Homeland Security Secretary Defends Executive Actions On Immigration Audie Cornish talks to Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Homeland Security Secretary Defends Executive Actions On Immigration

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And joining us to talk more about the effect of the budget fight, and other security issues, is the Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Welcome to the program.

JEH JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Now, this back and forth over the DHS budget could potentially delay funding, but 85 percent of DHS employees are considered essential, right? I mean, they'd come to work anyway, albeit, without pay. Give us an example of how everyday operations might be affected if this funding is not improved in time.

JOHNSON: Well, first of all, a situation where we go into a shut down and we have to only employ those who are considered essential is far from optimal to the American people. We need a clean appropriations bill to pass the Congress to fund the Department of Homeland Security. We're operating now, as we speak, on a continuing resolution. As long as we're on a continuing resolution, which, on its current course, expires February 27.

We're prevented from new spending, new initiatives for homeland security, new initiatives for border security. We cannot fund any of our new grants to state and local law enforcement - new initiatives for aviation security. And we're in a time right now where there are a number of very, very important homeland security initiatives that need to be funded. After the attack in Paris, the attack in Ottawa and Australia and other places, I'm very concerned about making sure that our budget is adequately funded for the protection of the homeland, for the protection of the American people.

CORNISH: And as we, you know, House Speaker John Boehner earlier, he made it very clear that this action by the House is to, essentially, retaliate against the president's executive actions on immigration. I mean, what is your response to Republicans, to citizens, who feel that the president went beyond his executive discretion? They may agree with him on immigration, but not agree with the way he went about it.

JOHNSON: Well, I'll say what the president has said multiple times - that Congress should pass a bill then. If Congress wants to take up the question of immigration reform, we welcome that. But, in the meantime, don't burden the homeland security budget with this political debate. We need an appropriations bill free of this language to protect the homeland and to protect the American public.

CORNISH: You mentioned the imperative for the department, given the terror attacks in Paris. You also mentioned Ottawa, but, you know, one thing about these attacks is that they illustrate how difficult it is to track loan actors.

JOHNSON: Well, as I've said many times now, given how the terrorist threat is evolving where it involves more attacks by so-called lone wolfs, our intelligence community is less able to detect those types of terrorist plots from overseas. And so we need to work more and more with state and local law enforcement because very often, given how the terrorist threat is evolving, it may be that the cop on the beat is the first one to learn about a terrorist attempt.

And so my department in particular spends a lot of time working with state and local law enforcement, training for these types of potential attacks. As long as we're on a CR - a continuing resolution - we cannot fund with new money. And so that's one of the imperatives to passing a full year appropriations bill for my department.

CORNISH: Does the U.S. have a full counter radicalization strategy?

JOHNSON: We have a very active countering violent extremism program across the government and within this department. I personally participate in our - we refer to them as CVE engagements - countering violent extremism. I personally participate in these because I believe that they're important to our homeland security efforts.

CORNISH: Is that meeting with community groups and cultural centers? What does that entail?

JOHNSON: That's exactly what it means. And so I have personally been out to Columbus, Ohio, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, to meet with community organizations, Islamic cultural centers, other community leaders to talk to them about talking to people in the community who might be inclined to turn toward violence and talking to them about countering the narrative of terrorist organizations, such as ISIL. And so we've been very active on that front, and we're actually going to be ramping it up soon.

CORNISH: In the end, are we seeing a moment where counter radicalization is moving up in terms of priorities for U.S. counter terror strategy?

JOHNSON: I would put it this way - given the way the worldwide terrorist threat is evolving, we have to be much more sensitive to the things we should be doing here at home for the homeland. That's including countering violent extremism initiatives. It includes working with state and local law enforcement. When I go on these engagements, there's always the local police commissioner, the sheriff, with me. So there needs to be more collaboration across all of our governments - state, local, federal - and it involves the public, too. It involves community leaders, it involves the public. This has to be a combined partnership at every level of society.

CORNISH: Jeh Johnson - he's the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.

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