Defending the Homeland: Crises, Controversies, and Successes at DHS with Former Senior Official Tom Warrick

Tom Warrick (@TomWarrickAC) | Twitter

In this hard-hitting episode of The Burn Bag Podcast, we talk to Tom Warrick, the former DHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy, on a variety of important and controversial topics that have pertained to the Department of Homeland Security since its founding in 2001. We dig deep into how successful DHS has been in the years since 9/11 in thwarting terrorist acts and whether the stringent safety measures that have been taken are actually necessary. Building on that, we ask Tom about allegations of ‘racial profiling’ and ‘surveillance’ of Muslims and other minorities in counterterrorism procedures, in addition to the ‘intel mindset’ of screening. We then also talk about the Trump Administration’s border security policies, what real security threats actually exist at the US-Mexico border, and the controversies on issues such as child-separations, the ‘Muslim Ban’, and ICE. We cap off the interview with a brief conversation on election security, as we soon approach November 3rd and the presidential election. We hope you enjoy this wide-ranging and in-depth interview.


ON DHS SENIOR LEADERSHIP: “There are more than fifteen top leaders according to the leadership page on the DHS website, that are in an ‘acting’ role… it’s clear that President Trump, for reasons of his own, likes to have people serve in acting capacities. I think he believes that this gives him more control over what those officials are doing, because in effect, they can be removed more easily. But we saw back in August, that that actually has a potential for causing chaos, because the Government Accountability Office ruled that when the last confirmed Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, resigned, DHS failed to follow its own rules for who was her successor, and GAO said they picked the wrong person. This has essentially thrown all of his decisions and his successor’s decisions into question, because, ‘did he have the authority, or did he not have the authority?’ Quite a bit of what has happened in the last year or so has obviously become very controversial. What’s happened in response to this was President Trump did the right thing by nominating someone, in this case, Acting Secretary Chad Wolf to be Homeland Security Secretary… it does highlight the problem of trying to do too much with acting officials”

TRUST IN THE DHS: “Trust is one of the most important things that DHS needs to earn and win, because so much of what DHS does, especially working with the private sector, for example, on cybersecurity, or with state/local officials on election security, really does come down to do people outside the department trust the leadership to protect their own proprietary information in the case of the private sector, or to be nonpartisan — you can’t do election security without having people realize you’re trying to be nonpartisan. A lot of these roles that the Department is called on to carry out really do require somebody that folks know is going to be there for the long haul… there is a very strong view among the more than 100 experts that we consulted when we were preparing this, that the Department really does need to have Senate-confirmed leadership.”

HAS THE TSA WORKED: “There has not been a 9/11 style terrorist attack against aviation that has succeeded on flights that are covered by TSA screening since TSA was stood up. Those places where we’ve had incidents, like the December 24th, 2009 attempt by a terrorist to blow up a flight from Amsterdam going into Detroit, was obviously a flight that didn’t have TSA screening when it took off. This is one of those things where TSA deserves credit for having been there, and having been present when nothing bad happened on its watch. I’m certainly aware that there are a lot of allegations that what TSA does is ‘security theater’, but I actually think that that is the wrong way to look at the problem.”

AIRPORT SCREENINGS: “From TSA’s standpoint, screening innocent people is a waste of time, there’s no one who wants to do that. So a lot of things like TSA Pre-Check and otherwise have really made a difference in trying to get the TSA freed up so innocent people don’t get held up, hassled, or inconvenienced. But there’s a still a long way to go in terms of making this system as reliable as it needs to be.”

THE ‘INTEL MINDSET’ OF SCREENING: “A system was set up to try to screen people who posed a higher risk that they might be associated with a terrorist attack on aviation. So the Federal Government set up watch lists, of which the most commonly known is the no fly list, which is actually one of those things that is informed by all of the information that the US Government collects for counterterrorism purposes. That includes criminal records, intelligence, information on travel histories, what’s in your passport in terms of entry and exit, this kind of basic data. The most important of that is associations with actual terrorists. This then goes through a process of analysis, and those people who are considered to be too high a risk were to be nominated for additional screening, or to keep them off of flights altogether. Unfortunately, the way this was set up, especially after 9/11, was very much in an environment dominated by an intelligence mindset — the US Government has collected some piece of information, but to protect sources and methods, we can’t disclose it to anyone who doesn’t have a highly restricted need to know. So it was designed intentionally to be over-protective.”

