When the New York Mets opened against the Kansas City Royals on the first night of the 2015 World Series, a man who once was certain that he would grow up to be the New York team’s all-star left fielder was fielding questions in the Ward Circle Building in a much more pressing position.
“I thought, ahh, I’m gonna be a major-league baseball player, why do I need to study?” Jeh Johnson, the fourth and current Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, recalled for an audience of hundreds of students at the School of Public Affairs.
Johnson said that his political awakening was sudden and unplanned – he jumped from an Atlanta bus as it passed the headquarters of Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign for the White House and went inside to volunteer. This inspiration would lead to a drastic scholastic improvement from his freshman-year GPA of 1.8 to a perfect 4.0 as a junior and senior at Morehouse College. He was then to internships on Capitol Hill, served as a public-corruption prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and as the general counsel for the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Defense.
It was June, 2006, when Johnson first met the young U.S. Senator from Illinois who would become the 44th president.
A few months later, Johnson recalls, “Barack Obama called me and said ‘I’m thinking about running for president.’ I had this sense that I was asked to participate in history from the ground floor.”
Two years ago, the president asked Johnson to succeed Janet Napolitano as DHS Secretary. At the newest department of the federal government, Johnson manages nearly a quarter-million employees, overseeing a $60-billion annual budget and agencies as disparate as the Coast Guard, the Secret Service and the vast citizenship and immigration bureaucracy, plus airport, seaport and land-border protection.
During an 80-minute conversation with SPA students, Sec. Johnson touched on a number of issues his agency is focusing on and reported his belief that we are now in a “new phase” of threats to national security. In addition to a terrorist-directed attack originating from overseas, we now face terrorist-inspired attack by those who are, in many cases, home grown. These are people who are inspired from something they saw on social media, the Internet, and the like. In many respects, it is much more difficult to detect.
“It is a more complicated world. Since 9/11, we have become very good at detecting plots from overseas. But this is not just a federal law-enforcement issue anymore. The next terrorist attack could be identified by a cop on the beat.”
Calling immigration “the most emotional subject I have dealt with in my time in public service,” Johnson reiterated the administration’s call for Congress to enact comprehensive reform, noting that the nation’s eleven million undocumented immigrants “live among us, are a fairly stagnant population, and they are not going away.”
“We’re not going to deport a population the size of New York City and Chicago put together, especially if they do not want to go.”
Asked by one about the threat from people who become entranced by terrorist propaganda online, Johnson replied that the recruiting effort being waged by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has become so refined that it is “seductive even to the intellectual community.”
“This phase that we’re in requires a more nuanced approach,” he went on. “One of the way in which we counter ISIL’s efforts at appealing to people in this country is to not concede that the Islamic State represents any part of Islam. To refer to it as ‘Islamic extremism’ we are dignifying it. We have to call it what they are -- a terrorist organization that is not part of Islam.
“We have to amplify the counter-message. The government has a role, but this is not a government message. I have spent time on college campuses talking to Muslim student organizations. I don’t feel like I’ve made a lot of progress there yet, and I’m going to keep at it.”
Freshman Robert Kennedy asked whether the United States should accept responsibility for the poverty and violence that has caused tens of thousands of Central Americans to flee northward through Mexico to the American border in recent years, linking problems in such countries as El Salvador and Honduras to the U.S. government’s so-called “war on drugs.”
Johnson noted that the flow of Central American migrants has slowed significantly since 2014, and stressed that “nearly everyone who comes from Central America to the United States is smuggled and taken advantage of.”
He acknowledged “an intersection between migration and drug activity,” and said “it’s not going away any time soon.”
Despite the challenges of his current position, Johnson encouraged students to consider a career in public service.
“It’s fun and it’s meaningful work and there is a basic human desire to serve others, to go do good things,” the secretary concluded. “It is the most meaningful work imaginable.”