Homeland Security Secretary Johnson on ISIS, Ebola, and Preventing Homegrown Terrorism
A Conversation with Jeh Charles Johnson
Secretary of Homeland Security; U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Chairman, Stone Point Capital; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Charles Johnson reflects on his first nine months on the job and discusses the current challenges faced by his department in a conversation with Stephen Friedman of Stone Point Capital. Johnson warns of the danger posed by ISIS and highlights the efforts being made by DHS to track foreign fighters traveling to and from ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria. He also discusses the department's community outreach programs that are designed to help identify and prevent potential sources of domestic terrorism. Other top priorities for DHS include enhanced airport security measures, cybersecurity, and passenger screening for Ebola and other infectious diseases.
FRIEDMAN: Good afternoon. It's my pleasure to welcome our fellow member, Secretary Johnson. I'm not going to go into his bio, because you have it in your material, except to say that it is extremely distinguished in both the private sector and the public sector. His last job before Homeland Security, he ran what may be the biggest law firm in the world, 10,000 lawyers at DOD.
Would also welcome Mrs. Johnson, and happy to have you here.
One anecdote about the secretary. He was married 20 years ago, and he wooed Mrs. Johnson, who is a dentist, for three years of repetitive visits to the dentist chair.
Any man who will brave root canal work for romance is truly formidable. Secretary Johnson?
JOHNSON: Thank you very much, Steve. I am very pleased to be here. I see a lot of really good friends out there, friends and neighbors, literally. Peggy Carry (ph), Liz Holtzman (ph), Rubin Kreim (ph) is here somewhere, former law colleague. And Steve Schlesinger. Steve and I have known each other for 30 years or so, because we were next-door neighbors at 224 Riverside Drive. My fire escape faced his living room.
So, anyway, it's great to be here with such good friends, Conrad Harper (ph), some others.
Richard, thank you for inviting me.
I'm here to speak to you today about the important subject of homeland security. Supported by my friend and colleague, the late Ted Sorenson, 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 8:46 a.m. In an instant, that beautiful day turned into 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 9:59 a.m., 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 skyscape 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 into a warzone.
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. 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 and Customs Enforcement; U.S. Citizenship and 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 Qaida 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 Osama bin Laden, was my best day as a public servant.
But 13 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 Al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is still active in its efforts to attack the homeland, Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Nusra Front in Syria, the newest affiliate, Al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent.
There are groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, which are not official affiliates of Al Qaida, but share its extremist ideology. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, previously known as Al Qaida in Iraq, is now vying to be the preeminent terrorist organization on the world 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 to 40 attacks per month, has an estimated 10,000 fighters, and takes in as much as $1 million 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, quote, "direct confrontation," end quote, with the United States.
So what are we going to do 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 airstrikes 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 enhancing screening at 18 overseas airports with direct flights to the United States. Several weeks later, we added six more airports to that list. Two weeks ago, we added another airport and additional screening of carryon 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 preclearance at overseas airports with flights to the United States. This means inspection by a U.S. customs officer and enhanced aviation security before a passenger gets on the plane to the United States.
We now have preclearance 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 that have traveled to Syria over the last three years, including more than 1,000 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 other—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 United States 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 one on the agenda. The importance of this issue is also reflected by the fact that 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 the second time a U.S. president has personally chaired a Security Council summit.
We're 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're assessing whether there are additional safeguards that can be implemented to identify foreign fighters and whether there can be any that 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 advanced 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 homegrown 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've directed that DHS build on our partnerships with state and local law enforcement. 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 community from which a domestic terrorist may come.
To address the homegrown 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're 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've participated in them.
In June, I met with the Syrian-American community 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 life cycle 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'm 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, 2011. We will honor the police and fireman 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 coauthored the book "Black Power" with Stokely 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 strengths as a nation. Thank you all for listening.
FRIEDMAN: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for that fine speech. We're going to have a brief conversation, after which we're going to open up to the members here and out in other cities for questions.
Mr. Secretary, just—I just want to ask you a little bit about the management challenges of your department. Something over 100 agencies put together. I think it's probably about 100 congressional committees oversee you.
JOHNSON: One hundred and eight...
FRIEDMAN: Yeah. How...
JOHNSON: ... committees and subcommittees of Congress purport to oversee the Department of Homeland Security.