ON DHS AND RACIAL PROFILING: “Some of the concerns and complaints about profiling, even though there would not be a rule or regulation that says ‘you’ll treat certain people of one faith or background in one way and somebody else in a different way,’ that was certainly the perceived effect. But my view, and the view of many people, is DHS and the FBI and the entire screening community can do a lot better to refine our understanding of who actually poses a risk… there have to be better ways and ways to give people rights to challenge, ‘is this really an unfair determination based on something you, the Government, didn’t really understand?’ And I think we’re at the point now where that type of approach is much more feasible and doable than it was fifteen years ago.”

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S BORDER POLICY: “They really did implement a policy that was intended to send a message of harsh enforcement as a means of deterring people from trying to come into the United States who didn’t go through a process… they said we’re going to take immigration policy and enforcement seriously — but then what they did went way over the top and did things in ways that most Americans said, ‘that’s not what we are as a country'”

VICE-PRESIDENT BIDEN’S BORDER POLICY: “VP Biden has laid out a very different vision. He believes in border enforcement, but he also believes in policies that need to be much more efficient, effective, and humane… for someone who comes and claims protections under US asylum laws, it’s not in anyone’s interest that their case should take several years to resolve. It really makes far more sense to get these cases resolved early… the idea of creating a system that can process asylum claims quickly, turns out to be extremely important, if you’re going to have fair, just, and humane border and immigration policies.”

ON NARCOTICS: “Most of the narcotics coming into the country come in through the official ports of entry, and therefore it becomes a challenge on how you inspect truck cargoes and ships at ports and other ways of bringing in substances, not people. In terms of enforcement… the thing that most often is the case is a mix of physical barriers, sensors, and other things trying to identify places between ports of entry where people try to enter the United States without authorization, but really most of your effort… you would probably want to devote more of your resources to the ports of entry, rather than between ports of entry.

ON ICE: “Even if you try to break up ICE, its mission would have to go somewhere… there are much more serious issues relating to trust, authorities, how laws are enforced, there’s a sort of law enforcement policy question. It’s clear that what DHS does in this area should (1) not be politicized, and (2) it still needs some kind of coordination and oversight, because there are problems… the missions that ICE does is not going to go away, if you try to reassign them somewhere else, what you’d end up doing is delaying the solution of DHS’s problems by that length of time.”

ON ELECTION RELATED CYBER-THREATS: “It’s not so much that they [Russia, Iran, and China] favor a particular candidate, what they favor is chaos — each of them has regional ambitions, that a bipartisan approach to national security is a danger to… when you look at who’s responsible for defending the United States against these threats, it’s a very divided situation. Our recommendation is that DHS needs to be put in charge… if it’s not a kinetic war, and that’s what this is, then somebody else needs to lead, and the logical place to put this is DHS. That said, DHS isn’t configured to win this kind of a war… this really needs to be one of DHS’s urgent and most important missions.”

ON IRANIAN ELECTION MEDDLING: “The easiest way to defeat these operations is to just have Americans vote early. If the DNI and the FBI Director and Head of Cyber-Security at DHS says to the American people, the best way to turn off these influence efforts is to vote early, because if you’ve voted, you can’t be influenced to change your vote, and moreover anything Russia may have up its sleeve to confuse things on Election Day, is a lot less important… and this is why voting early is the way to defeat what Russia and Iran and others are trying to do with the election.”

ON ELECTION SECURITY: “I think that the American people need to follow the procedures that are laid down by state law… the integrity of this election, if the procedures are followed, is something the American people should be able to have a good deal of confidence in.”

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