Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson at the Berkeley Forum

Conversations April 16, 2019

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson appeared at the Berkeley Forum on September 15, 2015. Johnson’s talk centered around the evolving nature of threats to the homeland, while also addressing particular concerns regarding immigration enforcement and American security post-9/11. The event was moderated by Carter Keeling.

Carter Keeling: You talked a lot about previous examples of interactions with demonstrators that you’ve had, many of which, have been successful. And I was personally, very surprised, that you went down, personally, to talk with those individuals outside. Of course, it wasn’t a very fruitful discussion. So, for individuals who are very impassioned, and very concerned, about the actions of your department, how do you, and how does your department, communicate a lot of the misinformation, and a lot of the numbers, if they’re so unwilling to listen?

Jeh Johnson: Well, discussions like this, for example, on college campuses. I have spoken at the Heritage Foundation. I’ll go anyplace to have a conversation, and a dialogue. And what I’d say to young people, who feel impassioned about the issue, and want to make a lot of noise about the issue, I respect, and admire, and support your enthusiasm, and your commitment to the issues. Now, let’s channel that, in a way that can bring about change. Take my advice, on how to best put the pressure points on the system, to bring about change. Here are the people you need to talk to, here are the people you need to influence. I’m all for immigration reform. I’d like to see us deport fewer people, and focus more on the criminals, because that’s where our resources should be. Not just going after the people who are easiest to apprehend, but spending the time to look for the threats to public safety. That’s the smartest investment of our taxpayer money, and we’re not breaking up families. So, I’m all for immigration reform. I’m all for Congress passing comprehensive immigration reform, that provides for an earned path to citizenship, for those who are undocumented. Now, let’s talk to the people who are not, and see if we can change some minds. And there are ways in Washington, and in Sacramento, and elsewhere, to do that, in an effective way. And so I learned this from the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, in 2010. In January, 2010, when I was General Counsel of DoD, the Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, asked me to do a study, on whether or not the military was ready to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, along with an Army 4-star general. So, we spent 10 months doing this, and we made our report public. We surveyed 400,000 people, we visited military bases all around the country, in groups this size, we probably hit over 50 bases. Everyone we spoke to had an opinion about gays in the military. Everyone. This wasn’t an issue where people said, “Well, I don’t really know.” And so a lot of people in Congress… And it required repealing a law, from 1993. A lot of people in Congress were firmly in one camp or another, but there was that swing vote, there were people in the middle, who hadn’t made up their minds. And so that’s who I knew I had to target our report at, the people who wanted to listen, and the people who could be influenced, one way or another, by a thorough, exhaustive study. And we made our report public, on November 30, 2010, and the Congress repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, three weeks later. Frankly, it was an idea whose time had come. But with the advocates for repeal out there, working in the Congress, to influence the votes, that really didn’t make a difference, and it was smart policy change. And it would be great if we could marshall that kind of thing, because there’s a lot of energy out there, to marshall that kind of thing, when it comes to immigration reform.

Carter Keeling: You mentioned, four days ago, 9/11, was your birthday. But also on Friday was the 14th anniversary of the attack in New York City, and it was that national catastrophe that was really the impetus for the creation of your department. Now, in the roughly 13 years since its creation, do you feel that the DHS has succeeded in its founding mission, of making America a more secure place, that’s less vulnerable, less susceptible to terrorism, and other threats?

Jeh Johnson: I believe that our government, as a whole, through our counterterrorism efforts, through our law enforcement efforts, through our Homeland Security efforts, has made for a safer homeland. We do a good job, when it comes to detecting terrorist plots from overseas now, at their earliest stages, to the point where often, it’s a task of sorting out what’s real versus the noise, in the daily intel reports. But as I said, we’ve evolved to a new phase, that includes the potential for the lone actor, here in the homeland, who could act with little notice. And that presents a new and different kind of challenge, that we have to address. So, that’s a new phenomenon.

Protestor: Jeh Johnson, but failing our friends and our family, you do have the power to stop deportation, and you, specifically, released a memo, which targets our communities, that is not a priority. You want to the give right statistics, it is not 95% of folks that are detained in detention centers. You detain domestic violence survivors that you’re supposed to protect. You say that we shouldn’t have reactionary…reactions to incidents, but a couple weeks ago, ICE did a huge raid in Southern California, of 240 people, then that was under your jurisdiction. There is no accountability for any ICE agents, you continue to separate families. There is no accountability. You say you want to talk to community members. You have not responded to our memo, that we have asked, for clarity on what this priority enforcement program is. You continue to instill programs that criminalize our people. Why do you continue to do this, why do you continue to violate the Fourth Amendment rights of immigrants?

Jeh Johnson: Are you done?

Protestor: I’m not done.

Jeh Johnson: Is that your question?

Protestor: I’m not done. I’m looking for an answer, and the whole time you have talked, you have not given anyone an answer.

