A Conversation With Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson
This is the keynote session of the 2018 Conference on Diversity in International Affairs, a collaborative effort by the Council on Foreign Relations, the Global Access Pipeline, and the International Career Advancement Program. Other videos from the conference and more information can be found here.
The conference is made possible by the generous support of former CFR board member, Joan E. Spero.
KUMAR: Hi. Good evening, my name is Maria Teresa Kumar, and I am the president and CEO of Voto Latino, and I am proud to say that I have been—first I started off as a term member here at CFR, and now I’m a life member. And some of the work that we’ve been doing at CFR is to encourage a new pipeline of members that reflect America, so it’s very exciting to see you here.
And I think that you have been—from what I understand you’ve been having very engaging conversations, and I hope that this is something that—not only that you consider for your future—if you are currently a term member, welcome—but if you are not, please consider joining us. I find it an opportunity that I constantly do domestic policy so I use these environments—I call it my mini-MBA in conversations, so I always welcome it. It energizes me.
And I want to thank Secretary Johnson for joining us tonight, I think, in a timely conversation. Given the backdrop of the current international affairs environment, I think that your perception of what is happening, first, as homeland—former secretary of Homeland Security, but also, what advice you can give individuals.
So welcome. (Applause.)
JOHNSON: Thank you. Thank you very much.
KUMAR: And just so that we know, we basically will have a hard stop at 6:30, and then we will go ahead and open it to questions—Q&A.
So one of the things that I always admire of folks that are coming basically off of public service and going into the private sector is that they seem a little lighter. (Laughter.) Is that the case for you? (Laughter, applause.) No, no, don’t—it’s nothing to do with the (polls ?). But is that the case for you?
JOHNSON: Without a doubt. (Laughter.)
Yeah, so that’s actually an interesting point. First of all, it’s great to see this room full of people. It’s great to see this room full of young people on a Friday night after happy hour—(laughter)—and you stayed to hear me talk after happy hour. I’m really impressed.
KUMAR: This is Washington, D.C. These are like—(laughs)—
JOHNSON: This is my kind of crowd. So thank you all for being here, so much, and I’ve been looking forward to this event.
So I actually served—this is how I went from public office to private life. Exactly 7:32 p.m. on Friday night, January 20th, I was the designated survivor for Inauguration Day. People are so fascinated by that concept. There’s the TV show. (Laughter.) I’ve got to tell you it’s not as exciting as it is on TV, OK? I did it twice, and I got the—I got the task again, so I had to absent myself from Washington, from the inauguration. Somebody in the presidential line of succession has to leave. And the unique thing about Inauguration Day is the entire Cabinet is resigning, and so most of those in the line of succession are resigning, except I had to stay on, which meant that I had to withdraw my resignation letter that said I’m resigning effective noon on January 20, 2017, and therefore, you are looking at Donald Trump’s first Senate-confirmed Cabinet officer. (Laughter.)
KUMAR: So how are you—how are you the designated survivor? Did you get the short straw—how did they—
JOHNSON: So—I don’t—beats me. It beats me. But the interesting thing about that is I got the duty twice, but—you know, it never occurred to anybody that if I became the designated survivor, it would have been as a result of my own catastrophic failure to secure the inauguration and the State of the Union. (Laughter.) Nobody ever thought about that, and Chris Matthews, when he found out, said, well, no presidency with the name Johnson begins well. (Laughter.) But—so—
KUMAR: So you were the canary in the coal mine, is that what you are sharing with us?
JOHNSON: Well, for 7 ½ hours I was the entirety of President Trump’s Cabinet, and at exactly—
KUMAR: I think you outlasted many of them. (Laughter.)
JOHNSON: Well, I’m actually—you know, this is a great trivia question: who was the first—who was the first member of Trump’s administration to resign? (Laughter.)
But at exactly 7:32 p.m., my Secret Service detail leader got the call from John Kelly’s Secret Service detail leader, he’s been confirmed, he’s been sworn in; Johnson is relieved. And my wife and I were at our favorite restaurant at our home in Montclair, New Jersey—anybody here from Montclair, New Jersey?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m from New Jersey.
JOHNSON: OK, all right. And it was—so in an instant I went from being secretary of Homeland Security, a protectee of the Secret Service, fourth in line for the presidency, the designated survivor, to a private citizen. That doesn’t happen to too many people in life.
And I got up, and I walked out of the restaurant, and I said to my detail leader, for the first time in three years, when I walk out of here, you’re not going to follow me, and it’s going to be great. So—(laughter)—yes, I am more relaxed. I enjoy the anonymity of New York City, though occasionally somebody will recognize me in the subway or it happens a lot on the Acela—happens more here in Washington, but I enjoy the anonymity of living in New York again, and doing a number of different things. I’m practicing law with my law firm that I’ve been with, off and on, since 1984, an occasional TV appearance—watch Face the Nation on Sunday, and—
KUMAR: I have to appreciate—he mentioned it back there, too, so you employ yourself very well. I think it’s good. (Laughs.)
JOHNSON: So anyway, it’s been great.