FRIEDMAN: Was it still a good idea to put it together? And how does one manage this organization with so many diverse—people talk about banks being possibly too big and complex. How does one manage an organization with so many different lines of business?
JOHNSON: First, you have to look at where all these diverse mission sets that come under the banner of Homeland Security existed before the creation of that department. Our 22 components were spread across the Department of Defense, Department of Agriculture, Department of Treasury, Transportation, and a host of others, supervised by numerous cabinet secretaries. That was all consolidated in 2003.
And just within my nine months as secretary, I've seen the extraordinary cohesion that can be achieved by having these different components together in one department around one conference table. For example, this past summer with the situation we had in the Rio Grande Valley sector with unaccompanied children, that required that I continually bring together our senior officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, FEMA, the Coast Guard, Citizenship and Immigration Services, all around one conference table, whereas pre-2002, they were spread across numerous agencies, Department of Justice and others.
And so it makes—in my view—an extraordinary amount of sense to have all of that within one cabinet department. I'm responsible for our borders and people crossing our borders, land, sea and air. So those are the components of DHS.
And so I think it makes an incredible amount of sense. As I travel around the world, meet with my counterparts, ministers of the interior, many of them have almost exactly the same set of missions that I do. And it took us until 2002 to put all that together, but there it is.
Now, in terms of the management, there are 240,000 people. It is for the most part a combination of organizations that many of whom pre-dated the Department of Homeland Security with their own culture, their own way of doing business, and I don't believe it's necessary for us to try to supplant the culture and get, say, the Secret Service to behave like the Coast Guard or behave like FEMA, but there are things that we should have in common.
I've directed a unity of effort initiative to bring to the department a more strategic focus to our budget-making and our acquisitions so that we avoid our duplications of effort and we're not just stovepiped, where one component gives me their budget request and we forward it to OMB. We want to bring a more strategic focus to that earlier on in the process.
And so it's a balance between centralized management, but allowing each of these organizations to have their own culture, their own mission, and pursue their own missions.
And a good chief of staff and good senior leaders. I'm happy that—this story doesn't get told enough—when I came in, we had no secretary, no deputy secretary. We had vacancies in a number of Senate-confirmed presidential appointments. In the last year, the Senate has confirmed nine of our presidential appointees—nine—in the last 12 months. There are two awaiting Senate confirmation now. If we can get that in the last session of Congress before they go off for the midterms, and they were two who were just two nominated—two more just nominated last week or the week before. And once they get through the Senate, we're done. We will have filled all the vacancies in the department.
FRIEDMAN: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that after 13 years of war it is difficult to take on a new fight. Until recently, the American public, speaking as a broad generalization, had very limited appetite for further military action in the Mideast. Should we be preparing the American public for the idea that, in radical jihad, we're dealing with something like a chronic disease and something like coping with the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, where we were going to have—we're going to have to be prepared for the long indefinite future to be ready to use military force, and we can't phase in and out of an appetite for that?
JOHNSON: I always resist a little bit comparisons and analogies to other situations. ISIL has shown a certain level of danger that constitute a threat to our vital interests as a nation and to Americans and to others in a coalition that is being assembled as we speak right now, such that the only responsible thing to do is to take them on before they grow even more dangerous.
They've cost the world scores in human lives, innocent people, innocent Muslims, and this type of organization, this type of terrorist threat simply has to be engaged. We can't avoid it.
FRIEDMAN: Has there been any change in your viewpoint—when you went from your former job at DOD to now—in terms of applicable and appropriate tactics, philosophies?
JOHNSON: Well, that's interesting. When I left the Department of Defense in 2012, and I was back in private life for a year, and then I came back rather unexpectedly to be secretary of homeland security, that one year off gives me a unique perspective. I came back a year later. I hadn't read intelligence reports for a year. Got to read the New York Times, but I hadn't read intelligence reports for a year. And I found it's still a dangerous world, but the danger is evolving in ways that I described in my remarks.
It's of a different kind and character. It's not the Al Qaida of 2001 anymore. It's a more decentralized threat. And so I—it's disappointing. It's still a dangerous world, and it's still a dangerous world for Americans, which is why we—why we have to act.
