“Combatting Threats at Home and Abroad”

A Conversation with Jeh C. Johnson

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson delivers a public lecture at the American Grand Strategy Event at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Author: Sabriyya Pate, Duke University Class of 2019

On Thursday, September 8th, 2016, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson spoke with Professor David Schanzer at the Sanford School of Public Policy on the Department’s role in monitoring violent extremism, his outlook on immigration policies, the “War on Terror”, and rising anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States. Retired U.S. Army General and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey introduced Secretary Johnson as a “great public servant and a leader among leaders.”

Responsible for the third largest government agency and its $60 billion budget, Johnson oversees U.S. counterterrorism efforts, biological threat detection, the secret service, government response to natural disasters, as well as port, aviation and maritime security and more. Some of his greatest achievements since assuming office in 2013 include management reform to eliminate all inefficiencies in the government system, eliminating all vacancies in senior level positions, and reforming hiring, budgeting and acquisitions practices.

To begin, Johnson remarked on the culture of college campuses and encouraged students to consider serving our state and our communities. He then explained how the terrorist threat to our homeland has evolved significantly into an environment where we must also be concerned about self-radicalized terrorists who are easily inspired. This new component makes terrorism a more difficult threat to detect, he explained; “Terrorism cannot prevail if we refuse to be terrorized.” He also noted that the public’s role is not limited to vigilance and awareness, “We cannot retreat to prejudice, suspicion, and intolerance.”


Professor Schanzer opened the conversation questioning the current relevance of the phrase “War on Terror” and Johnson’s previous remarks that “war must be seen as unnatural and finite.” Johnson explained that we should move away from over-emphasizing phrasing and instead focus on ongoing law-enforcement efforts and DHS’s current projects to tackle domestic extremism. He shared his belief that armed conflict is not the mechanism to address the problem, and the relevance of the phrase “if you see something, say something.”

Immigration was also a central topic of the conversation. Johnson expressed his strong belief that “immigration is good for America” and acknowledged that this fact may be difficult to explain to a roomful of unemployed Americans. However, he believes that with ample data, the majority of Americans will eventually understand the fact that immigration contributes to the U.S. economy.

When asked about illegal immigration, Johnson asserted “we do not have open doors” and people who cross the border illegally must be turned away and apply for asylum to enter the country legally. He acknowledged that it is an extremely emotional and heart wrenching job, and that nobody enjoys sending people back. Yet he has an obligation and thus a priority to enforce the law consistently. “On a human level I would like to take them [children] home with me. We do our best to do so in a humane manner. However, we are not always perfect and there are plenty of people ready to criticize us.”

During the brief question and answer period, Secretary Johnson touched on a variety of topics including balancing security with freedom, the DHS budget, how to avoid prejudiced judgements while exercising vigilance, and the concern of police being militarized, to which he responded “there is risk associated with an in-your-face military approach to a civilian community.”

A high volume of students and visitors attended this event. With the venue packed, an overflow room was opened where attendees watched a live-stream of the talk. A brief reception followed the conversation where all were able to exchange their thoughts on this well-received discussion.