Jeh Johnson: Well, I’d be happy to answer your question when you’re done.

Protestor: I’m here to listen to your answer.

Jeh Johnson: Okay.

Protestor: Because we’ve been waiting for a long time.

Jeh Johnson: Are you done?

Protestor: Yes. Go ahead.

Jeh Johnson: You asked a lot of different questions.

Protestor: And you haven’t answered any of them.

Jeh Johnson: You haven’t given me a chance yet.

Protestor: I’m giving you a chance right now.

Jeh Johnson: Okay. Would you like to remain standing, or would you like to sit down?

Protestor: I would like to remain standing.

Jeh Johnson: Okay. Are you going to interrupt me, while I try to answer your questions?

Protestor: I’m listening.

Jeh Johnson: Okay. Just please, promise not to interrupt me.

Protestor: I’m listening.

Jeh Johnson: Okay. Number one, we’ve ended the Secure Communities program, which created a lot of legal and political controversy, because that program was rounding up people, based on mere warrants, and not convictions. It was also creating litigation in the courts, because local jurisdictions were holding people longer than they would otherwise do so, for purposes of immigration enforcement. And those jurisdictions were losing in the courts, so we’ve ended the Secure Communities Program.

Protestor: No. You have recreated it, through the PEP-COMM Program.

Jeh Johnson: I disagree. I disagree.

Protestor: No, you have. PEP-COMM has been installed to continue to run your deportation machine, and that is what the Department of Homeland Security is. And you profit off the detention of our people, and you continue to invest in institutions that profit off of the people that make this country. We have all once been immigrants, and you have not… You sit here, and you say that supposedly respond to the community, but you don’t. You have targeted every single undocumented [person], there’s no accountability for ICE agents at all.

Jeh Johnson: Ma’am, if you believe that there are no threats to our Homeland Security, I suggest you take that up with the families…

Jeh Johnson: May I speak?

Protestor: You did a constitutional waiver, don’t violate our constitution amendment, and give us that due process right.

Jeh Johnson: May I speak?

Protestor: No, I’m not going to stop –

Protestor: You continue to deport all of our friends and our families. You continue to profit off of our people –

Jeh Johnson: May I be allowed to speak, please.

Protestor: There’s no accountability.

Jeh Johnson: Nobody else here gets a chance to ask questions, if you’re going to do this.

Protestor: You’re not going to give answers anyway…Eleven million people have been undocumented. We want answers and we want to hear them. We don’t want you to continue to work around the trust that we’re trying to build in our communities. We are trying to build trust, and you do not allow us to build that trust, with our local law enforcement, in our communities.

Jeh Johnson: You know what? Don’t do that. Folks, don’t do that. Don’t make her leave. Let her stay. Let her stay.

Protestor: Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE! Shut down ICE!

Audience Member: Check, check. There we go. So, I just want to say hi, Secretary Johnson…. I just want to thank you for coming to Berkeley. It’s fantastic having you here. Glad you’re getting to see the passionate student body we have here. So, the question I had originally planned to ask you, you’ve already touched upon pretty well. It was a question about the specific strategies that your department’s using to prevent lone wolf terrorism, especially after the Chattanooga shootings. So, I guess I’d just like to ask you if you could go over some more of the specific strategies, if you’re at liberty to, and also leading one of the federal entities that’s been given specific abilities under the Patriot Act.

Jeh Johnson: Well, let me give you two specific examples, of what we can and should do, and what we are doing, in the current environment. Number one, in July, I announced security enhancements, to what is referred to as our visa waiver program. There are 38… Can everybody hear me? There are 38 countries, for which we do not require a visa, to come here to this country. We have added security assurances, that we expect to get from those countries, with respect to people who travel here. So, we want those countries to participate to a greater degree in the Interpol Stolen Passport database. Put passports into Interpol, report them when they’re stolen. We want more flights that include federal air marshals from these countries. We want more sharing, we want them to develop, and use advanced passenger information, so that they know who are getting on flights, in their countries, like we do in this country. So, greater security assurances, with respect to countries from which people travel without a visa, to deal, frankly, with the phenomenon of foreign fighters. All these people who are leaving countries, and on occasion, this country, to go to Iraq and Syria to take the fight. So, that’s one thing. I mentioned before, countering violent extremism. So, one of the things that we can and should do, and we are doing, is encouraging communities to prevent and interdict, before it becomes a matter of law enforcement. A lot of people that the FBI arrest are very young people, younger than you. And so we want to encourage work with communities, give them support where necessary, to intervene, and interdict, before somebody decides they want to pick up, and get on a flight, and travel to Syria. So, those are two examples. One of the things that I also want to do, and that we are doing, we’re building more of, is something called pre-clearance capability, overseas. If you get on a flight from Amsterdam, to the United States, for example, you’ll see the customs capability, once we make this arrangement, at the front end, not the back end. Passengers actually like it, because when you get off that 8-hour plane ride, the first thing you want to do, is hop in the Uber, or the taxi. You don’t want to sit around, in a long line, waiting to be asked a lot of questions, by my customs officers. Do it on the front end, when you’re fresh, and we know more about somebody, before they get on the airplane. So, that’s the type of direction we’re moving in. We’re also more sophisticated, and better at connecting the dots, among our interagency, and we want to do the same, with our good counterterrorism partners overseas, with respect to individuals of suspicion. Okay. Next question.

