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Written testimony of DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson for a Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing titled “Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security”

Release Date: 
April 28, 2015

226 Dirksen Senate Office Building

Chairman Grassley, Ranking Member Leahy, and distinguished members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to address you today.

Counterterrorism is the cornerstone of our homeland security mission. Thirteen and a half years after 9/11, it’s still a dangerous world. And in 2015, we must recognize that we have evolved to a new phase. Today, the terrorist threat is more decentralized, more diffuse, and more complex.

We are concerned about the foreign fighter who leaves his home country, travels to another country to take up the fight there, links up with terrorist extremists, and may return home – whether it’s this country or one of our allies – with a terrorist purpose.

We are concerned about terrorist organizations’ new, slick and skilled use of the Internet to publicly recruit individuals to conduct attacks within their own homelands. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) no longer builds bombs in secret; it publicizes its instruction manual, and urges people to use it.

We are concerned about the domestic-based terrorist threat that may lurk in our midst – the so-called “lone wolf” – who may become inspired by extremist propaganda on the Internet, and who could strike with little or no notice.

So what are we doing about this in 2015? We tailor and enhance our security through every appropriate method.

Much of countering terrorism requires securing our aviation system. Terrorists are always looking for ways to circumvent airport security. But we are continuously evaluating, modifying and enhancing our aviation security measures to stop them. Last summer, for example, DHS started requiring enhanced screening at select overseas airports with direct flights to the United States. Weeks later, we added other airports. The United Kingdom and other countries followed suit with similar enhancements. Then in January, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) increased the number of random searches of passengers and carry-on luggage at U.S. airports.

A DHS priority in 2015 is the expansion of preclearance operations at foreign airports with flights to the United States. I view this as an important piece of our aviation security and our counterterrorism mission.

In the current threat environment, countering violent extremism is an indispensable part of our homeland security mission. And that must include public engagement. DHS is building partnerships with state and local law enforcement, community leaders, and institutions that are in a position to deter those who may be turning to violence. In 2014, DHS held over 70 meetings, roundtables and other events in 14 cities. I have personally participated in these efforts. I have met with community leaders and other critical stakeholders in Chicago, Columbus, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Boston. And I have more of these meetings in Houston and New York. Last February, I was also part of the CVE Summit at the White House and the Global Counterterrorism Workshop at the State Department. These events focused on how American communities and our allies abroad can develop specific programs to address these issues. The lone wolf is not confined to one community or even one country.

Violent extremists are also traveling abroad. So we’re taking steps to ensure that they are not able to return to the United States unnoticed. Since January 2009, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) has provided DHS key biographic information about Visa Waiver Program travelers before they board an aircraft bound for the United States. In 2014, we strengthened the Visa Waiver Program’s security by requiring additional information for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. Now we know even more about those who travel to the United States and are able to conduct even more effective security screening. We offer the Visa Waiver Program to 38 countries. It is a valuable tool for international commerce and travel and encourages Visa Waiver partner countries to engage in more effective security and law enforcement cooperation with the United States. The program must continue in a secure manner. DHS is considering additional ways to make the Visa Waiver Program even more secure, including watchlisting, information-sharing, collection and analysis of travel data and cooperation with INTERPOL. We also are sharing our aviation screening expertise with our allies to help them identify illicit travel while also protecting the privacy and civil liberties of all travelers.

Similarly, we cooperate here at home with state and local officials, particularly in sharing threat information with our state, local, tribal, and territorial partners. With the FBI, we routinely prepare and release Joint Information Bulletins (JIBs) nationally, including some specifically tailored to topics like ISIL recruitment and the recent spate of arrests by the FBI. Last September, DHS released a guide to help retail businesses identify suspicious purchases of explosive precursors. We and the FBI are also working with the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other partners to produce awareness training videos tailored to the foreign fighter threat.

At DHS, we are always concerned about possible vulnerabilities and working to ensure that our nation is safe.

An incident last December at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport raised such a concern – specifically, about whether aviation workers with airport identification badges could bypass security and smuggle weapons or explosives into an operations area or even onto an aircraft. I asked the Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC) to review and make recommendations to address these concerns. And this month, in response to the ASAC’s report, I directed the TSA to take several immediate actions, including “real-time recurrent” criminal history background checks, reducing the number of access points to secured areas, and a program to encourage airport workers to report suspicious activity. TSA is looking for any additional measures we can take.

