When Janet Napolitano took over the Department of Homeland Security in 2009, she inherited a sprawling organization still in its infancy.
Less than a decade old, the agency had a staff of more than 200,000 employees — and they were responsible for some pretty big tasks: securing the nation’s borders; responding to natural disasters; fighting terrorism; and managing cybersecurity.
Those challenges were tough then. And some are more difficult now.
Napolitano, who was governor of Arizona prior to taking the Homeland Security post, outlines some of these challenges in her new book How Safe Are We?: Homeland Security Since 9/11, which she co-wrote with Karen Breslau.
Napolitano, who left Homeland Security in 2013 and now heads up the University of California system, talked with NPR’s Korva Coleman. Some highlights of the interview follow.
So let’s start with the elephant in the room: immigration. President Trump has announced that he wants to close large sections of the southern U.S. border. What do you make of this approach?
Oh, I think it’s unnecessary and unwise. First of all, the economic impact would be huge. Mexico is our number two trading partner. There are thousands of trucks and vehicles that go through those ports of entry day in and day out, responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs within the United States. So just the plain economic impact of that would be immediate — and it would be deep.
And in terms of immigration and immigration enforcement, that is not the way I would recommend that the president approach the border. I would recommend that the president approach the border as a border zone, that he flood the zone with the rule of law, that he bring on board more immigration judges and more immigration courts, station them right at the border, so that those who are presenting themselves with their applications for asylum can have their their cases adjudicated fairly and expeditiously.
This week, the head of Customs and Border Protection said that the matter has reached a breaking point. What does that mean?
Well, I think what it means is they are insisting on detaining everyone that they apprehend at the border. And that’s simply not necessary. You can give people a return date, if necessary you give them an ankle bracelet, you put them on enhanced monitoring — all kinds of ways to make sure that they come back for their hearings. And the vast majority of them do. But when you take the position that everybody has to be in detention — adults, children — then you quickly strain the system.
Journalists reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border, including NPR’s own John Burnett, have said that Border Patrol agents are swamped and that border crossings show no signs of slowing down. Is there something to be said for President Trump’s hardline approach?
Well, he’s had this hardline approach since he’s been president. And it clearly is not working, if the numbers are any indication. I actually think we should take a step back and analyze — what is the source of this migration? And the source of it now is families fleeing the conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. We ought to reinvest, as a country, in improving conditions in those countries — working on gang violence prevention, working on strengthening the institutions of government, the judicial systems, the law enforcement systems. You know, we did something like that with Colombia years ago, when Colombia was essentially a narco state. And the United States said, look that’s not acceptable. And there were people in Colombia who didn’t want to live in a narco state, and working together and putting some American resources into it — now Colombia is essentially a tourist destination. We can achieve the same kind of progress in the northern countries of Central America.
You write that immigration reform means three things: securing the southern border; designing a visa system that’s fair; and then building a functional immigration system. Can you talk about these?
Sure. So we need to have a secure southwest border. Every country is entitled to have secure borders and to enforce those borders. But enforcing security at the southwest border does not mean sealing the southwest border with a wall. It means a real strategy. And a wall is a symbol — it’s not a strategy. A strategy is manpower technology like ground sensors, tunnel detection equipment, air cover like drones, and strengthening the actual ports of entry. That’s a real border control strategy. Visa and visa reform, I would go in a different direction than this administration — I would increase the number of visas that we allow for people coming to this country to work, or to be reunified with their families, or for other humanitarian purposes. I think that’s consistent with our history, it’s consistent with our values. And then, thirdly, we need to find a way where those in the country who are undocumented can get right with the law.
I think they need to, perhaps, pay a fine, learn English, demonstrate that they have no serious criminal record. And then, after a period of years, they should be entitled to stay and, ultimately, to become citizens of the United States.
So some would criticize that as amnesty — and something that should not be allowed. How would you respond to them?
Well, I don’t think it’s amnesty. I mean, I think what I’ve just spelled out is there’s a lot that someone would have to go through in order to apply for citizenship and they would have to really want it. And, you know, our country is kind of built on that. It’s built on people coming here who want to contribute, to want to build a better life for themselves and for their families. It’s part of what makes America great.
You’ve talked about your book as being a type of report card on how secure the nation actually is. And one of the areas you’ve marked as “needs improvement” is our response to foreign cyber incursions — and not just into, say, states voting systems but into power companies, private companies that hold private records — such as healthcare and banking data — and, of course, social media. How can we better protect ourselves against foreign saboteurs?
This is such a tough issue. And it is inordinately complex in. In my book, I spell out ten things that I think we should have a sort of a commission, sort of a pre-9/11 commission on cyber take up from clarifying the jurisdictions of the various federal agencies that touch upon cybersecurity, all the way up to and including what constitutes an act of cyber warfare — and what are the sanctions that attend to that. Part of that, obviously, is working internationally because cyber doesn’t respect or know national boundaries, and a lot of it involves working with the private sector because so much of our nation’s critical infrastructure is in private sector hands: our banking system; telecommunications; water systems; utility systems, you name it. And plus, we have the big social media platforms, the Facebook and the Twitters — and everything in between. All of these need to be brought to bear on this very complicated topic. But it is the homeland security issue of of this decade.
