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“In the name of homeland security, I can build you a perfectly safe city, but it will be a prison,” said U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, addressing on Saturday the General Assembly at the ABA Annual Meeting in Boston. “I can guarantee you a perfectly safe, risk-free commercial flight, but every passenger will be strip-searched and not permitted any food, luggage or freedom of movement during the ride.”
Johnson offered more trade-offs, then said, “But we should not do this at the cost of who we are as a nation of people who respect the law, cherish privacy and freedom, celebrate diversity and who are not afraid. This is our greatest strength as a nation.”
The secretary, a former partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and former general counsel of the Department of Defense, gave an update on the myriad activities of the third-largest department in the government, including in the areas of border security, immigration reform, airline security and counterterrorism.
Addressing the recent spike in migration into south Texas, Johnson said it “clearly has a humanitarian dimension,” but that “in the final analysis we know that our borders are not open to illegal migration, and our message to people in Central America is, if you come here illegally, we will send you back, consistent with our laws and our values.”
Given Congress’ failure to act on immigration reform, Johnson said that in the next few weeks President Obama “will announce a series of comprehensive reforms to the system that we believe we can undertake, within the confines of existing law.”
Regarding the Transportation Security Agency, he said TSA is “moving toward a risk-based approach to aviation security. This means focusing resources on where the risks exist.” He said citizens providing basic background information to enroll in TSA pre-check are finding shorter wait times at the airport and less-obtrusive screening, enabling them “to focus our attention on the class of air travelers moving through the lines that we know less about,” he said.
Declaring counterterrorism “must and will remain the cornerstone of the Department of Homeland Security’s mission,” Johnson said that in addition to the rise of al Qaeda affiliates, DHS is worried about “the independent actor, who did not train at an al Qaeda camp, or associate with or take orders from any member of al Qaeda, but who is inspired by al Qaeda’s terrorist ideology – the so-called “lone wolf” who may be lurking within our own society,” Johnson said. “We got an example of this type of actor last year at the Boston Marathon. In many respects, this is the hardest terrorist threat to detect, and the one I worry most about.”
To address this threat, DHS is working in partnership with state and local law enforcement and the public on programs such as “If You See Something, Say Something™,” as well as engaging in outreach to communities that can help in the effort. Johnson himself recently met with a Syrian-American community group in a Chicago suburb.
The secretary asked the association to encourage law students and young lawyers to go into public service, anything “from a JAG in the military, a civilian lawyer for a national security agency, or – as the vice president requested earlier this week — a private lawyer pro bono for a child in an immigration court.”