As I said earlier, counterterrorism is our cornerstone mission, the reason DHS was created in 2002. But the reality is that in 2015, cybersecurity has become a mission of equal importance. So DHS is building an agile and responsive cybersecurity capability.

Part of doing that means we must work closer with our most innovative companies to develop and field security technologies and to strengthen our critical relationships with the technology community. We have long recognized that the government cannot fully address the cyber threat alone – we must have strong partnerships with industry. Therefore, we are finalizing plans to open a satellite office in Silicon Valley that will serve to strengthen our critical relationships there and improve our ability to manage our shared risk to cyberspace.

I also intend to hire a new director for the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC). I want a recognized all-star. My goal is to make the NCCIC a 24/7 cybersecurity operations center that brings together government and business, working side by side to assess and reduce the risks to America’s cyber systems.

We’re looking to Congress for help in strengthening our national cybersecurity posture with legislation that will provide appropriate protection from civil and criminal liability to companies for providing cyber threat indicators to the NCCIC. We are also looking for Congress’ help in supporting the President’s FY 2016 request for funding to build the Cybersecurity Campus, to be the focal point for engagement among Federal cyber missions, including DHS and FBI, and private sector partners. In addition, President Obama has proposed a national data breach reporting standard, in lieu of the existing patchwork of state laws on the subject. And he has proposed enhanced criminal penalties for cybercrime.

Securing the border is another core mission of DHS.

As such, the Department has deployed historic levels of front-line personnel, technology, and infrastructure to the border to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants and illicit contraband while, at the same time, fostering legal trade and travel. These investments have yielded good results.

And to secure our borders even more effectively, DHS took several additional major steps last November. We established new Department-wide enforcement priorities that focused on recent border crossers, convicted criminals and threats to national security. We dedicated unprecedented resources to secure the southwest border. We implemented a new risk-based U.S. Southern Border and Approaches Campaign. And we increased cooperation with foreign governments.

The result of all these efforts has been a significant reduction in apprehensions of illegal migrants along the southwest border, a strong indicator that there are fewer attempts to cross the border illegally.

During the first six months of Fiscal Year 2015, the number of total apprehensions along the southwest border was 151,805, down nearly 60,000 (or 28 percent) compared to the same period in Fiscal Year 2014. It appears that April 2015 will follow the same reduced trend. Border apprehensions in the first six months of Fiscal Year 2015 were a fraction of where they were 15 years ago, when they totaled 1.6 million. Apprehensions of unaccompanied children across the southwest are down significantly as well. During the first six months of Fiscal Year 2015, apprehensions of unaccompanied children along the southwest border were 15,627, a 45 percent decrease when compared to the same period during last year’s surge.

We’re not declaring total victory. But we are sending a strong message – backed by strong action – that this country is not open to illegal migration.

In Fiscal Year 2015, our strategy to fundamentally alter the way we secure our southern border has moved from concept to reality. On February 6, our three new Joint Tasks Forces became operational. We are now employing DHS assets—CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Coast Guard, and others—in a strategic way. The strategy integrates DHS operations against pre-identified, Secretary-approved, outcomes and targets for the range of threats and challenges, including illegal migration, illegal drug, human and arms trafficking, the illicit financing of all these operations, and the terrorist threat.

The President and I support comprehensive immigration reform. But in the meantime, we are taking steps to fix as much of our broken immigration system as we can, within our existing legal authorities.

In addition to the border security actions outlined above, our executive actions prioritize the removal of felons over families, include measures to further secure the border, discontinue the Secure Communities program and create a new approach focused on working collaboratively with state and local law enforcement to removal convicted criminals while respecting critical local community policing efforts, streamline legal immigration to boost the economy and promote naturalization, support military families, and enhance options for foreign-born high-skilled workers, entrepreneurs and businesses.

As a part of our executive actions, we announced a new program of deferred action for undocumented adults. Those who have committed no serious crimes, have been in this country since January 1, 2010, and have children here who are citizens or lawful permanent residents, would be eligible to be considered for this program. The reality is that these individuals are not enforcement priorities. Therefore, we want to encourage them to come out of the shadows, be accountable, pay taxes, and get on the books, so we know who they are.

