The secretary of homeland security spoke at GW in his first public speech since being confirmed in January.
By Kristen Mitchell
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly says when he reads through media reports as part of his morning routine, he sees a huge disconnect between what his agency is doing every day and what is reported in the news.
Inaccurate reports about security stops in airports make it sound as if DHS agents who work at the southern border and in airports are breaking the law and intentionally abusing innocent people, he said. The public and many politicians assume whenever a conflict arises, it is the agent who did something wrong.
In his first public speech since he was confirmed in January, Mr. Kelly said Tuesday at Jack Morton Auditorium the nation owes DHS employees a debt of gratitude for doing important but often thankless jobs.
“While you’re zoning out on your commute home, homeland security professionals and investigators are closing in on a dangerous child predator,” he said. “While you’re binge watching ‘Mad Men’ on Netflix, TSA is stopping an actual mad man with a loaded gun from boarding a flight to Disney World.”
Mr. Kelly talked about DHS’s role in keeping Americans safe and misconceptions about the agency during an address at George Washington University that he called “Home and Away: Threats to America and the DHS Response.”
“We do our jobs so you and your families can live a peaceful life, a safe life, in a free country. But make no mistake, we are in fact a nation under attack,” he said. “We’re under attack from people who hate us, hate our freedoms, hate our law, hate our values, hate the way we simply live our lives.”
George Washington President Steven Knapp said he was honored to have Mr. Kelly speak at the university and applauded GW’s contributions to research in the security field. He said conversations like these across the political spectrum are what set GW apart.
“Faculty at George Washington have been working in the field since before the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, and we have unique efforts in homeland, cyber and counterterrorism that put George Washington in the spotlight in this field,” he said.
Mr. Kelly lamented the low morale in DHS during his confirmation hearings and again Tuesday. For too long the department’s employees, which include Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, have been used as political pawns, he said.
DHS agents are often ridiculed and insulted by public officials and frequently convicted in the court of public opinion on unfounded allegations of wrongdoing, Mr. Kelly said.
“If lawmakers do not like the laws that we enforce, that we are charged to enforce, that we are sworn to enforce, then they should have the courage and the skills to change those laws,” he said. “Otherwise, they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly (left) speaks with Frank Cilluffo, director of the GW Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, after giving a speech Tuesday. (William Atkins/ GW Today)
Under President Donald Trump, however, these agents are getting the respect they deserve, Mr. Kelly said, as he defended Mr. Trump’s strong stance on illegal immigration and his plans to ramp up deportation. The number of people crossing the United States southern border has dropped significantly since Mr. Trump became president—dropping by 64 percent compared to this time last year, Mr. Kelly said.
These numbers are lower because this administration has shown it is serious about border security and enforcing immigration laws, Mr. Kelly said.
“People who cross illegally do not respect the laws of our nation,” he said. “We want to get the lawbreakers off our streets and out of our country for the good of our communities.”
Following his address, Mr. Kelly sat down for a Q & A with Frank Cilluffo, director of the GW Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. Mr. Kelly said as ISIS loses ground in Iraq he is concerned about terrorists from Europe making their way to the United States after years of fighting in the Middle East.
European passport holders can easily come to the United States if their terrorist activities were undetected under the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of many European countries to freely travel to the United States for 90 days without a visa. This program needs to be reviewed, Mr. Kelly said.
“We have to start looking very hard at that program,” he said. “Not eliminating it, not doing anything excessive, but looking very hard at the program and saying, what do we need to do because the real attempt in many cases is for these individuals to get to the U.S.”