FRIEDMAN: I'm not going to touch on immigration, which I know is on people's minds, because I'm sure you'll get questions from the members. But let me ask you this question: cyber. It's under your aegis. I'd be interested if you would go into how well prepared you think the government is, the private sector, and perhaps particular emphasis on the power grid, the air, and our financial system.
JOHNSON: Because of the interconnectivity of the Internet and critical infrastructure, we've got to be—cybersecurity is one of my principal priorities in office. I really want to advance the ball on cybersecurity. And cybersecurity involves the security of critical infrastructure because of our reliance on cyber, on the Internet, and the interconnectivity of it all.
I think that, through the president's executive order last year and the cybersecurity framework that we set up in February of this year, meant for—to set forth best practices in the private sector, we've made real progress on cybersecurity. I'm impressed by the level of sophistication in certain private sectors.
And the financial sector, for example, as I'm sure you know, Steve, is very sophisticated, very adept at cybersecurity. Major financial institutions are making great strides. But even the most sophisticated bank benefits from information-sharing with the Department of Homeland Security. And my department's responsible for coordinating the federal government's response to securing the dot-gov world and the dot-com world.
We have something called the NCCIC. Don't ask me what the acronym means, national cyber-something. It's an ops center. It's basically where we conduct our operations to secure the dot-com, dot-gov world. I've been impressed by the speed with which our operations center is in contact with, you know, the Goldman Sachs, the Citigroups, the JPMorgans, Bank of America, others in the business sector. They have relationships on a first-name basis with the cybersecurity experts in the private sector.
And I've been impressed with how quickly we get information out, we get information back about cyber attacks, but we have cyber attacks on this nation on a daily basis of a different kind and character from a whole spectrum of actors. And so we've got a real problem.
And I wrote an op-ed, which was published yesterday, about cybersecurity legislation.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah, that's what (OFF-MIKE)
JOHNSON: There is bipartisan support right now for cybersecurity legislation. I was pleased that the House Homeland Security Committee on a bipartisan basis, led by Mike McCaul and Benny Thompson, got a bill through the entire House. There's activity in the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Tom Carper, Tom Coburn are interested in advancing legislation. In the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss are also interested in advancing that.
So we have opportunities to codify DHS's authorities in this area, to codify the private sector's authority and freedom to share information with the government. I'm interested in enhancing my hiring capability to bring in more cybersecurity talent that I can steal away from the financial services sector.
And so we've got a lot of work to do, without doubt. Information-sharing of best practices is one of the keys to that.
FRIEDMAN: But your comment on legislation anticipated my next question. At the time of the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury found they did not have all the legislative powers they wished they had had. And given the warning we have, it would be tragic if we didn't put in place (inaudible)
JOHNSON: Well, that is my plea.
JOHNSON: There is, in my judgment, some legal uncertainty at least in the minds of some about my authority to respond to a cyber attack in the private sector and even in the dot-gov world. And private-sector businesses worry about civil liability that they may face if they share information with the government.
And so we need the help of Congress to provide some clarity there. And everybody talks about cybersecurity and the need for legislation. We just have to reach agreement on it. And we've got some good leadership, and I'm hoping in the dwindling amount of time remaining in this Congress, this is something that they will take on.
FRIEDMAN: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Now we're going to turn it over to the members' questions. Reminder: This meeting is on-the-record. There are invited members of the press here. When you have questions, please wait for the mic and speak directly into it. And as normal, as usual, please stand, state your name and affiliation, and please only a single question and concise, so as many members as possible can ask their questions.
For those participating via teleconference, a reminder: E-mail your questions to email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.
And now, Madam?
QUESTION: My name is Lucy Komisar. I am a journalist. Taking up what you said about concern about homegrown terrorists and terrorists in the U.S., how do you deal with the fact that some budding terrorist can very easily go to some state where there are very few restrictions—none, really, enforced—get assault weapons, get handguns, walk around in the street with them, walk around even in an airport with them? Isn't this a huge hole in your protection of people in this country when terrorists in this country can get lethal weapons right here and turn them on us?
JOHNSON: Without directly commenting on various gun control ideas out there—as you know, that's obviously a hotly debated subject—I am concerned. You know, put handguns aside for the moment. Put assault weapons aside for the moment. I am concerned about how easy it is for somebody to buy in an open fashion materials, explosives, precursors to explosives, pressure cookers, that can be used to cause mass destruction, mass violence. And we saw an example of that in Boston last year.