KUMAR: Yeah, that’s good.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
KUMAR: So one of the things—one of the deep, underlying purposes of this conference is trying to generate more enthusiasm among a diverse group of Americans to participate in our public service.
KUMAR: You were the general counsel for the Department of Defense when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was implemented.
KUMAR: How did that impact the Army? And I don’t think—I think we could all agree that was one piece of legislation that basically markedly changed how government functioned. What did you see? And was it something that we need to pursue when it comes to diversity?
JOHNSON: Well, that’s an interesting question. So General Carter Ham, who is an Army four-star, and I, did this 10-month study to assess—Secretary Gates appointed us to do this in 2010—to assess whether the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law such that gay and lesbian service members could serve openly in the military could be repealed—so the law could be repealed without an adverse impact on what we refer to as unit cohesion, military readiness, and so forth.
I approached it from my civilian background as a civil rights issue which, frankly, did not resonate well within the military community. What resonated more was what Admiral Mike Mullen—how he framed it when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He said it was a matter of integrity. We were asking service members, who were gay and lesbian, to effectively lie about who they are, about their personal identity, and subvert it and suppress it. And it’s unfair to them, it’s a matter of their integrity and ours, and he framed it that way. And I thought—and I found in our discussions, in our engagements across military bases that that really did—that way of framing the issue really did resonate. But there were these striking parallels between the arguments against the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and against racial integration in the military—almost the exact same arguments and the exact same words; just substitute out gay for negro—
JOHNSON: —and that—but it was the exact same arguments. And we concluded that the military could do this. We issued our report in December 2010, and we gave it to Congress. Congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” two weeks later, and the implementation of repeal actually went far smoother than we predicted. It was really an idea whose time had come.
KUMAR: And why do you think that? Was it because of an idea that—whose time had come, or was it that the Army actually laid out a foundation for acceptance? Or were the American people ready?
JOHNSON: The perceptions about what it would be like to have service members in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard serving openly—that word openly somehow conjured up a negative image. There were—but it was all—it was largely based on stereotype, and once it happened, it was—it was fine. It was not a big deal because the military is a very conservative culture generally. People don’t—people are not—whether you are gay or straight, people are not, you know, overt about their personal identity because it’s all a matter of the unit and unit cohesion.
And so the implementation has been fine. I remember vividly the different attitudes among the services, and the Army was largely, yeah, but maybe not now; we’re in the middle of two wars. Don’t ask to do this now.
The Navy was, we can do this—surprisingly, the Navy was out there in front. The Coast Guard also.
The Air Force, surprisingly, was a bit hesitant, even though it’s the newest military service, and the Marine Corps was dead set against it. The Marine Corps said, if you do this, Marines will die. But if you order us to do it, we will salute smartly, and we will get it done first. (Laughter.) And that’s exactly what they did. That’s exactly what they did. They educated their force first; they got it done first. So it was really an idea whose time had come, and I’ve been told by others that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December 2010 kind of set the stage for a lot of what happened in LBGT rights generally in the courts, in state legislatures when it comes to gay marriage. It kind of set the stage for the Windsor case in the Supreme Court, which my law partner, Robbie Kaplan, argued on behalf of Edith Windsor. So it’s one of the things for which I am most proud.
KUMAR: And I think the country is richer for it as, right now, we find a new administration that seems to be debating the identity of who is American. What do you find the takeaway is when it comes to this question of diversity? And I ask that because oftentimes we try to bring value to diversity as if it’s a nice thing to have, and I actually believe that America—it is our strength.
But we have an administration right now that seems to be at odds, so I’d love to just get your perspective on that, and how it is reflective—that energy—in the institutions that—of public service.
JOHNSON: Well, actually, the Department of Homeland Security is probably the most diverse government agency I ever had the experience of working in. You look at the Border Patrol, you look at Customs, you look at TSA—it’s a remarkably diverse institution. And, you know, our culture and our heritage is built on immigration. In one way or another we’re all immigrants except for native Americans, and what I find striking in history—and I consider myself—I like to study history—is that with each wave of immigration, the newest wave is always isolated, vilified, existing on the margins of society, but then eventually find a way to integrate into our society, with each wave.
KUMAR: Yeah, I think—I mean, I—I think, though, the challenge, I think, with a lot of the American Latinos is that the border moved from us, right, so a lot of folks in the southwest, they’re not—we’re not new immigrants. And I think that is where the challenge is.
But since you brought up Homeland Security, I know that there—it was a—it was a tough tenure, and I think that we are feeling a lot of the effects of was often put in place with the Bush administration today, almost to a severe extent. Acting as secretary of Homeland Security, were there times that you did not agree with your boss, and if so, how did you navigate that?
