Know Your Enemy

An Interview with Jeh Johnson

Octavian Report: Is the U.S. safer or less safe as, you see it, than it was at the beginning of 2016?

Jeh Johnson: The answer to that question depends upon the specific threat.

In 2015 and 2016 while I was in office — we're speaking in the counterterrorism context — we were very focused on what I heard referred to repeatedly as terrorist-inspired attacks. I.e., attacks of a smaller scale carried out by a lone actor inspired by something they saw or read on the internet put out by the Islamic State. San Bernardino, California, which was December 2015. Orlando, Florida, which was June 2016. Garland City, Texas. Chattanooga, Tennessee. There were a spate of these that occurred in the period between 2014 and 2016. I would mark the beginning point of this phase of terrorist attack as the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013.

These are markedly different from what I refer to as terrorist-directed attacks, where a terrorist group overseas like al-Qaeda trains and directs operatives to infiltrate the United States to carry out a larger-scale attack like 9/11. Our intelligence community, in my judgment, is much better now than it was 18 years ago at detecting such plots at their earliest stages.

But we now live with the prospect and the threat of smaller-scale attacks here, carried out by those who are inspired by something and/or are suffering from various, serious mental disorders. I would say, rolling back the clock and recalling vividly what I was most concerned about on the terrorist front in early 2016, that would have been it.

At the same time, we were beginning to appreciate the risk of domestic-based violent extremism directed toward innocent civilians. So our efforts at countering violent extremism at the Department of Homeland Security also focused on helping organizations like a group based in Chicago called Life After Hate, which helps rehabilitate those who had previously been part of white nationalist or neo-Nazi organizations. We got grant money from Congress to actually fund these efforts on a local level. We were beginning to appreciate that the terrorist threat here at home included the possibility of a violent attack carried out by someone inspired by a far-Right, white nationalist or neo-Nazi ideology.

We now today live with that threat, I would say, on a daily basis. We've seen that recently. Attempts and actual attacks carried out by those who believe that they are fulfilling a far-Right, violent mandate. What's new about this is that some of these attackers, in their deranged minds, believe that they're carrying out the mandate of people who would perhaps secretly endorse these attacks. We see that reflected in the various manifestos that are left.

Most recently there was the attack in El Paso. I believe that the physical threat to the homeland in terms of potential terrorist acts is still present, and it's evolving. Attacks of the nature of a 9/11-scale attack have lessened over the last 18 years; the origins and the inspiration for terrorist attacks have evolved as well.

On the cybersecurity front, I think that we continue to be on defense. I put the cyber threat to our homeland in several different buckets. One is the cyber threat of a more traditional nature, most often carried out by nation-states in an attempt to conduct surveillance of government activity. Second is cyber theft by both nation-states and criminal private actors. A sub-component of that is ransomware, which is a growing industry. We have to be vigilant when it comes to the threat of malware implanted in our critical infrastructure, which carries with it the possibility of an offensive attack on interconnected infrastructure. That was present in 2016, and it still exists today. Then there is the threat, which is what we saw in 2016, of cyber theft and the subsequent weaponization of the stolen information for political purposes. This is what the Russian government did in 2016, and that threat is still ongoing (if you believe our intelligence chiefs).

There is also the threat to our election infrastructure. In January 2017, as I was leaving office, I declared our election infrastructure to be critical infrastructure. That designation carries with it certain implications for how the Department of Homeland Security prioritizes helping state election officials with their elections and registering voters. I'm pleased that since 2016 there's been a lot of good work done at the state level by state election officials in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security.

OR: How do you assess the threat posed by deepfakes?

Johnson: That’s a sub-component of the promulgation of fake news and extremist views. And I put it in that bucket accordingly. I think it's a real threat because it's hard to detect, it's hard to track, and it's hard to prevent. It's like chasing shadows. It's ever-present. I would not associate it simply with the Russian government. I think that other nation-states may be getting into this, and I believe private actors may be getting into it for their own purposes. It's an ongoing problem. A lot of it has to come from self-regulation and self-policing by internet service providers and social media networks. The government itself has to be careful about regulating speech and political debate.

OR: How would you assess the foreign and domestic policies of the Trump Administration from a national security perspective?

Johnson: We never want to be fighting the last war, and we want to be constantly vigilant when it comes to evolving threats. That's true whether it's the Trump Administration or any other.

I think that, particularly under Secretary Mattis's leadership, this administration deserves credit for reducing the size of the Islamic State's so-called Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. That was an effort we began in the prior administration, and I'm pleased that progress has been made in that regard. Though there seems to have been a resurgence by ISIS in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The terrorist attack in August against a wedding in Kabul, an attack that killed dozens, is a reminder of that.