"There is, in my judgment, some legal uncertainty, at least in the minds of some, about my authority to respond to a cyber attack in the private sector and even in the dot-gov world."
And so we can't and we shouldn't prohibit the sale of a pressure cooker. We can sensitize retail businesses to be on guard for suspicious behavior by those who buy this kind of stuff. And so I—you know, one of the reasons I am concerned about domestic-based acts of mass violence is the ease with which somebody can assemble things that in and of themselves are not dangerous, but you put them all together.
And then you combine that with some of the learning on the Internet that various groups put out—and I'm not going to promote anything in particular—it, you know, combines for a serious concern and a serious homeland security concern.
And so I—as I mentioned in my remarks—have decided that we need to make as a large part of the homeland security mission countering violent extremism at home and outreach to community groups. I mentioned that I was with a Syrian-American community organization in Chicago, and I was impressed by the extent to which the people that I met in that room that day had, I think, a good sense of the pulse of their community there.
And so this is something that we—this is something that we have to address. And, you know, we see it in multiple forms and fashions repeatedly with different motives. But it's obviously something we have to address.
FRIEDMAN: The lady back there?
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, in your definition of Syrian foreign fighters, do you—my name is Rali Dal Daram (ph) of Al-Haya (ph). Sorry.
QUESTION: Hello. In your definition of the Syrian foreign fighters, do you include Hezbollah, who is fighting by the side of the regime in Damascus? And in the coalition that you have referred to, will Russia and Iran be part of this coalition, given particularly their support of Bashar al-Assad, and you're fighting ISIL, his enemy? So...
JOHNSON: Second question first. I would refer you to the remarks of the president tonight. I don't want to get out ahead of my boss or anybody else's boss.
The way we think of Syrian foreign fighters, it's anybody who goes to Syria from outside Syria to take up the fight one way or another. It's as simple as that. Maybe a little more nuanced to the definition, but that's generally my understanding of it and how I see it referenced.
"We can't, and we shouldn't, prohibit the sale of a pressure cooker. We can sensitize retail businesses to be on guard for suspicious behavior by those who buy this kind of stuff."
FRIEDMAN: Sir? Just the gentleman behind you, and then we'll see if we...
QUESTION: Yeah, Farooq Kathwari, Ethan Allen. After 9/11, there was a grave concern that our actions not be perceived as a war against Islam. In fact, I had an opportunity to go with President Bush to the mosque in Washington. And after 13 years, we have—there's a tremendous amount—these have increased, terrorism has increased, caliphates have increased. My question is, how much of a concern is there that a billion Muslims are perceiving these actions as weakening Muslims and a war against Islam?
JOHNSON: Well, we work side-by-side in our counterterrorism effort with a lot of—with a lot of Muslim countries. You know, I spend time in the Middle East. And we need to continually stress that, as I said in my remarks, ISIL is not Islamic. And there's no religion that would condone ISIL's tactics.
I said—I have said several times that in the fight that we take up against certain groups, if they are able to recruit faster than we can take somebody off the battlefield, we're in a losing battle. And that's a calculus that can tip the wrong way very easily. And a lot of it depends on the public perception of what we're doing.
And so I believe that, right now, we and others in NATO, our friends in the region, are in a position to mobilize international public opinion, including in the Muslim world, about the dangers of ISIL. It is an organization that is dangerous and a threat to the Muslim world, to innocent Muslims, and I think we're poised to make that case, and we are making that case against ISIL, much like the coalition that was formed right after 9/11.
So, Professor Cohen, Jerome Cohen, New York University, former colleague of mine?
QUESTION: Jeh, you made a great speech. You showed an admirable concern for the impact on our domestic legal system of national security problems. You've also shown a good awareness of international opinion. But could you say something about international law? I wonder, as I read every day about our actions in response to these threats, to what extent is international law an obstacle? To what extent is it considered irrelevant? To what extent is it a facility for your work?
JOHNSON: Good question. I never—I would never regard law as an obstacle. Somebody in their wisdom enacted a law, developed a body of law. In my prior life as general counsel of the Defense Department, when I gave legal signoff to a military operation, I always, almost always looked at two things: domestic legal authority and international legal authority.