JOHNSON: Well, no one every completely agrees 100 percent with the boss. I will say with—I will say this about Barack Obama. Any time I came out of a meeting with him, whether it was an NSC meeting, Situation Room meeting, an Oval Office meeting, even though we didn’t end up exactly where I was when I went into the meeting, I felt as though the result that President Obama reached was reasonable, reasoned, and well thought through, and it was something that I could support and defend every single time. I always had tremendous faith in his ability to arrive at a fair, and balanced, and reasonable decision on something, and I had a lot of confidence that he would do so. And there—very often, frankly, White House staff wanting to push us in a very different direction where I thought we should go, and the president would kind of bring us to the center of that and arrive at a good decision.
It’s the role of—a Cabinet officer has several roles: one, provide your best advice, but then once the decision is made by the president, implement and support what he wants us to do. As a Cabinet officer, you’re the CEO of your department, but then you are also the president’s representative to that department, and you’re that department’s representative to the president.
KUMAR: And so to underline, Homeland Security oversees about 280,000 federal employees, correct?
JOHNSON: Two hundred and thirty thousand, depending on how you count, right?
KUMAR: OK. (Laughs.)
KUMAR: So it’s not small.
JOHNSON: Twenty-two components. It’s the third largest department of our government, probably by far the most decentralized in its mission set, ranging from Secret Service, to FEMA, to Coast Guard, to cybersecurity, counterterrorism, law enforcement, you know, the immigration enforcement and administration, so it’s a vast organization with a lot of different missions.
KUMAR: And working as a public service and, I would say, in a position that was not only high profile, but very sensitive to the roots of many folks in the community.
KUMAR: How did you navigate that?
JOHNSON: Well, I—you reminded me, Maria, that we’ve sat in meetings together while I was in office, and I—
KUMAR: We weren’t always on the same side, just FYI, so—(laughs)—
JOHNSON: Well, you may not realize it, but we were.
KUMAR: No, no, no, but—right, right. So—(laughs).
JOHNSON: Compared to what, Maria?
KUMAR: Oh, that’s unfair now. (Laughs.)
JOHNSON: So I believe strongly that to—healthy government decision-making involved consulting experts both within and without my department, and before I made a decision about immigration in particular and immigration policy, I wanted to hear from people about the impact, about what they thought about it, and so, you know, in the run-up to the executive actions, for example, in November 2014, I had countless meetings with my own people in immigration enforcement so that they would advise me about the impact of what it was I was trying to do—Tom Holman and Kevin McAleenan would both tell you that—and people on the outside, also, you know—there were not only—people were not only writing me letters, but also we’d come in, and they’d come in, and we’d talk about it, and debate ideas. And that, to me, is healthy decision-making. When you make decisions in government in a vacuum, without consulting of people, both inside your organization and outside, that’s dangerous.
And even if you don’t reach a decision that your own people believe is the right decision, if they feel they’ve been heard, then they will most likely support the decision, if they respect the manner in which you reached the decision.
KUMAR: So that leads me to you have had two roles—one in the public sector and one in the private sector. What is it about the public sector—when we were having this—when we were having a debrief you mentioned—what is it about the public sector that is so special, especially I think in a time where we are questioning our government, we’re questioning our institutions. What is so special about it?
JOHNSON: I believe that—I’ve been in private life most of my professional career. I finished law school in 1982, 36 years ago. Two-thirds of that has been in private, corporate law practice. The other third has been in public office—four different public offices. And that has, by far, been the most fulfilling for me. I’m quite sure when I—when my obituary is written, the first paragraph will be my public service and not the cases I won in court.
And so working on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” some of our efforts to improve national security and homeland security, for me, have been the most fulfilling, though as a Cabinet officer, running an organization of 230,000 people made less than a first-year associate at Paul, Weiss, my law firm, which is pretty incredible. But it was by far the most impactful and fulfilling for me. And I come from a family of public servants. My mother—my mother grew up here in Washington, D.C., and her family were all postal workers. Her parents, her aunts and uncles were all postal workers, and when I was a kid and we would come to Washington, my grand uncle would have to take me to a walking tour to see the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial in the July heat, and I was a wimp if I didn’t want to do it, and so—and he was 75.
So that, frankly, was my orientation younger—in younger life, and so I very much believe in public service, and public office, and what people in this town do. It’s often criticized and vilified, but I believe in federal service.
KUMAR: And why now? Why today?
JOHNSON: Well, you know, on the outside, people ask me all the time, well, should I—should I work for this administration, and isn’t this now the wrong time to think about public service? You have to realize that, in a place like the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security, both of which are places I worked, 99 percent of the workforce is career civil service. They are there irrespective of who the president is, who the administration is, and a lot of the work that goes on day to day is unaffected by who the president is.
So there are lawyers in the Office of General Counsel, the Department of Defense, or the Office of Office of General Counsel, Department of the Air Force, whose work day to day remains unaffected by who the president is, and for them, it’s very fulfilling, meaningful work, so—
KUMAR: So with that I’m going to ask you one question, and then I’m going to go ahead and open it to questions. But my final question is, as someone that has occupied the office of Department of Homeland Security, recognizing the breadth of tasks that is needed to keep the country secure, what advice would you give currently to Secretary Nielsen?
