Newly confirmed Department of Homeland (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson made his first appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee Wednesday morning to discuss his vision and priorities for the department. The occasion marked Johnson’s first visit to Capitol Hill since his confirmation and the 21st anniversary of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
Committee Chairman Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX) considers that incident the beginning of the current U.S. war on terrorism. “Eight years later the attacks on 9/11 changed our country and reformed our government with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security,” he said in his opening statement. “So it’s fitting that today the new secretary of the department, Mr. Jeh Johnson, is here to discuss his vision for DHS.”
Since taking office in December 2013, Johnson has been busy familiarizing himself with the 22 different agencies that make up DHS. He has also given a policy address at the Wilson Center and visited Arizona to look into border control concerns. Johnson reiterated those concerns at today’s hearing, stressing the importance of securing the border and the needs for a biometric visa exit system.
“At our borders and ports of entry, we must deny entry to terrorists, drug traffickers, human traffickers, transnational criminal organizations, and other threats to national security and public safety while continuing to facilitate legal travel and trade,” Johnson said in his opening statement. He called for a more agile system to address border security that allows DHS to dedicate resources where threats exist and to “move when they move.”
Currently, there is no biometric system that tracks when individuals have overstayed their visas while visiting the United States. In Johnson’s opinion, a biometric system would be the “gold standard” and he said he believes that DHS will eventually implement a system. However, in the two years since Congress passed legislation mandating such a system, the department’s efforts to implement it have stalled.
Additionally, DHS was expected to release a report in December 2013 detailing the number of people who have overstayed their visas and are still in the United States. The department has not yet released the report; Johnson said that he has seen a draft, but it needs additional work before it can released for review.
Despite the new focus on border security and immigration, Johnson held that the overall mission of DHS has remained the same. “The cornerstone of the homeland security mission has been, and should continue to be, counterterrorism—that is, protecting the nation against terrorist attacks,” he said. Johnson added that the United States must “remain vigilant” in detecting and preventing terrorist threats that seek to penetrate the homeland from land, sea, and air.
Part of this continued vigilance is being aware of a new kind of threat from those who self-radicalize and turn to terrorist actions. “We must continue to build relationships with state and local law enforcement, and the first responders in our communities, to address the threats we face from those who self-radicalize, the so-called lone wolf who may be living quietly in our midst, inspired by radical, violent ideology to do harm to Americans—illustrated last year by the Boston Marathon bombing,” he explained.
Also on Johnson’s radar is a focus on improving cybersecurity across the federal government and the nation. He praised the Homeland Security Committee’s bill (H.R. 3696), saying it was a “good bill” and a “step in the right direction.”
The bill was introduced by McCaul in December 2013 and passed the a Homeland Security Subcommittee unanimously earlier this year. If passed by Congress, it would require the secretary of DHS to conduct cybersecurity activities, including “the provision of shared situational awareness among federal entities to enable real-time, integrated, and operational actions to protect” and respond to cyber incidents.
Along with the DHS’s external focuses, Johnson said that the department is working to improve itself internally by filling high-level vacancies with permanent staff.
Currently, DHS is waiting for the Senate to confirm retired Brigadier General Frank Taylor as undersecretary for intelligence and analysis; Suzanne Spaulding as undersecretary for national protection and programs directorate; Gil Kerlikowske as commissioner of customs and border protection; John Roth for inspector general; Leon Rodriguez as director of U.S. citizenship and immigration services; and Reggie Brothers as undersecretary for science and technology. DHS is also working to fill the positions of undersecretary for management, director of immigration and customs enforcement, and chief financial officer.
For more information on the hearing, or to watch it in full, visit the House Homeland Security Committee Web site here.