And the way I and others in this administration tend to—when I was acting as a lawyer in this administration—the way we tend to view international law and domestic law, we ask the question, is there legal authority for something? Rather than is there anything in the law that would stop me from what I want to do, is there legal authority for something?
"ISIL is not Islamic. And there's no religion that would condone ISIL's tactics."
And I have found that international law almost without exception is consistent with basic common sense, you know, principles of self-defense, principles of, you know, consent. Host nation consent, for example, in military operations pretty much are consistent with common sense.
And without getting too deeply into my prior legal life, I know that there are some who want to see us develop a body of international law around, you know, principles of, you know, humanitarian crisis, when there's a humanitarian crisis residing entirely within a particular country, how do we deal with that from the international legal perspective? And I think that that's something worth looking at, worth carefully considering.
But I've become, through my time in national security, something of an international legal practitioner and spent a lot of time with other lawyers and other departments of Ministry of Defense and so forth. And, you know, this—it's an evolving principle, but I think international law generally is an enabler and not an obstacle.
FRIEDMAN: Take something from the back. We have a gentleman there. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Claude Erbsen, INNOVATION International. Mr. Secretary, I haven't heard the word "Ebola" spoken. You're responsible for the borders and all that goes with it. What do you think can be done, will be done, should be done, in terms of protecting the country from one guy or two people coming in on an airplane?
JOHNSON: Good question. You're correct. I did not refer to Ebola in my remarks, but I definitely refer to Ebola in my daily job. It's part of the day job.
I get briefings on it almost on a daily basis. And it is a virus that, as you know, is growing in West Africa and the three countries in West Africa. There is a certain level of screening that is done of those who are leaving the country, getting on planes at airports there. From the three most affected countries, my understanding is there's no direct flights to the United States. You have to go through about three or four different transit points.
And what I've asked my staff to look at is whether, in addition to what we're already doing, there's more that we should do and we can do that is reasonable and responsible to screen people for any signs of the disease—of the virus as they're leaving, as—you know, so that what you've mentioned doesn't happen. I think we need to continually evaluate that, and we are.
FRIEDMAN: Madam, you've been patient, so we'll ask you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Paula DiPerna, NTR Foundation. And thank you for your service. I just want to pick up on what you were saying about the life cycle and the recruitment process. To what extent do you feel there's sufficient—or when you bring up this is not Islam, ISIL is not Islam, to whom are you addressing that? What leadership level? And I don't know—maybe I don't read enough international press—but I don't hear leadership voices condemning that kind of violence as non-Islamic coming from the Islamic states themselves. And to what degree—to what extent someone could—so to whom do you address that and when and how...
JOHNSON: The—the message from somebody like me is intended principally for the domestic audience. We have people in this country looking for—who feel disaffected, who are—who may be tempted by acts of violence to look for something to glamorize, to radiate to. And there have been one or two examples in the media that you've all—that you all know about of this.
And, you know, I heard somebody the other day say that ISIL is protecting innocent Muslims. ISIL is not protecting innocent Muslims. And so we have an audience in this country that can and should be reached about the dangers of this organization. And I believe that what I can do and what the department can do is outreach to the communities that themselves have the most credibility in this area, to partner with them, to help them within their own communities.
FRIEDMAN: As a follow-up to the lady's question, other than exhortation, what are we doing—we know the countries where pay masters for the terrorists reside and where money is being collected. What are we doing to lean on those countries to clamp down on money going to these organizations to proselytizers for radical jihad, et cetera?
JOHNSON: Well, I guess I'd refer you to my diplomatic colleagues in the administration. I know that's a continual dialogue. And so I'd refer you to my diplomatic colleagues on that one.
FRIEDMAN: OK. Madam?
QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Nina Schwalbe, and I work in the field of public health, and I have another question on Ebola. So this is an epidemic that is ravaging, as you know, in the three countries. And with every case we identify, we know that there's somewhere between 10 and 100 people that that person has had contact with.
So in addition to the work that you're doing on airport screening and kind of who's coming in, tell us about your thinking about the role of your department in actually working in those high-burden countries or in those ravaging epidemics to try and stem the flow.