KUMAR: Did she call you? Has she called you for—
JOHNSON: No. (Laughter.) We have—she called me the day she was nominated. I returned the call, and my call was not returned. I met her when we testified alongside each other before the Senate Intelligence Committee last month for the first time. That was—
KUMAR: That was the first time.
JOHNSON: —the first time I met her. Right. I think that was the first time.
And I guess my advice is the Department of Homeland Security is a national security agency. It’s not like most other Cabinet-level departments, and I think it’s important that, to the fullest extent possible, it stay out of politics.
Most people—when you hear about DHS day to day, it is typically in connection with the immigration issue, which is a—it is a tremendously political issue, and emotional issue. There’s a lot of misinformation around immigration. We could spend the next hour talking about that.
But DHS is also aviation security, port security, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, the Secret Service, response to natural disasters, and so, to the fullest extent possible, I believe that the Department of Homeland Security has to—has to remain detached from politics.
And so I tried very hard—and I think most people on the Hill would tell you this—to develop working relationships with both Democrats and Republicans.
KUMAR: I think that’s a fair assessment.
JOHNSON: And I just think that’s the place where DHS, to the fullest extent possible, needs to occupy.
KUMAR: Thank you.
Let’s open it up now for questions. And if you could state your name, please.
Q: Thank you. This is fascinating. My name is Jadayah Spencer from the International Youth Leadership Institute, and our whole purpose is to nurture a new generation of leaders who lead nations and missions. So, hi, everyone.
So my question is, in your time working on the national level—I mean, the United States, we represent, I mean, over 300 million people, and you’re serving with 230,000 of them to serve the rest of the country. So what—in your time with President Obama and in your roles variously, what have you learned about leadership and about management? What advice would you give?
JOHNSON: I learned a tremendous amount from Bob Gates. When I was general counsel of DOD, he was the secretary. I didn’t know him at all. When I came into DOD in 2009, he was a holdover from the Bush administration, and I learned a tremendous amount from watching him lead that very, very large organization. What I said earlier—people will support you if—in the decision-making process—they feel like they’ve been heard.
You have to, when you are running a very large organization, remain very strict and disciplined when it comes to managing your own time and your own schedule, to make sure that you fulfill all the different responsibilities you have, and keep an eye on all of it. I believe that it’s important for the leader to demonstrate support for his or her workforce, show that you are their champion when you have the opportunity to do so. People want to know that the boss is the champion. And the thing—one of the things I’m most proud of in office: DHS, when I came in, was always last in the surveys for, you know, morale, and I was determined to raise morale in DHS, so I spent a lot of time in town halls all across the country visiting, you know, Coast Guard stations, Border Patrol stations, Customs offices, airports where TSA is, and my last year in office we raised morale three whole percentage points which, for a 22-component, 230,000 person agency is not easy. We raised morale seven whole percentage points just in ICE my last year in office. You know, the narrative out there is that, in this administration, the morale in ICE has gone up. That’s not true. It went up seven whole points my last year in office.
And so good leadership involves supporting your workforce, being a champion for your workforce, being seen as such, being decisive. When you make decisions, be clear. My personal style is don’t leave it to others to deliver bad news; don’t ask someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.
KUMAR: In the back. OK, they’re going to have to be fast or I call on the first one. (Laughs.)
Q: Hi, I’m Madison Toronto from George Washington University, and first, I just want to thank you for coming out here. I can’t imagine how busy you must be.
And I apologize, but my question is a bit long. So you talked about how important and impactful diversity has been for the country, for the Army, and for agencies and departments. And so my question is, should diversity be the overall goal for agencies and departments, in which case, what do we risk when we place diversity as a goal above having a skilled and competent workforce as a goal. Or should diversity be the tool by which we achieve the goal of a skilled and competent workforce, and in that case, how do we push this approach when there might be disagreement on which should be the ultimate goal? And to be clear, I’m not saying is it possible to have diversity and skill; I’m saying should diversity be the goal or the tool for a skilled and competent workforce?
JOHNSON: Well, first of all, the number one priority of any government agency is support and defend the Constitution and serve the American people. That’s why we are there.
I believe that there is virtue in diversity—diversity in a number of different respects: you know, geographic diversity, for example; of course, racial diversity; educational diversity; socio-economic diversity because it brings a diversity of perspectives. We cannot—we should not take race, religion in account expressly in our hiring decisions, but it—there is a virtue in achieving a diverse workforce.
I have seen the hazards, too many times, of a decision-making process that lacks diversity of thought, lacks diversity of perspectives, and when I get that, and everybody is telling me the exact same thing, I begin to scratch my head and wonder whether or not I’m missing something.
So I believe there is virtue in diversity, and there are legal principles and—around the extent to which that can be a goal, but I believe that it is a virtue. I believe it’s a virtue in the workplace, I believe it’s a virtue in higher education. I believe that my own children, who are very diverse—my kids are one-half me—and you can look at me and see what I am—and one-half Italian—one-quarter Italian and one-quarter Irish. And they’ve grown up in very diverse communities, and it has benefitted them, and it has benefitted the communities in which they serve, in which they live.
