Know Your Enemy

An Interview with Jeh Johnson

I'm concerned by President Trump's stated desire to want to withdraw all U.S. presence from Afghanistan and Syria. In my view, the answer to Afghanistan is to keep in place as long as possible a residual counter-terrorism force so that ISIS and al-Qaeda do not gain another foothold there or in Iraq or Syria. Though nation-building simply doesn't work. We don't have the necessary levels of presence there. There is not the public and political support for it. And the Taliban may simply be waiting us out. We used to say at the Pentagon that the Taliban used to say, "You may have the watches, but we have the time." And I'm encouraged by the peace and reconciliation talks that seem to be going on with the Afghan Taliban, which now apparently include the Afghan government. But I believe that we need to continue to have a small force there present for counter-terrorism purposes.

Moving to the cyber security front, I worry that this administration may not be sufficiently focused on the cybersecurity threat generally. I'd like to see someone within the administration who serves as a national spokesman and leader in this regard. This was a priority of the prior administration. I was pleased that Congress finally acted on our request that we create a cyber and infrastructure security agency, CISA, within the Department of Homeland Security. That was something that I advocated. So yes, there is now an agency of our government devoted to cybersecurity. But I think there's a lot more work to do there.

There's a third component to this: gun control. We continue to see in this country mass violence carried out by deranged criminal actors with guns. I started talking about this in 2016 after the Orlando shooting. I was reluctant to dive into the gun safety debate because it is heavily politicized. But I said in June 2016, "If we in this country want to seriously address cybersecurity, a component of cybersecurity has to be responsible and reasonable gun safety measures." I believed then and I believe now that there are a number of additional things we can do legislatively for gun safety consistent with the Second Amendment.

I am deeply disappointed that our Congress cannot seem to get its act together here. Public support for gun safety is increasing. I ask myself after each act of mass violence, "How much more of this do we have to suffer before our lawmakers and our national leaders do something about it? What is it that will finally be the breaking point? How many more children in churches and schools have to die before our leaders finally act on this?"

OR: What is your assessment of the impact the Trump Administration’s policies and rhetoric around immigration have had on national security?

Johnson: This administration likes to characterize immigration as a national security issue. But the current wave of illegal migration coming from Central America is not predominantly a national security issue or a security issue or public safety issue.

It is a wave of women, children, and families coming from Central America because they're desperate for a better life.

This President made immigration his signature issue when he campaigned in 2016. Yet the levels of illegal migration month-to-month are higher than anything we saw during the Obama Administration. My second year in office saw the second-lowest number of apprehensions on our southern border since 1972. (Apprehensions are an indicator of total attempts to cross the border.) I see this administration, without the benefit of learning from the mistakes of prior administrations, doing a number of things wrong. The numbers — 100,000 a month, 140,000 a month — are far higher than anything we saw. In July there was finally a downturn in apprehensions on our southern border to about 70,000. But 70,000 is still higher than any month I saw in my three years in office.

It seems apparent to me that there is a callous disregard for the welfare of migrants crossing our southern border, perhaps because they believe it will serve as a deterrent (just like the zero-tolerance family separation practice). But families in central America are so desperate they continue to come anyway. I said when I was in office, and I've continued to say since then, that the answer has to be addressing this problem at the source. Aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to eradicate the poverty, violence, and corruption in those countries will go a long way to reducing the illegal migration from those countries. Unless you address the problem at the source, we're going to continue to see this over and over again. We started on this road in 2016, and unfortunately the levels of funding for this effort have gone down since. President Trump suspended it altogether recently. That's the exact wrong thing to do.

OR: What is the global threat that keeps you awake at night?

Johnson: Climate change. It is, as Barack Obama said, a slow-motion emergency. Politically our nation's leaders are not good at addressing slow-motion emergencies. We're better at addressing political crises that happen with some immediacy. The United States needs to lead on this. Forty percent of global emissions are from the United States and China. Unless we lead on this, the consequences are dire. That is the thing that keeps me up at night. There are a number of things that used to keep me up at night when I was in office. Now climate change is number one.

OR: Do you see a path forward where policymakers and leaders start to understand it as an actual risk?

Johnson: I hope it does not require some sort of crisis. The crises that we have seen and we are likely to see in the future are the effects of severe weather events on aging infrastructure as an indicator of climate change. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is an example: the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel flooded. We're seeing more and more severe weather events; as our infrastructure (particularly in urban areas) ages the consequences could be severe. That is a manifestation of climate change, and we should not have to wait for something of that nature and severity to occur. There is, I think, a growing awakening to this problem. But unfortunately our political leadership collectively is lagging behind.