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By Robert Clark
On 24th October 2017, the Henry Jackson Society was delighted to host Secretary Jeh Johnson in Parliament to discuss matters of national security during his time as the 4th United States Secretary of Homeland Security, and before that, as President Obama’s General Counsel at the Department of Defense. Secretary Johnson was joined on the panel by Yvette Cooper MP, who chairs the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, among other duties; Jack Lopresti MP, as Chairman; and Dr. Alan Mendoza, Executive Director at the Henry Jackson Society.
The discussion focused around Secretary Johnson’s experiences as head of Homeland Security between 2013 and 2016; at the time a growing department now boasting over 230,000 personnel, and is the third biggest US federal department. During his time in the Obama administration, Secretary Johnson served first as General Counsel at the Department of Defense, acting as the Pentagon’s most senior lawyer at a time when the United States conducted a record number of drone strikes, sought to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and initiated a military intervention in Libya. During President Obama’s second term, when Secretary Johnson headed the Department of Homeland Security, he oversaw efforts to respond to the Ebola crisis, and pioneering management reforms which brought about a more centralised approach to budgeting, acquisition, and policy formation; practices which people today think make this federal department the most organised and efficient in America.
As Director of Homeland Security, Secretary Johnson had many responsibilities; counter-terrorism, aviation security, port security, cyber security, border security and immigration control. Also to manage natural disaster and relief. Among all of these responsibilities, it was counter-terrorism which he concerned himself most with during the discussion, saying that he ‘witnessed an evolution in the terrorist threat’ during his time in office, that it was far more complicated a world now. This was down primarily, he said, to the shift from a top – down organizational terrorist network, such as al-Qaeda, to the ‘homegrown, ISIS-inspired domestic’ threat. On ISIS, Secretary Johnson kept it brief, and to the point; that they were losing monumental ground in Iraq and Syria, but that they were still having an effect by being able to continually recruit individuals through low risk, low cost online recruitment and engagement. This is the big challenge of our time now in combatting terrorism, a sentiment strongly echoed by Yvette Cooper.
Acknowledging that the intelligence relationship between the US and the UK was ‘perhaps the strongest relationship in the world’, Secretary Johnson stated that in order to assist in this endeavor, as well as even closer collaboration between the two states, he firmly believed that internet service providers should be doing more in order to stop the proliferation of online extremist content. This is something which the Henry Jackson Society is actively very involved with regarding countering violent extremism, though there was a crucial difference between Yvette Cooper’s and the British position, and that of Secretary Johnson’s and the US. In the discussion between freedom of liberties and security, the US has the First Amendment, which codifies unequivocally freedom of speech and expression. However, acknowledging that people will always attempt to exploit freedoms, the responsibility lies directly with the internet service providers, and not with the federal government(s); this would lead down a road, he argues, toward state censorship of the media the likes of which China and Russia engage in, and is wholly incompatible with western values.
Ending his discussion, Secretary Johnson spoke about something extremely pertinent to UK national security and legality issues; the return of foreign fighters. From a legal standpoint, Secretary Johnson argues that if an individual takes up arms against the United States, with a congressionally approved enemy, then the targeting of that individual by the military is a legitimate objective. Once the individual leaves that specific theatre, then it is an issue for domestic law enforcement agencies i.e. border police, internal security services. This is a highly topical debate currently in the UK; Rory Stewart, an international development minister echoed this blunt reality only last week. With the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria the way it is, being able to take a case by case example, as some suggest, is a luxury which cannot be afforded according to Secretary Johnson.