KUMAR: I’m just going to address just—I think one of the things that we—we keep having these conversations on diversity versus skill, and it’s like—it’s almost as if it’s a false choice, and why can’t they come with the—the same.
I will share with you—I won’t name the board, but I was asked to—I’m on a nominating committee of a board, and the board asked me—we really need a Latina and we really need someone in finance. I know one person that fills both.
And I think that—and I always share oftentimes this example. There is a video that went viral, and it was an African-American hand that kept going and trying to get into the soap dispenser, but the soap dispenser wouldn’t pour the soap out. But when they would wrap it around on a paper towel, the soap dispenser would come out.
Now perhaps they had what they considered the best technologists for that soap dispenser, but were they? Because they left two-thirds of the world population off the table. (Laughter, scattered applause.)
And so what I’m sharing is that when we look at diversity it’s the perspective of making our world bigger, bringing in different ideas to make sure that that product or that possibility is stronger. And I have other examples, but I think I will leave it at that.
What other questions—go right ahead in the front. Gentleman in the front, please.
Q: Thank you. Hello. My name is David, David Zogo (sp).
I was just wondering—in 2012 during the presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney, I thought it was interesting because they were both asked a question on what they both considered to be the biggest threat to the United States. And Governor Romney said that he thought it was Russia, and then President Obama responded in a way where he demonstrated that Governor Romney’s understanding of the world was, in a way, you know antediluvian. It was old.
And then, in 2016, we find ourselves in a position where our country was attacked in probably the biggest fashion since 9/11. So my question to you, sir, is who do you think deserves the blame for American democracy being—you know, falling victim to such an attack? And do you think that the Obama administration did not take Russia seriously?
JOHNSON: Well, the Obama administration took Russia very seriously. We issued sanctions in the last few days of the administration. We made public attribution of the—we pointed the finger at the Russian government. The director of National Intelligence and I did that on—in a statement October 7, 2016. That statement was not lightly arrived at. A lot of very careful consideration went into whether or not those of us in national security should say something in the midst of a very heated campaign where one candidate was saying the election outcome was going to be rigged—whether we would do that at the risk of being accused of taking sides in the election and trying to tilt it to Hillary Clinton.
And we did that because we thought it was important to inform the American people. I issued no less than six written public statements in the late summer and fall warning state election officials about the threats to their election infrastructure cybersecurity along with numerous public statements on news organizations and so forth. And we did what we did; now it’s incumbent upon the current administration to carry forward with that. They’ve been in power for the last 15, 16 months, and now it’s on them to carry forward with that because, if you believe our intelligence community, the Russian efforts to interfere with our democracy have not—have not abated.
So you can put the Russian threat—and this is not where I thought your question was initially going—but you can put the Russian threat into three buckets: one, the attacks—the potential attacks on our election infrastructure, which is what most concerned me in 2016; the hacking and exfiltration of emails from the DNC and others; and third, the fake news and the extreme views, which is reflected in the indictment of the 13 Russian individuals where the Russians were publishing and republishing a lot of fake news and extremist views, and that to me is something that will take a very long time for us to understand the full extent of.
KUMAR: Were you surprised by that? Were you surprised at the amount of content? One, were you aware—
KUMAR: —of the amount of content on the fake news or—
JOHNSON: No, but it’s so easy to do.
JOHNSON: I mean, and it’s not—
KUMAR: But no one was—
JOHNSON: —just by the Russians.
KUMAR: —so I’m just wondering if people were actually aware that there was a generation of content.
JOHNSON: It was an unfolding picture at the time, and only now, I think, do we even have a decent sense of the full extent of it, and there may be more. And, you know, there are a number of domestic organizations that engaged in this, and to me, that’s the hardest nut to crack because—
KUMAR: Were they on your radar—the domestic ones? That were spreading fake news?
JOHNSON: They—well, domestic entities that engage in fake news? Yes, that’s been a—
KUMAR: They were.
JOHNSON: That’s been a problem—
JOHNSON: —for some time, you know—in 2016, 2015 and before. But it’s the—for government, it’s the hardest problem to solve because government should not be involved in regulating speech in this country. (Applause.)
They do that in other countries, and think about—think about the potential abuses if we gave our national leaders the ability to censor something that they deem extremist.
KUMAR: So I guess my question to that, then—then who is responsible for what is put on the Facebook platform that can cause—
KUMAR: —incidences of hate crimes.
JOHNSON: Well, ultimately, I think it involves a lot of self-regulation by Internet service providers and social media providers and, you know, it’s good news that Facebook is now going to insist on better attribution for those who engage in—can use them for political ads so that they know who is talking to us in a political conversation.
But the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and our intelligence community should not be in the business of trying to regulate and edit speech in this country, so this is a serious problem. And I think it also involves greater public scrutiny of the stuff that we find. You know, you can get—you can get a Google alert whether it’s the New York Times or some guy with a keyboard somewhere who calls himself a journalist.