JOHNSON: My department itself should be focused on the homeland. We have a health affairs capability in the Department of Homeland Security. Obviously, there's CDC, Centers for Disease Control, which I know is heavily engaged in this situation. HHS in general, I know, is very engaged in this. And I—collaboratively together, we've got a job to do.
And there are a number of U.S. government personnel on the continent right now addressing this. And as I mentioned a moment ago, I think we need to continually evaluate the need for screening at last point of departure at airports before people leave the countries.
QUESTION: Thank you. Stuart Rabin, Nine Thirty Capital and Decision Sciences. So you're—thank you for your service. It's a difficult and thankless job. You mentioned at the beginning of your speech, 9/11 and how moving it was. And for many of us, it was a turning point.
President Obama at the end of the Nuclear Security Summit commented that his number-one national security concern is a nuclear bomb going off in New York City. We know the terrorists would like to have spectacular impact.
My question is regarding H.R. 1 and the 100 percent container screening and scanning requirement. There is technology being tested by the departments to effectively and passively scan 100 percent of cargo coming into the United States. My question is, how do you feel about that requirement? I know what your testimony has been on the Hill. How do you feel about that requirement?
And given technology that's being tested, why not do a pilot program on some of these potential devices that could dramatically protect the homeland in a way that would make a big difference?
JOHNSON: Oh, I know a certain amount of testing has been done. I'm very familiar with the 100 percent scanning requirement that was put into law in 2007. For those of you might not know, there is a law that says that the department shall—shall—scan 100 percent of the cargo that leaves foreign ports bound for the United States.
Now, to be honest, it is a huge unfunded mandate. Congress told us, "You got to go do this," but they didn't give us the money to pay for it. And there is a provision in that law that every two years permits the secretary of homeland security to waive it.
I'll tell you what I've said publicly and what I've said privately to those who believe in this very strongly, Congressman Nadler, Leader Pelosi, Congressman Thompson, Senator Markey. It's a—I mean, it's—it's a great idea. There are huge logistical challenges to the United States government, U.S. personnel, somehow scanning the cargo at foreign ports, at every foreign port around the globe with stuff bound for the United States.
And though I recently waived the requirements of the law, what I've said is that, as long as this law is on the books—and it's on the books—we should at least strive in that direction. We have—we need to have a plan for getting to 100 percent. We should strive in that direction. We should raise that percentage and do the best we can with it with the resources and the budget—the budget resources that we have. And so that's the direction I've told our folks to move in.
FRIEDMAN: Let's go to the back, lady in the far back.
QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary. Claudia Torrens, Associated Press. On immigration, can you tell us about your deportations review? We believe—I understand—and correct me if I'm wrong—that you made some recommendations to the president on that. Can you tell us what recommendations were those?
And also, what do you think about the president's executive—well, decision to delay executive action on immigration? Thank you.
JOHNSON: The president and I, along with the Department of Justice, are in continual discussions about the ways in which we can and should fix our broken immigration system. And it is a broken system.
That includes a re-evaluation of our priorities for deportations for removal, what our priorities should be. Can they be clearer? Can they be adjusted? So that's part of our overall review.
As you know, the president has determined that we should wait until after the midterm elections to announce what we believe we can and should do to fix the system. And he reached that decision because—and this judgment is, in my view, absolutely correct—this kind of thing should not be introduced in a politically difficult climate like you have in the run-up to an election.
And there have been examples cited of that. In 1994, gun control, the health care law, in the run-up to an election in a political season, and what the president's talked about—and I agree with this—is that what we do, because this is so important, needs to be done in a sustainable way. And doing this in a sustainable way is as important, in my judgment, as what we do and what we say we're going to do.
And so after the midterms, we'll have some—we'll have some announcements. I agree with the president that it's always preferential to have action by Congress. And there are certain things we just simply cannot do to fix the system within the confines of existing law.
So legislation is always the preference. And there was a very comprehensive piece of legislation—as I'm sure you know—passed by the Senate last year that—supported by the business community, organized labor, the polls are to be believed, a majority of the American public who support comprehensive immigration reform, who support fixing our broken immigration system, but the House has not acted on it and we have a broken system.
And so we're going to do what we can to fix the broken immigration system. And we want to do that in a sustainable way.
FRIEDMAN: Mr. Secretary, we want to thank you very much for your remarks and your great answers to questions.
JOHNSON: Thank you.