more than 12,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria over the last three years, including more than a thousand Europeans.  We estimate that more than 100 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join the fight there one way or another. We are concerned that not only may these foreign fighters join ISIL or other extremist groups in Syria, they may also be recruited by these extremist groups to leave Syria and conduct external attacks.  The FBI has arrested a number of individuals who have tried to travel from the U.S. to Syria to support terrorist activities there. 

Third, we are working with European and other governments to build better information sharing to track Syrian foreign fighters.  Whenever I get together with my European counterparts, this topic is almost always item number one on the agenda.  The importance of this issue is also reflected by the fact it will be a singular topic of discussion at a U.N. Security Council summit that the President will chair in two weeks.  I’m told that in the history of the U.N., this is only second time a U.S. President has personally chaired a Security Council summit.     

We are making enhanced efforts to track those who enter and leave Syria, and may later seek to travel to the United States from a country for which the United States does not require a visa from its citizens.  There are in fact a number of Visa Waiver Program countries that also have large numbers of citizens who are Syrian foreign fighters. Generally, we have strong information-sharing relationships with these countries.  But, with their help, we will build this capability.  We need to ensure that we are doing all we can to identify those who, by their travel patterns, attempt to hide their association with terrorist groups. 

When countries enter our Visa Waiver Program they agree to strong security safeguards.  We have undertaken a review of these safeguards to ensure that they are adequate.  We are assessing whether there are additional safeguards that can be implemented to identify foreign fighters, and whether they can be implemented on an expedited basis.   All 38 nations in the Visa Waiver Program have an interest in this. 

We are encouraging more countries to join the United States in using tools like Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record collection, which will help to identify terrorist travel patterns. 

Fourth, within the U.S. government, FBI Director Comey, CIA Director Brennan and I, along with others in law enforcement and the intelligence community, are enhancing our ability to share information with each other about suspicious individuals. 

Fifth, we are continually on guard against the potential domestic-based, home-grown terrorist threat who may be lurking in our own society.  The independent actor or “lone wolf.” Those who did not train at a terrorist camp or join the ranks of a terrorist organization overseas, but who are inspired here at home by a group’s social media, literature or extremist ideology. 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 about the most. 

To address the domestic “lone wolf” threat, I have directed that DHS build on our partnerships with state and local law enforcement.  The local police and fire departments are the first responders to any crisis in our homeland.  The local police, more than the federal government, have their finger on the pulse of the local community from which a domestic terrorist may come. 

To address the home-grown terrorist who may be lurking in our midst, we must also emphasize the need for help from the public.  “If You See Something, Say Something” is more than a slogan.

This week we are sending a private sector advisory identifying for retail businesses a long list of materials that could be used as explosive precursors, and the types of suspicious behavior that a retailer should look for from someone who buys a lot of these materials.     

Within DHS, we have programs to engage in outreach to communities which themselves are able to reach young men who may turn to violence. I have directed that we step up these programs and personally I participate in them.  In June I met with a Syrian-American community group in a Chicago suburb. Later this month I will meet with a Somali community in Columbus, Ohio.  In October, the White House will host a summit on domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremism, and address the full lifecycle of radicalization to violence posed by the foreign fighter risk. 

The good news for this country, I believe, is that over the last 13 years, we have vastly improved this Nation’s ability to detect and disrupt terrorist plots overseas before they reach the homeland.  Here at home, federal law enforcement does an excellent job, time and again, of identifying, investigating, arresting and prosecuting scores of individuals before they commit terrorist acts. 

The bad news is we continue to face real terrorist enemies and real terrorist threats.

The nature of the homeland security mission is such that no news is good news.  No news means no bombs, no crashes, no explosions, no natural disasters, no death and no destruction. But, no news does not and cannot mean complacency.  No news is often the result of the hard work and dedication of people within our government who prevent bad things that you never hear about. 

In this, we ask for the help and understanding of the American public.   

We need the help of community organizations in a position to touch those disaffected from society, in need of something or someone to believe in, belong to or worship, to stress that violence, terrorism and groups such as ISIL are not the answer.  Despite its slick public media and its self-proclamation to be the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL is neither “Islamic” nor is it a “State.”  Contrary to the misguided belief of some, ISIL is not defending Islam, and it is not defending innocent Muslims.  In fact, most of the people killed by ISIL are Muslims.  ISIL is a stateless group of depraved criminals, rapists, kidnappers, killers and terrorists who control territory.  There is no religion, including Islam, and there is no God, including Allah, that would condone ISIL’s violent tactics.  

We ask the American public to understand, in these times, the continued need for a certain level of homeland security in their daily lives – at airports, government buildings, public places and large public gatherings. 

We ask the American public to understand the vital role that our intelligence collection agencies play in keeping the homeland safe. I am a daily consumer of the intelligence products generated by the CIA, NSA and other 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.

For our part, those of us in government need to remember our history, old and recent, or risk repeating it.  Tomorrow we will remember those killed on September 11, 2001; we will honor the police and firemen and civilians who, in extraordinary acts of courage, gave their lives that day.  Tomorrow and every September 11th thereafter must also serve as a reminder that, if we let our guard down, the homeland security of this Nation can be shattered in an instant. 

For those of us in government, it is important to know another aspect of our history.  In the name of national security, our government should not overreact, or react out of fear, anger or prejudice. 

Our American history, old and recent, is riddled with unfortunate examples in which our government, in the name of national security, has gone too far. 

Long before this Nation honored Martin Luther King with a national holiday and a street named for him in virtually every major city, he was the target of government surveillance and harassment. 

Professor Charles V. Hamilton, retired from Columbia University, is one of the most respected political scientists in the United States and a member of this Council.  In the 1960s he co-authored the book Black Power with Stokley Carmichael, and was suspected of being a dangerous subversive by his own government.

More recent, and in reaction to 9/11, our government engaged in enhanced interrogation techniques contrary to who we are as a great Nation. 

In the name of national security, I can build you a perfectly safe city, but it will be a prison. I can build more fences, install more invasive screening devices, ask more intrusive questions, demand more answers, and make everybody suspicious of each other – but, it will cost us who we are as a Nation of people who respect the law, cherish privacy, freedom and fair play, celebrate our diversity, and who are not afraid. 

In the final analysis, these are the things that constitute our greatest strength as a Nation. 

Thank you for listening.

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Last Published Date: September 10, 2014
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