The Homeland Security Department cannot pay for more border security or invest in recommended fixes to the Secret Service unless Congress passes an appropriations bill for this fiscal year, Secretary Jeh Johnson said during a speech at the Wilson Center. He challenged Congress to act before the end of February, when the continuing resolution that now funds the department expires.
“The clock to Feb. 27 is ticking. In these times, the homeland security budget of this government should not be a political football,” he said.
DHS was the only agency left out of last year’s omnibus funding bill. Following President Barack Obama’s announcement of new executive actions to address illegal immigration, some Republicans had threatened to block the entire bill if DHS were included. The President has said he will veto any legislation that strips money from immigration-related activities.
“I urge Congress to pass an appropriations bill for DHS free and clear of politically charged amendments,” Johnson said.
He also defended the executive actions, which combine improvements to border security with measures that would spare some illegal immigrants from deportation.
“We are taking steps to fix our broken immigration system,” he said.
Apprehensions of illegal immigrants on the southern border are at the lowest level since the 1970s, he said. But migration is seasonal and he cautioned that there may yet be another surge of illegal migrants from Central America, as there was last summer. The “push factors” in those countries that led many of them to come to the United States remain problems. The “pull factor” — the U.S. economy — is getting stronger, he noted.
In its fiscal 2015 budget request, DHS asked Congress for more money to buy aircraft, surveillance technology and other equipment as part of a “risk- based” strategy for securing the border.
Johnson’s wide-ranging speech, attended by many current and former homeland-security officials, served as a sort of “State of DHS.” Here are few more highlights:
Addressing management challenges
Johnson said the department has become more unified and transparent during the past year. More than a dozen high-ranking officials have joined DHS, filling positions that had been vacant for months or even years, in the case of Inspector General John Roth. The top spots at the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration remain the two empty seats. The President has yet to nominate replacements for the Secret Service’s Julia Pierson, who resigned amid security failures, and TSA’s John Pistole, who retired last month.
Johnson said DHS was addressing the problems within the Secret Service that led to Pierson’s resignation. It is following through on recommendations made by an independent panel, he said. But the budget stalemate hampers those efforts. It cannot even hire new agents for the upcoming election cycle without an appropriations bill, he said.
DHS has also restored an awards program for employees in efforts to improve long- standing morale problems.
He expects DHS soon to get off the notorious “High-Risk List,” published by the Government Accountability Office. GAO has warned that management failures at DHS, as a conglomerate of 22 distinct agencies, would pose national security risks.
“GAO has informed us that our interactions with it serve as a model for how other federal agencies can work to address GAO’s high-risk designations,” he said, adding “Management reform is itself a homeland security imperative.”
Johnson, a former Pentagon lawyer, has complained about the “stove-piped” nature of DHS, particularly when it comes to border security. He has consolidated those efforts under two multi-agency task forces. One oversees port security in the Southeast. The other handles the southwestern border, which is largely arid land, and Californian ports. A third new task force on investigations supports the work of the other two.
Catching potential terrorists overseas
DHS is bulking up its security programs overseas in efforts to catch more people who might have been in contact with terrorist groups. Terrorist organizations have very effective social-media campaigns that may lure susceptible Americans to join their fights in Syria and elsewhere, Johnson said. Often, they travel through several countries on their way to fight.
The department is putting Customs agents and other security personnel in more overseas airports to screen travelers before they board planes for the United States. There are 15 sites so far. At the newest one, at Abu Dhabi International Airport, the U.S. team has screened more than 350,000 passengers and denied boarding to 571 people, Johnson said. Last year, Abu Dhabi became the 15th site of to house U.S. aviation security teams.
DHS has added more overseas. As of November, it now requests more information from travelers coming from the 38 countries for which the United States does not require a visa. The department is considering more changes to the program, but does not want to scrap it, Johnson said.
“If you see something, say something” gets a refresh for the Super Bowl
Throughout his speech, Johnson said he wanted to be honest with Americans about threats and encourage their participation in security efforts. DHS has increased its efforts to engage with Muslims and other communities across the nation, as is the Justice Department and the FBI, he said.
Johnson said he sympathizes with Muslim-Americans who feel discriminated against, from airports to schools.
“What I say back to them is, ‘I hear you and I know there are things we should work on in my department, but I want you to do something,” he said. He asks them to build relationships with local officials so that if they see trouble in their communities, they will contact the authorities.
DHS is making that plea, writ large, with a glossied-up version of its public- service campaign, “If you see something, say something.” It will debut at Sunday’s Super Bowl in Phoenix.
“It’s going to be all over the Super Bowl, all over the city,” he said. He likened the effort to putting a new frame on an old painting to catch attention.
“If you put a new frame on it, or you move it around, you say, ‘Wow, that’s a really nice painting,’ and you start looking at it again and admiring it again. That’s what I want people to do with the ‘See something, say something’ message,” he said.
Hear Johnson’s full speech at the Wilson Center (Duration: 51 minutes).