KUMAR: So I guess my question—before I open it up to the audience because this is something that’s curious—I think that for a lot—Facebook for a lot of folks is so new that we don’t know how to regulate, but what would be the offense if we were to say that we actually have the FCC that actually does regulate what is on television content, and how is that different? Who should be penalized for actually—and I say this because during the 2016 election there were incidences of inciting hate crimes and hate rallies across American from outside sources, so who is ultimately responsible? We do have an avenue to do that for television. How do we actually look at it for the Internet?
JOHNSON: Well, the FCC and others should be responsible for regulating things like privacy rights, for example. If you—if you turn over personal information about yourself to a social media provider, you want to know that it’s of limited use, or the uses that you intend.
Where a commission or a government agency should not be in the business of is saying that’s extremist—that’s an extremist view, and therefore, it should not be published someplace, should not be public.
KUMAR: But there—but there—
JOHNSON: I mean, we don’t do that in this country.
KUMAR: Right. But there are penalties for television false advertisement. I’m just—I’m just trying to figure out are there parallels between these two mediums.
JOHNSON: Well, I think you’re getting into a really tough area when you’re starting to talk about political content and political views, but as I was saying, I think greater public scrutiny of the stuff that exists—and we’re—unfortunately, I think we’re going in the opposite direction where people are willing to accept opinion, accept a point of view based on less information, and are scrutinizing it themselves less.
There’s a pioneering journalist I think a lot of named Steve Brill. Some of you may from—know Steve Brill. He’s founder of American Lawyer magazine, founder of Court TV, and he is promoting something called NewsGuard—I’m not promoting it; I’m just telling you about it—(laughter)—called NewsGuard, and social media providers have to embrace it, and you go on—you go on a platform, and NewsGuard will tell you red, yellow, green—you know, green meaning this is—this is verifiable, it’s authentic, it’s good. Yellow means, well, be careful; and red means this is unverified, it’s false, it’s fake, and it’s like—you know, it’s like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. And that’s—I think, you know—you know, we need to—we need to consider something like that because there’s just so much information in the information marketplace, and so many people are falling into the trap of embracing something as their own opinion that is not reliable, it’s not authenticated, and it’s just not good journalism.
We used to have gatekeepers for news where there were only seven or eight ways in which you could get your news. Now it’s everywhere, and it’s not all—a lot of it is just junk.
KUMAR: Right. Well, and I think most folks don’t understand that a lot of these news organizations actually have—they have a stable of lawyers so that if—
KUMAR: —that they actually have to news-check and fact-check every single detail, and now, with the whole universe that don’t have that—
KUMAR: —unfortunately there—that’s where we get into trouble.
Q: Hi. Macani Toungara. I work for TechnoServe.
I have two questions. The first is about—post the travel ban. There were a lot of reports that border agents violated federal law in turning people away from the borders even after injunctions were put in place, and there have been several reports about border agents potentially exceeding their authority and discretion in turning people away from the country, even people with green cards.
What mechanisms are in place to ensure that there isn’t an abuse of power and abuse of discretion? And do you think that there should be more protections in place so that people entering the border feel that they have some recourse when they feel they’ve been unjustly turned away from the country?
Secondly—really quickly—you may have heard about black identity extremists and the report on black identity extremists at the Justice Department being used to further police particularly minority activists, and I’m wondering if you see that as an appropriate use of department resources and whether minority organizations advocating for minority rights should be concerned given previous abuses in past years of how minority organizations were policed.
JOHNSON: So second question first—tell me your name again.
JOHNSON: Macani, you’re looking at somebody whose own grandfather has an FBI file of several hundred pages, and who—my grandfather was a sociologist, had to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee to deny he was a communist in 1949, so what do you think I think the answer is? (Laughter.) OK?
Number one, there are—there are Border Patrol agents, the people in green uniforms, who patrol the borders between ports of entry, and then there are the Customs agents, in blue, who are stationed at ports of entry—you know, bridges, land ports, airports, seaports, and putting the travel ban aside, there are people turned away at ports of entry, denied entry virtually every day, hour by hour, and they do have avenues of recourse. And if they are turned away, they should be turned away for the right reasons.
We’ve become more sophisticated at that now to the point where, when I hear the current administration say we need extreme vetting—we have to have extreme vetting, I’m thinking we kind of already had that before. Our vetting process has become very, very sophisticated, particularly when it comes to refugees. It takes an average of 18 to 24 months for the vetting process for a refugee before they can be resettled in this country, and we do a much better job of connecting the dots between law enforcement, our intelligence community, the DHS folks, than we used to, and—well, we’ll see how the—we’ll see how the travel ban litigation comes out in the Supreme Court. My law firm represents various different interests in that litigation, so we’ll see how that comes out. But the vetting process we have in place now is very sophisticated, and it’s pretty good, you know, even before this current administration.
KUMAR: But I think one of the questions you were asking is are those Border Patrol agents now overstepping their bounds because they feel that they—there is no repercussions and they are—is that—that’s how I understand it.
JOHNSON: I hope not.
