Three former secretaries of Homeland Security — one who served in a Republican administration and two who served in Democratic administrations — said they hoped the department can return to a “normality” that is free from politics, focused on mission and has stable leadership at the top.
In an Atlantic Council webinar forum on Wednesday, former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said that a more politicized department makes it harder to retain people and more difficult to retain public trust.
“It’s not just about building walls at the border but a broader sense of what’s needed to protect the country from non-military threats,” he said, saying that President Trump has “done everything he can to cripple the leadership of the department” by running through three acting secretaries.
Former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said the department needs to experience “continued maturation” along with “a refocus on the critical threats facing the country,” including an increase in cyber infrastructure protection.
She agreed with Chertoff that the “kind of instability in leadership” at the top of DHS “has just been crippling for this department,” and stressed that the mission is much broader than being the “Department of the Southwest Border.”
Former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said the department has been used as a political “hammer” to the point where some people are calling for DHS to be dismantled. But that would be the wrong move, he added.
“You have to have those functions … best to have it all reside under one cabinet-level department, not scattered all over the federal government,” he said, adding that should there be changes in policy direction, tone and management reform. “It serves the people in vital ways… continually remind the American people of all the ways Homeland Security protects us.”
Johnson advocated the appointment of a DHS secretary “who has an apolitical persona,” someone who is not identified as a Republican or Democrat and who “does not tweet political messages.”
Napolitano said the next DHS secretary and top department leadership should have “operational experience in some of the relevant areas of the department,” and the leader should be “someone who can be a trusted communicator” and relay to citizens and stakeholders the importance of the department’s missions and how DHS goes about accomplishing those missions.
All three sounded the alarm on election security, with Johnson saying there are “a lot of bright lights blinking hot red right now” and the threat posed by Russia campaign interference is a “greater threat than the Postal Service” being slow to process mail-in ballots. Chertoff urged governors to step up and provide as many opportunities as possible for people to vote such as expanding early voting periods and putting extra resources into processing ballots. “These are concrete things that don’t require Donald Trump’s good faith,” he said.
The former secretaries from different parties expressed agreement in how to manage the border, with Chertoff saying he would not expect a Democratic president to declare “open borders” but would expect an administration enforcing the rules “in a way that respects due process.”
“We need to have control of the border; we need to do it in a way that’s not inhumane,” he said. “…You also have to look at what drives people to migrate.”
Chertoff said it “behooves us to actually work with the countries in Latin America” to build up rule of law and healthy economies.
Napolitano said the focus on the border needs to move to “manpower and technology, not with resources spent on building a wall at the same time.”
Johnson said he “wouldn’t count on” a surge of migrants at the southwest border if the White House is won by the Democratic nominee because the response of immigration patterns to perceived changes “doesn’t always go the way you would predict.”
He also emphasized dealing with the problem at the source in Latin America.
“Americans want us to treat those who are here fairly and humanely,” Johnson said, while they “also don’t want a border that is out of control.”