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.
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.
OR: What advice would you give to the people currently managing our national security?
Johnson: That those in national security are the guardians of two things. Our basic physical security and our civil liberties and values. Achieving good national security is striking a balance between our security and our values. Go too far in one direction, you compromise the other. I used to say in office that those of us in national security are the preservation of both. You have to always be mindful of both and pursue both at the same time.