The Supreme Court and Congress have made clear that the federal government can set priorities and exercise prosecutorial discretion when enforcing our immigration laws—which is exactly what we did when the President announced commonsense policies to help fix our broken immigration system.

As the Congress is aware, implementation of this policy and the expansion of an existing policy to provide temporary relief to undocumented individuals who can to the U.S. as children (or “DACA”) are on hold given a federal court preliminary injunction in Texas. We continue to abide by that injunction. We are also vigorously defending our actions in that litigation.

A critical part of our enforcement efforts is PEP, which stands for the Priority Enforcement Program. PEP replaces the controversial Secure Communities program, which was supposed to deport criminals convicted of serious crimes but too often led to the removal of those charged with minor offenses, even before their conviction.

PEP will focus our resources on convicted criminals rather than undocumented immigrants who have, in effect, become valued members of the community.

We need state and local law enforcement to work with us to make PEP a success. So we are reaching out to state and local governments to gain their cooperation in ensuring that dangerous criminals are transferred to ICE custody instead of released to the streets. I hope this Committee and all of Congress will also support our efforts in this regard.

Moving forward, I remain firmly committed to enforcing our immigration laws effectively and sensibly, in line with our Nation’s values, and in a way that addresses as many problems as possible and makes national security our top priority.

Now, I would like to take a moment and speak with you regarding the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program (the “EB-5 Program”), which as you know is up for reauthorization this year.

Despite its popularity in Congress and elsewhere, I have ongoing concerns about the EB-5 Program.

Over the last several years, USCIS has taken important steps to improve the program, with fraud detection and national security personnel working alongside adjudication officers and, in fraud and abuse cases, with federal law enforcement.

Notwithstanding our progress, we need to do more, and we need Congress to help. I believe that any reauthorization needs to include reforms that strengthen DHS’s ability to protect the integrity and viability of the program and address fraud and national security concerns.

I have outlined my proposals in a letter to Chairman Grassley and Ranking Member Leahy, and I would be happy to arrange a briefing for any additional members who want to hear more about them.

I also I want to ensure that the EB-5 Program is free from the reality or perception of improper outside influence. So in addition to these legislative reforms, I am putting in place new protocols to ensure that adjudication is fair, transparent, and without improper influence.

Since taking office in December 2013, I have made management reform a top priority in the Department. Improving the effectiveness and efficiency by which we pursue our mission is itself a homeland security imperative.

Over the last 16 months, we have filled almost all the senior-level vacancies in the Department.

Our Unity of Effort initiative has now been in effect for a year, and it has brought a more centralized process for making decisions concerning budget requests, acquisition, strategy, and other Department functions. Growing out of this initiative, we also have realigned major DHS headquarters activities to consolidate like functions and promote efficiency.

And we are on a path to get off the Government Accountability Office’s so-called “High Risk List.” In its latest report, GAO says DHS is a “model” for how federal agencies can work to address GAO’s “high risk” designation.

Before concluding, I want to stress that maintaining the security of our homeland is made possible through the dedicated work of the nearly quarter million men and women who comprise DHS. I visit as many of them as I can, as often as possible, where they work – on the front lines.

Just a few weeks ago, I visited our Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel in New Orleans, including three who were at the scene of an attack by a deranged man with a machete and other dangerous items.

One of our TSA officers, supervisor Carol Richel, was wounded in the attack. Yet her first instinct was to secure her post without even realizing she had been shot through the arm. And by the way, she came to work the next day.

There’s a lot of talk about morale problems at DHS and how it is one of the so-called “worst places” to work in the federal government. But at DHS, we are no longer “studying” the issue of morale. We are doing something about it. Our focus is on action. We are addressing fairness and transparency in hiring, promotion and training opportunities. We are sharing employee ideas. And we are recognizing our people for their good work. The results are clear – the men and women all across the Department of Homeland Security are upbeat, dedicated, and patriotic – people like Carol Richel.

In conclusion, I want to say I am pleased to provide the Committee with this overview of the progress we are making at DHS. You have my commitment to work with each member of the Committee to build on our momentum on behalf of the American people.

I look forward to your questions.

Last Published Date: November 8, 2019
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