WASHINGTON (CN) – Unlike the confirmation hearing for Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, the tenor of retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly's hearing took a much different bend Tuesday, with one senator calling it a “lovefest.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, cooed the compliment at Kelly after the four-star general had fielded questions deftly for more than three hours.
President-elect Donald Trump nominated Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security. Unlike several other nominations, there was little anticipation for controversy surrounding the nod.
With repeated refrains of "speaking truth to power" by both senators and the nominee, Kelly reiterated his own standpoint to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
"I will faithfully support the U.S. Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I believe in respect, tolerance and diversity of opinion," he said. "I have a profound respect for the law and will strive to uphold it, and I firmly believe in speaking truth to power."
Warm words aside, he acknowledged the work ahead remains fraught with challenges.
"The threats to our homeland have not receded in any way and the challenges to our way of life have not diminished," he said.
If confirmed, Kelly faces a ballooning military budget, currently hovering at $19 billion. Not quite falling into a feverish lockstep with Trump’s call to build a continuous wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the general instead offered a more comprehensive perspective.
"A physical barrier in and of itself would not do the job. It has to be a layered defense. If you built a wall from the Pacific to the Gulf, you'd still have to back the wall up by human beings and observation devices," Kelly said.
Though there was no discussion of how to pay for expanded technology, Kelly echoed calls by Sen. John McCain, R.-Arizona, for more reliance on innovation to address growing security concerns.
"Technology would be a big part," he agreed. Reliable options, he said, could be "sensors in places where a wall won't or can't be built, in terms of the immensity of that project."
Taking a macro view, Kelly added he believes the defense of the southwest border actually starts 1,500 miles farther south, in Mexico. In his playbook, Kelly said international cooperation will be required to quell narcoterrorism.
The general added that "100 percent of heroin is produced in Mexico," and warned of its production creep into Central America. Only partnerships based on shared intelligence between nations will stop the problem from getting worse.
Striking a bipartisan chord, Kelly dodged the standard drug-war rhetoric of increasing budgets and armed task forces and spoke to what he sees as the central problem to protecting borders and people.
"We are an overly medicated society. Huge amounts of opioids are prescribed legally for things in the past that would probably not receive that level of medication. The point is, it's a huge problem and it’s getting worse. The profits are unbelievable to cartels that control the whole of marketing and transport [of drugs]," he said.
The only time the 66-year old general appeared to fall somewhat out of favor was at the onset of questions by Sen. Kamala Harris, the newly elected Democrat from California.
Harris probed Kelly's knowledge of terms laid out in the immigration policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Implemented by the Barack Obama administration in 2012, the policy allows for some undocumented immigrants who enter the United States as minors to avoid deportation and apply for work permits.
As a part of the application process, hundreds of thousands of DACA applicants have all of their personal information housed in a secure DHS database.
Harris aired the concerns of her "worried and afraid" constituents, who she says have concerns with the incoming administration's access to the database. They worry about what President-elect Trump's administration "might do to them and unauthorized family members," she said.
Harris reminded the general that current head of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson had once offered assurances that DACA information would not be used for law enforcement purposes except in very limited circumstances.
When pressed on his knowledge of that, Kelly came up somewhat short, only saying that he hadn't been involved "in those discussions" but that if confirmed, he would follow the laws in place.
"Do you understand that under DACA, many have relied on our representation that we would not use their information against them?" Harris asked.
Kelly only responded that he would take a "long, very hard look" at the policy.
"I'm not familiar right now where the upcoming administration is going, but I'll keep an open mind," he added.
Kelly did appear to have a more closed mind about some of Trump's most rancorous campaign promises, like the reinstitution of water-boarding as a form of torture.
Amid promises to follow the letter of U.S. law and terms of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture, Kelly spoke coherently about his promise of ethical conduct on the world stage.
"I don't think we should come close to crossing a line that is beyond what Americans would expect to follow in terms of interrogation techniques," he said.
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