One of the things you talk about is the damage that could occur from cyber-sabotage — for example, blackouts when people not only can’t get into their banks, but we’re also talking about dams, we’re talking about people stuck in elevators, we’re talking about people being able to call 911 for help. This this could be extremely damaging should something like this occur.
That’s right. And, you know, one of the points I make in the book is, you know, after the attacks of 9/11 there was a very high-level commission assembled. And it was given the charge to kind of go back and reverse-engineer what happened on 9/11, how that occurred. And when you read the commission report, what they identified were lots of red flags that had been noticed before the attack of 9/11 but that there was a failure of imagination — a failure of imagining that someone could get on a plane and turn that plane into a weapon and fly it into a building.
We have so many red flags in the in the cyber world right now. And what I’m concerned about is that we really could experience a cyber-cause, 9/11-style event where you would have mass shut down — maybe not just in one community or two communities, but many communities at the same time. We need to get ahead of that now. This needs to be a top priority from a security standpoint.
Voting across the country actually takes place at the state level. How can an agency like the Department of Homeland Security guarantee that voting by Americans is safe?
I think one of the approaches that could be taken would be to bring together all of the county recorders and secretaries of state, you know, the individuals that have authority over our voting systems and establish national standards that voting systems must adhere to — and then put some federal dollars to help under-resourced communities be able to reach those standards. And I think there’s some real urgency to this. The 2020 election is going to be here before we know it, and we know that 2016 was infiltrated by the Russians. They were all over our 2016 election. We have no confidence that they have stopped that behavior. So what are we doing as a country about that?.
You suggest that people need to be willing to trade some of their privacy for security. Who pays that price?
That’s an interesting question because I think that being part of a country, you you have a relationship to all — we’re not all just total you know iconoclastic individuals.
But on the other hand, we don’t need to just assume that security and privacy are unalterably in conflict. I think as we conduct security operations as we adopt new security techniques or protocols, that concepts of privacy should be corporate from the get-go. I call it privacy by design. You know the Department of Homeland Security actually has a chief privacy officer. I think it’s one of the few cabinet-level agencies that does. And we were involved in some you know really intense debates about whether what we were doing swung the pendulum too far in one way or the other.
I’ve just read this week that the DEA is still gathering bulk data of Americans and is doing so without benefit of court permission. They’re using administrative subpoenas. And this was revealed this week by the Justice Department’s inspector general. Now I realize DEA is not part of Homeland Security but there is a distrust among Americans that there is going to be an intrusion into one’s privacy and that we still don’t really know what is being surveilled or who.
Well, I think that the question really is: What is the utility of collecting so much data? I think that we need to be thinking about what data is really essential or important for us to have from a security perspective and tailor our operations in that regard. So I think a lot of this bulk data collection, I must say, seems to be data collection for data collection sake.
There was a DHS report in 2009 that warned about right-wing extremism from hate groups, especially from white supremacists. But that report was controversial because it discussed the possibility of veterans becoming radicalized by white supremacy groups and people were offended. You withdrew this report. How did that happen, and come to be?
It came to be because the report, perhaps, painted with too broad a brush with respect to perhaps leaving the impression that all veterans were targets of being right-wing extremists recruits. And the veterans groups in Washington D.C. got very upset with that characterization and, as a result, I was asked to apologize for the report. I apologized for the report. We withdrew it. It was recast but I think the point now is that I think we all recognize that their report was prescient in terms of predicting the rise of white nationalism, right-wing extremism whatever verbiage you want to call it. And, you know, we’ve seen this in increasing numbers of events in our country over the past years.
Given incidents such as Charlottesville, the mass shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue, the package bombs last October mail to prominent Democrats. Should Homeland Security revisit the issue of domestic terrorism by white supremacists in a more formal way?
I hope it is, and because I think it’s an important part of the the mission of the Department of Homeland Security to protect the safety and security of Americans. And I think that this rise in white nationalism, right-wing extremism culminating in mass gun violence is is an ever-increasing risk to our our safety and our security.
You argue in the book that the Trump administration is focusing too much on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border and not enough on climate change. What needs to be done differently?
Two things: Number one, I think the United States should do its part to reduce the rate of global warming and rejoin the Paris Accords and re-adopt the standards in the Paris Accords. Secondly, however, I think we must we must do more by way of adaptation to the climate change that already has occurred. You know: How do we build our roads? Where do we locate our bridges? What kind of building materials can be used? When a community is destroyed by a natural disaster, where is it allowed to be rebuilt? These are the kinds of questions that I think FEMA should be taking on in a climate-adaptation regime.
You discuss having a deep reverence for our country and the concept of public service as a calling. Have have we lost that feeling?
I hope we have not. I think that the men and women I was privileged to work with throughout my career from the assistant U.S. attorneys I worked with in Phoenix, to the deputy state attorneys general, to the department heads when I was governor, to all of the men and women in the Department of Homeland Security, these are people who have really decided to contribute their lives for the betterment of the country. And I know it sounds corny and it sounds, perhaps, naive to say, but you know I really believe in this concept of public service and in government service. And that’s one of the things I regretted so much during the recent shutdown, as we had so many people still coming to work and not being paid for over a month. That just shouldn’t happen.