Q: (Off mic)—when discretion is being abused is there a process to capture that and—
JOHNSON: I’m sure there is, and I hope that they are not abusing their authority. If it is, the secretary of Homeland Security ought to want to know about that.
KUMAR: A non-political post.
Q: Hi. Sofia Ramirez. I work in the Latin America program here at CFR.
And I wanted to ask a question about a comment you made a while back that I found very intriguing which was your advice to the current—
Q: —(laughs)—your advice to the current secretary of Homeland Security which is to stay away from politics, and you gave the—
JOHNSON: You can’t stay away from it completely, obviously.
Q: Right, right. (Laughs.)
You gave the example of immigration, and I’m wondering, as the spokesperson, the head of DHS who has the most accurate data, for example, and who is on the front lines day to day knowing what’s actually going on the border—for example, knowing that, as of a few years back, Mexican immigration to the United States is net negative—how do you stay out of politics while still trying to progress, you know, policy that could one day lead to comprehensive immigration reform if you are not talking about it?
JOHNSON: So what I said earlier was that, to the fullest extent possible, DHS should stay out of politics. Inevitably, we cannot.
The immigration issue is fraught with politics, so I—whenever I’d give a lecture on border security and immigration, I would begin by showing a survey done by Pew Research that asks the question, is illegal migration worse now than it was ten years ago? And 55 percent of Americans said yes when it’s a fraction of what it used to be. And immigration—illegal migration is used as—it’s used as a political weapon, and I found it the most difficult issue that I’ve dealt with in public office, and I’ve dealt with a lot of difficult issues—drone strikes, gays in the military, Guantanamo Bay detainees, military commissions.
Immigration is the most difficult issue, and it really doesn’t have to be. Most Americans, whether they are in Laredo, Texas, or Arizona, or California, or New York, or Iowa, believe basically two things: secure our borders and provide a path to citizenship for those who are undocumented who are here, who have been here for years. And more than half of the 11.3 million undocumented in this country have been here in excess of ten years, as many of you know. They are becoming de facto Americans.
And there ought to be a way—we came close in 2013 with comprehensive immigration reform: 68 votes in the Senate, failed in the House—and we ought to be able to deal with this issue. It makes common sense. It makes common sense to jump-start DACA. What sense does it make to have 700,000 people, who are de facto Americans, who are working and learning on the books, simply go into the shadows, and stop paying taxes, and work off the books? What sense does that make? They’re not going away. They are de facto Americans. This is the only country that they know.
KUMAR: Well, and to clarify, a lot of undocumented immigrants still pay close to $12 billion in taxes anyway, so even if it’s off the books, they’re still paying taxes.
JOHNSON: I once met a—I’ll never forget this—for me, when you’re—when you’re here dealing with the immigration issue, enforcement and administration of our immigration laws, you have to look at it in a macro sense, but I think it’s also worthwhile for those of us in office to deal with the microeconomics of this issue. And so I spent—in three years, I went to south Texas probably 12 times, and spent hours talking to hundreds of the kids in the Border Patrol holding stations who were from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, to understand why they left their country, why mom and dad sent them up here. And one of the encounters I remember most was somebody who was in Honduras, who had been deported. The ambassador wanted me to meet somebody who we had deported back to Honduras. And this was a young man—he was probably in his 20s—who came here when he was three or four years old with his mom and his brother. And one day—before DACA, before 2012—the Border Patrol—I mean, ICE came and rounded him up, took him—not his mother, not his brother—sent him back to Honduras, a place that he doesn’t know at all, and he had to basically start his life all over again in Honduras. He doesn’t see his mother, he doesn’t see his brother any more.
And here he was in Honduras, and he was de facto American. He’s from New Jersey—
KUMAR: Well, and most folks—yeah—
JOHNSON: —a New York Giants fan—
KUMAR: —and what most folks don’t realize—and New Yorker has done a lot of coverage—is those de facto Americans, when they get back, they actually—a lot of them—
KUMAR: —become a death target—
KUMAR: —because they are seen that they actually have—
JOHNSON: So I think it’s important—the point I’m trying to make is I think it’s important for those of us in senior policy positions in our government to understand the impact of our policies on a very personal level, the impact it has on real people.
KUMAR: So I’m going to just—I’m going to ask one question and then I will—I promise—(inaudible)—and it’s because you brought up this idea, this whole notion, also, of the detention system.
NPR recently did a story where they unveiled that ISIS was actually created in U.S. detentions or U.S.-government-run detentions through other countries. Do you have concerns for the detention system here?
JOHNSON: Well, yes, of course. So we have—we can’t—we can’t detain everybody who is arrested at the border. We just can’t. We don’t have near the facilities. And so, in my second year in office, we expanded family detention because we were seeing so many families crossing the border, and then—but even then, you could only detain a small percentage of the people who crossed the border. And so we reformed that to make our detention facilities more places, like processing centers, where people could be examined for health, we’d know who they are.
But one way or another, that’s not the best and most effective way to deal with illegal migration. The best and most effective way to deal with illegal migration, in my experience—three years dealing with this issue—is you’ve got to deal with the push factors. The push factors are always more powerful than the pull factors, and they’re always more powerful than—
KUMAR: Explain the push factors for some folks in the audience.