Audience Member: Hi, Secretary Johnson. And my question is in response to the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East, Germany has promised entrance of 800,000 refugees, Venezuela, 20,000 refugees, and only a couple days ago, did Obama promise 10,000 refugees could make their home here. And I’m wondering why has there been such hesitancy, and what are you and your department going to do to speed up the process, for the refugees coming here, so they don’t have to wait two years in limbo, going through the process of entering a country.

Jeh Johnson: A couple of things. First, in addition to accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees, the United States government already provides billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance, to the refugee problem right now, something like 4 billion. We’re the biggest single donor to that effort overseas. So, that’s one thing. We also have… We’ve got Central America, and we’ve got Mexico. So, as I’ve mentioned before, something like 330,000 apprehensions on our Southern border, many of whom will apply for asylum in this country. I have a finite number of CIS personnel, that can be devoted to screening for asylum, and screening for refugee status. And when you do screening for refugees, they have to go overseas, to places like Iraq, or Jordon, or other places, in border countries. They have to go overseas to do this screening, which means diverting them away from a lot of other immigration services. The other thing about CIS, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is responsible for refugee screening, it is a fee-based organization. It pays for itself through fees, applications, application fees, for green cards, and so forth. So, it’s got to pay for itself, and refugees is not a fee-based activity. So, you’ve got to pay for the refugee screening we do, through fees coming from other types of services. So, we want to do more, we will do more, by way of refugees, by way of direct humanitarian assistance, with our dollars, and we want to do it as quickly as possibly, but like everything in government, you’ve got to do it with the resources that you have. Right now, as I said, Congress has yet to pass a budget for 2016, and unless they affirmatively repeal it, sequestration… Everybody knows what sequestration is, right? Sequestration is going to kick back in at the beginning of next calendar year, which decapitates my budget. So, lots of times, people want us to do more, but you’ve got to give me more to do it with. And I can’t do more with less. So, if we have to live with sequestration, we have to cut back on immigration services, border security, law enforcement, counterterrorism, aviation security, cybersecurity, Coast Guard, maritime security. We’re still feeling the effects from sequestration, two years ago. So, that is my plea to this room. Support repeal of sequestration, so we can do more, of the types of things, that folks here on this campus want us to do. I have time for one more question. Yes, sir. Right here.

Audience Member: Ah, yes. So, you’ve spoken a lot about counterterrorism, and the rising threat of lone wolves, and similar effects that are totally unexpected, and so understandably you’ve… I mean, I’m not privy to the surveillance methods, or different mechanism that you try and anticipate such attacks, or try and prevent them before they occur, but are there mechanisms that you have in place, to ensure that you’re not overstepping, so as to infringe upon civil liberties?

Jeh Johnson: Yes. Yes. Unlike the Department of Defense, where I used to work, the Department of Homeland Security has an Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and an Office of Privacy, that reports directly to me, that is privy to the most sensitive Homeland Security programs we have, that provides exactly that type of balance. And I hear from them directly. They sit in on all the most sensitive meetings, to ensure that we’re not crossing those lines, that we’re not profiling people by race, religion, skin color, and the like, that we’re not crossing the lines, in terms of inhibiting travel, and so forth. And that’s something that I personally believe we absolutely, we have to do. Actually, I do want to say one more thing. To the students here. When I was in college, I wanted to be in public service, politics. I wanted to be in public service, and I never lost that dream. I went to law school, I got sucked into the Wall Street corporate law thing for a while, but I never lost the dream of public service. And so I came back to it, I’ve been four times in public service. As a federal prosecutor, as General Counsel of the Air Force, General Counsel of DoD, and now this job, which I never imagined I would be in. And it’s been great every moment, there is never a dull day in my job. And I have, in public service, way more to talk about at parties, than I did at my private corporate law practice. And the basic instinct of all of us is to serve, and to help people, which is what you do most often in public service. So, those of you students who are thinking about a career in public service, at the state, local, or federal level, don’t lose that dream. I hope it stays with you. Even with the mortgage, with the kids, the dog, the tuitions, the student debt. Don’t lose that dream. I haven’t. I made a lot more money in corporate law. Right now, I make less than probably a third year associate, three years out of law school, at my law firm in New York, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison. I run an organization of 240,000 people. I make less than a third year associate, but I would not exchange it for anything in the world. So, thank you all very, very much.