A View from the CT Foxhole: Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan.

Author:Cruickshank, Paul
 
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Kevin K. McAleenan was designated as the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security by President Trump on April 8, 2019. Before this appointment, he served as Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), having been confirmed by the U.S. Senate in March 2018. From January 2017 until then he had served as CBP Acting Commissioner. He served as Deputy Commissioner from November 2, 2014, until his appointment to Acting Commissioner.

Prior to that, McAleenan held several leadership positions at CBP and one of its legacy agencies, the U.S. Customs Service. From 2006 to 2008, Mr. McAleenan served as the Area Port Director of Los Angeles International Airport, directing CBP's border security operations at one of CBP's largest field commands. In December 2011, Mr. McAleenan was named acting Assistant Commissioner of CBP's Office of Field Operations. In 2015, McAleenan received a Presidential Rank Award, the nation's highest civil service award.

CTC: Last time we spoke to you, you were the head of Customs and Border Protection. (1) Obviously the scope of your counterterrorism responsibilities has widened immensely in your current position. What is the most significant CT-related challenge you have faced in your new position?

McAleenan: Responding to the emerging threat landscape. Not only have the domestic terrorism/targeted violence threats become more frequent, more prevalent, more impactful on the American conscience, but we've also faced the other types of issues we called out in our recently released "Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence." (2) One of the challenges is that technology is empowering terrorists to coordinate better and those motivated to violence to get validation more quickly. The FBI have talked about how the velocity of their domestic terrorism cases is increasing dramatically. We're very worried about certain emerging technologies, whether it's unmanned aerial systems or even cyber tools that could be in the hands of terrorist groups or individuals. We see technology as an opportunity that can be leveraged against those threats. Those have been the main focus areas of the past five and a half months.

Of course, we're still monitoring very closely the international threat environment, the dispersal of ISIS, how we're managing the remaining elements on the battlefield, looking at their travel out and also ensuring that we're monitoring older terrorist organizations like our original adversary al-Qa'ida and their potential plotting and continued designs of attacks against the West.

CTC: DHS is a fairly unique organization that was founded with the prevention of terrorist attacks in the United States as its primary mission, yet the vast majority of the Department's day-to-day activities, while related to CT, are not directly focused on countering terrorism. So how do you remain focused on that original core mission while simultaneously handling all those other complex, non-CT-related challenges the Department faces? How does that impact your ability to communicate and speak with authority on CT given that diversity of focus areas?

McAleenan: That's an interesting question. I think I would look at it in two ways. First of all, our origin story and the motivation for our creation was a major terrorist attack and the design of the Department was to protect the entire homeland, whether the borders, transportation, the waterways; this was the main focus in the initial months and years after 9/11. All these were counterterrorism efforts. Every program that we worked on, whether it was identifying risk in international travel to the U.S. or targeting high-risk cargo coming toward the U.S., the first objective from a threat perspective was to identify whether there was a terrorism or security risk with that person or thing. Then you filled out your other missions--the counter-narcotics mission, the customs compliance mission. I think if you look at TSA, they are a counterterrorism agency first and foremost. They are providing security for those aircraft taking off or landing within the United States every single day by ensuring that no individual or thing is boarding that aircraft can threaten it. That's a very explicit day-to-day mission. But we do have a broader responsibility to protect the homeland, and I think the definition by [former DHS] Secretary [Jeh] Johnson of securing the American people, our homeland, and our values is exactly the right framework for DHS. That starts and is animated and is motivated by a counterterrorism purpose, first and foremost.

CTC: The DHS Strategic Framework that was released in September received a lot of attention due to emphasis on the evolving security environment and increased emphasis on domestic terrorism and racially motivated violent extremism. Could you speak a little bit about how this framework will change the approach to this specific threat of racially motivated violent extremism but also to the more diverse threat landscape in general?

McAleenan: What this strategic framework does for us is it recognizes and highlights our core commitments on preventing international terrorist actions to the homeland. Obviously preventing another major terrorist attack on the U.S. is our operational requirement. That's why we were created. That's where our authorities are derived for the most part. But we did want to very clearly balance this against the emerging threat environment and the fact that most recent mass-casualty attacks have been domestic terrorism in origin and a concerning number have been ideologically motivated by racially motivated extremism or white supremacist extremism in...

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