Homeland Security Sec: 'We Do a Pretty Good Job of Tracking Terrorists'

Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson had a tough time answering questions on the threat ISIS poses to the United States, specifically the number of operatives active in the country. But, he assured, have confidence because his department does a “pretty good” job at tracking these individuals.

Host Dana Bash played a clip of the assistant director to the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, Michael Steinbach, stating that there are individuals living in the U.S. right now who have “a desire to conduct an attack” and have been in communication with ISIS. Coming out of the clip, Bash asked what turned out to be an impossible question, “How many are we talking about?”

Treading lightly, Johnson danced around a solid answer deferring to speak about the new challenges since 9/11, the rise of terrorism in Europe, and pumping “If You See Something, Say Something.” And in a feeble attempt to prove the Department of Homeland Security has a handle on tracking down this apparently unknown number of active terrorists on U.S. soil, Johnson said they have just arrested five people in an alleged plot.

Here is their conversation:

Bash: People who are in contact with ISIL, who are living in the U.S. right now — How many are we talking about?

Johnson: Well, Dana, I would put it this way — we’ve evolved to a new phase in the global terrorist threat in that 13 years ago, when we were attacked on 9/11, we had a relatively conventional command and control structure from core al Qaeda that would dispatch/deploy operatives to commit terrorist acts. The situation now is more decentralized, more diffuse, and frankly, more complex in that terrorist organizations such as ISIL or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula use the Internet, use social media to communicate and to inspire acts of terrorism in individuals’ home countries. And for that reason, we need to be particularly vigilant here at home, working with state and local law enforcement, working with the public through campaigns such as “If You See Something, Say Something.” It is a more complex situation, very clearly. 

Bash: Certainly complex, but if I may, can you shed more light on what we just heard? Do you have a handle on who the individuals are and how many there are in the United States who are in contact?

Johnson: The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security do a pretty good job of tracking the travel of individuals of suspicion, of investigating potential acts of terror, or material support of terrorism. Just this past Friday, there were arrests of five individuals who were providing material support, allegedly, to ISIL. So our law enforcement community does, what I believe is, a pretty good job of tracking these individuals and we work with them to track the travel of individuals of suspicion.

Bash: Can you give us a sense — are we talking about five, 10, 100, 1,000? Give us the context of the people we’re talking about? 

Johnson: What I can say is this, the numbers that we see are larger in European countries, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re concerned about travel to and from Europe and making sure that we’ve got the appropriate security assurances from countries from which we do not require a visa. But here at home, we do a pretty good job of tracking these individuals and we have, in a number of instances, arrested people for material support, for attempting to travel to Syria, for example. Obviously there’s an unknown factor, but I believe we have the systems in place to do a pretty good job of tracking these individuals through law enforcement, through travel, through our efforts to monitor what they’re doing. 

Bash: So people should feel you’ve got it covered?

Johnson: People should be vigilant right now. Yes, we should have a lot of confidence in our Homeland Security/law enforcement capabilities. We’ve come a long way since 9/11, but this also requires working with the public in campaigns through “If You See Something, Say Something.” Working with state and local law enforcement — the cop on the beat working in the communities — which is why we’re working more closely, now, with municipal police departments, county sheriffs, state law enforcement, through fusion centers, task forces and so forth. Given how the homeland security challenges we face are evolving, it’s becoming all the more important to do that. 

With the looming prospect of Homeland Security losing their funding by the end of February if Congress can’t come to terms with the budget, the conversation turned to government shutdown and what Johnson has called a potential and “terrible disruption” to national security.

Johsnon said he is on Capitol Hill on a regular basis fighting for a fully-funded Department of Homeland Security, especially during this tense climate. He is asking for Republicans to avoid a shutdown by setting aside the immigration debate for another time instead of tying it in with holding back funds to the department which could affect public safety. Johsnon warned that losing funding would force the furlough of at least 30,000 security workers and a cut in operations. A shutdown, he said, is “that big of a deal.”

“Let’s not forget,” Johnson said, “the Department of Homeland Security interfaces with the American public more than any other department of our government — at airports [and] at ports.”


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