- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Q&A With Jeh Johnson: Tracking Evolving Threats

| Fall/Winter 2017-2018

Jeh Johnson, a Senior Fellow with the Belfer Center, was Secretary of Homeland Security from December 2013 to January 2017. Johnson is currently a partner with the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP. As Secretary of Homeland Security, Johnson was responsible for the TSA, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration, U.S. Citizenship Services, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and FEMA. Here, Juliette Kayyem, Director of the Belfer Center’s Homeland Security Project, asks Secretary Johnson about his experience at DHS.

Q. As Secretary, you had to react quickly to things coming at you from all directions. Through this, how did you manage to keep a strategic focus on your priorities?

The nature of the job of Secretary of Homeland Security is one in which you are constantly on defense against threats that could come from multiple directions—land, air, sea, and in cyberspace. So much of the job is reactive. But I also realized that there was much to do to improve the workings of the Department and advance the President’s policy agenda. I defined a good day as one in which more than half the meetings on my calendar were meetings I initiated to advance the agenda. 

First priority was to fill the numerous vacancies in senior-level positions in the Department. By 2013, the number of “actings” in those jobs, including my own,  was pretty staggering. Working with the White House, we filled these senior-level positions within about nine months. 

Second, we spent considerable time on management reform—simply reforming the way DHS did business and served the American people. The Department after 11 years was still too stove-piped. We raised morale across the Department. 

To reflect the new threat environment, we prioritized countering violent extremism at home, and established an office for the purpose. 

We also reshaped our immigration enforcement priorities to focus our deportations more on convicted criminals to improve public safety, and revised and improved the pay scale for our immigration enforcement personnel.

With Congress, we continued the capital campaign to rebuild the Coast Guard. We reinvested in personnel and technology for TSA after years of attrition in that agency.

 Finally, we made a number of tangible improvements to  our nation’s and the U.S. government’s cybersecurity. We got additional authorities from Congress to hire good cyber talent. We built automated information-sharing of cyber threat indicators with the private sector. We worked with Congress to pass the Cybersecurity Act of 2015. We deployed the EINSTEIN 3A system—which detects and blocks unwanted exfiltrations of data—across all civilian departments and agencies of the U.S. government. Just before leaving office I declared election infrastructure in this country to be “critical infrastructure,” something that will enable us to assist election officials to improve their own cybersecurity.

Q. As you mentioned, one of your last acts as Secretary was to designate our electoral system as “critical infrastructure.” Moving forward, how worried are you about cyberattacks aimed at influencing our elections?

Very. Last year’s experience with the Russian government should be a wake-up call. It exposed certain vulnerabilities in state election officials’ cybersecurity, and I’m pleased to see recent news reports that states are taking actions to address this.

Q. The Department was formally established 15 years ago this month; what do you think should be its top priorities for the next 15 years?

DHS was formed in 2002 on the assumption then that terrorism was something that would infiltrate our homeland extraterritorially. So, Congress merged aviation security, border security, port security and maritime security and put it all in one Cabinet-level department under the purview of one Cabinet official who sees all the threats. Fifteen years later, I still think that’s a good structure and I wouldn’t change it. But the terrorist threat picture has evolved to include “terrorist-inspired” attacks by those who are homegrown or home-born. That’s why I think it’s so critical that we continue to focus our efforts, additionally, on ways to counter violent extremism at home. My fear is that the effort gets caught up in politics, and stalls.

Also, over the next 15 years, DHS must continue to promote cybersecurity as its other top-priority mission—something that was barely on the radar in  2002. I’d say in speeches that counterterrorism continues to be the cornerstone of DHS’s mission, but cybersecurity must be the other. A building has more than one corner.

Q. As someone who’s seemingly done it all in your career—as a former prosecutor, private sector lawyer, and national security expert—what advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in the homeland or national security fields?

Public service is richly gratifying but not rewarding monetarily.  So, avoid the golden hand-cuffs of the private sector.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

"Q&A With Jeh Johnson: Tracking Evolving Threats." Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, Fall/Winter 2017-2018.

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Juliette Kayyem