JOHNSON: Poverty and violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are the push factors, and they are more powerful than any deterrent message or any deterrent we could create here in the United States. And so illegal migration reacts sharply to information in the marketplace about perceived changes in immigration policy—there will be a sharp downturn. So when Trump was elected, there was a sharp downturn, but then it always reverts back to normal after a while unless you deal with the push factors in the places where these people are coming from.
And there’s no—so during 2014 in the border spike when we’d talk about—we talked about the dangers of the journey through Mexico on the train, and the danger of putting your kids in the hands of smugglers, and the answer was, that is less dangerous than leaving my children at home here in Honduras.
KUMAR: That’s right.
JOHNSON: And so unless you deal with those factors, you’re never going to deal with illegal migration.
KUMAR: One more question—way in the back, please. (Pause.) You, who is looking behind you. (Laughs.)
Q: Hello, my name is Kamaal Thomas. I’m a cyber policy researcher at the Carnegie Endowment.
I want to ask—get your take on the current encryption debate so, as it stands, we see two camps that have emerged where the law enforcement community says that they should be able to retain the right to have access to encrypted communications for criminals, given that, you know, there’s—that they went to the courts and are able to look at their information.
And then, additionally, you are seeing the privacy and security communities saying that any type of back door that gives governments access would also reduce overall security of the whole entire system. But my biggest concern is that we’re not really considering the global implications of it. I was working for the past two years in Beijing, and obviously their system is completely different but, you know, if—depending on how this debate goes—if it goes in the way of—towards law enforcement having access, a lot of these communications, like Apple, would be obligated to also do the same thing for a country like Beijing, so in terms of looking at this debate, how do we take into consideration the global implications?
JOHNSON: So my short answer to your very good question is I’m not smart enough to know the answer. (Laughter.) And you’ve captured a lot of it in your question, including the global perspective because a country like China will enact a law that requires a back door, requires that you turn over your technology to do business in that country, and host of other things.
The reality is that, on the one hand, encryption makes it harder for the government to detect crime, any crime that involves a communication. And it makes it harder to detect terrorist plotting—any terrorist plotting that involves communication.
On the other hand, as President Obama used to put it, it’s not—the encryption debate is not a privacy versus security debate; it is a security versus security debate: the security of our own communications, the security of our own personal data, which is threatened if you do not have adequate encryption. And so I believe that there needs to be a recalibration of sorts. I don’t know exactly where that recalibration should go to, but it’s a difficult debate. We spent a lot of time in the previous administration trying to find the right answer, and the clock ran out on us. And so I hope that this administration doesn’t push the answer too far in one direction.
KUMAR: Secretary Johnson, what are the words of wisdoms (sic) that you leave? You see such an energy in the street of young people really mobilizing, being part of it—part of our country. I keep saying that there’s nothing much more patriotic than being at the front lines right now, marching and demanding to be part of the—part of the change.
What words of advice as folks trying to seek where they’d like to go next?
JOHNSON: So I—in my private life now, I really have—one of the things I want to do is encourage young people to think about government service. And a lot of people ask me, now, shouldn’t I be disheartened, shouldn’t I be dispirited, shouldn’t I look elsewhere for something, and you have to take the long view.
Those of you who are in your 20s, I guarantee you that in your lifetime—by the time you are my age—age 60—you will have seen and experienced more things than you can possibly comprehend as you sit here right now. When I was in law school, 23 years old—some of you are 23 years old—when I was in law school, 23 years old, I was a second-year law student, and something happened, and I wanted to go into public service—but something happened to me that was unfathomable. We elected an actor to be president of the United States—(laughter)—who believed that pollution came from trees. I remember my law school classmates and I were devastated. We were—we were—we woke up the next morning, we were devastated, we were shell-shocked. I didn’t know where the country was going.
And a year and half later, it was our law school graduation—May 1982—and my graduation speaker was Andrew Young—Ambassador Andrew Young—and he said something that I say in every commencement speech I give, which is what I just told you all, that in your lifetime you will see and experience things that are beyond your current comprehension as you sit here right now. You will, yourself, achieve your wildest dreams.
And I think back on that moment in May 1982. The moment he said that, there was another black kid on the campus of Columbia with an African name like mine who was going to be the president of the United States, and I never thought that there would be a black man in my lifetime as president of the United States, and I was going to be in his Cabinet, running something called the Department of Homeland Security, which didn’t exist then, obviously.
And so I encourage all of you to think about public office, public life. Take the long view. Democracies are self-correcting. Every four years we get a chance at a do-over—(laughter)—
KUMAR: What are you trying to say? (Laughs.)
JOHNSON: Every four years we get a chance at a do-over if we don’t like—if we don’t like what we have. So keep the faith, and those of you who came here because you were interested in a career in government and public service, I encourage you to continue to think about that.
Thank you. (Applause.)
KUMAR: Thank you so—thank you so much. Thank you for your service. (Applause.)