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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

DHS Moves With the Times, Secretary Says

WASHINGTON (CN) - To cap off his last year at Homeland Security, Secretary Jeh Johnson vowed to push an "aggressive agenda," fighting a new type of terrorism and controlling immigration along the southern border.

Johnson made the pledge Thursday in an hour-long speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in downtown Washington, full of praise for the oft-maligned agency he says has worked steadfastly to improve its shortfalls.

Two offices Johnson highlighted for revamping their top leadership were the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Agency, both of which received intense criticism in the last year for management slip-ups and security breaches.

Addressing about a 100 people, Johnson devoted much of his annual State of Homeland Security address on the efforts by his office to fight a new breed of terrorism that sees people "self-radicalize" without ever having come face-to-face with a terrorist.

Such attacks are harder to detect and stop than traditional, large-scale attacks and put new stresses on law-enforcement agencies, Johnson said.

"As I have said many times, we are in a new phase of the global terrorist threat, requiring a whole new type of response," Johnson said. "We have moved from a world of terrorist-directed attacks to a world that includes the threat of terrorist-inspired attacks."

Johnson applauded targeted airstrikes against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, commonly referred to as ISIL, as pivotal in stopping this new kind of terror threat. Airstrikes have eliminated high-ranking ISIL leaders and helped free 40 percent of the land the organization once held in Iraq, as well as thousands of miles of territory in other countries.

Since airstrikes can't help stop terrorism on the streets of U.S. cities, however, Johnson called it critical for Homeland Security to forge partnerships with local law enforcement.

"Given the current threat environment, it is the cop on the beat that may be the first to detect the next terrorist attack in the United States," Johnson said, quoting his speech at a New York City police graduation in December.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has also started monitoring the social-media accounts of prospective Syrian refugee applicants, Johnson said.

Such monitoring has been a talking point since reports surfaced that the attackers who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December had shown signs of radicalization on social media, reports the FBI has since refuted.

The frontline of the fight against self-radicalized terror threats is not just tactical, Johnson said, noting that it also involves building law-enforcement relationships in communities, especially among Muslims.

"Well-informed families and communities are the best defense against terrorist ideologies," Johnson said. "Al-Qaida and the Islamic State are targeting Muslim communities in this country. We must respond. In my view this is as important as any of our other homeland security missions."

The department has created an Office of Community Partnerships to lead this effort, and the office will be tasked with coordinating a community engagement task force including Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the FBI, Johnson said.

"It is almost always the case that when somebody self-radicalizes, there is someone in a position to know about it," Johnson said during a question-and-answer session after the speech.

Johnson also tied the fight against terrorism with the need to strengthen the government's cybersecurity capabilities. He praised Congress for passing the Cybersecurity Act of 2015 in the omnibus spending bill, a law he said would be a "huge assist" to the department.

Johnson was not so kind to Congress when he spoke about the department's efforts to curb illegal immigration over the southern border. He said he is "disappointed" Congress has not been able to overcome partisan bickering to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

"As I explain it to both Democrats and Republicans, immigration policy must be two sides of the same coin," Johnson said. "The resources we have to enforce immigration laws and finite and they must be used wisely."

Because of this budgetary squeeze, Johnson said law enforcement groups like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, must focus on catching and deporting criminals in the country illegally, rather than rounding up families and people who have not committed crimes, even if they are undocumented.

"Under our new policy, these people are not priorities for removal, nor should they be," Johnson said.

He went on to say President Barack Obama and the department are encouraging people who have lived in the country, are parents of U.S. citizens, and have not committed a serious crime to "come out of the shadows" and ask for deferred action on their immigration status.

On Syrian refugees, which has been one of the most hotly debated subjects for lawmakers in recent months, Johnson told the gathered audience that the government is still committed to admitting 10,000 refugees by the end of the year. He said the department will do so carefully, however, with an "intense" and "multi-layered" screening process.

While some of Johnson's points on immigration and Syrian refugees surely would rankle some lawmakers in Washington, he ended his speech with a condemnation of the partisanship so common in the capital, echoing Obama's message in last month's State of the Union address.

"There is also far too much partisanship in Washington, and especially during an election year, politics has become a blood sport in this town," Johnson said. "Too often it is more important to score political points than achieve smart, sound government policy on behalf of the American people."

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