Campus & community, Events at Berkeley, Politics & society, Research

After Trump, homeland security leaders urge rebuilding competence, trust

Bi-partisan panel details profound foreign, domestic security challenges for Biden administration

Berkeley Conversations

President Joe Biden faces a fast-evolving landscape of foreign and domestic security threats, but his administration will have to repair the damage done to domestic security agencies — and public confidence — in order to address them, a panel of former Homeland Security leaders said Thursday at UC Berkeley.

In a virtual event launching the new UC Berkeley Center for Security in Politics, a bipartisan group of four former leaders of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security agreed that recently-defeated U.S. President Donald Trump systematically undermined the department and often used it for political gain, rather than public safety.

Trump policies, such as “cruel” separation of children from their parents when families sought to cross from Mexico into the U.S. and the “aggressive” deployment of border security agents to quell domestic protests “really created a rupture in people’s confidence,” said Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security under Republican President George W. Bush.

The panel explored topics ranging from Russian interference in the 2016 election to the use of social media for disinformation campaigns and the racism of white nationalist groups that were prominent in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The event was organized by the Goldman School of Public Policy, where the new Center on Security in Politics will be based.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who most recently served as president of the UC system, led the campaign to establish the center and now serves as its director. The panel discussion, “Homeland Security in a Post-Trump Era,” was the center’s inaugural event.

Panel moderator Douglas Wilson, former assistant secretary of defense in the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama, called the founding of the new center “prescient,” citing a range of foreign and domestic threats that emerged over the past four years.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who served as the first Homeland Security secretary under Bush, traced an evolving set of 21st century threats, from the terror attack of Sept. 11, 2001, to the domestic terror attacks of Jan. 6, 2021. “It’s pretty clear that the threat has metastasized,” Ridge said.

But the recent storm of domestic terrorism is not a new phenomenon, argued Jeh Johnson, who succeed Napolitano as secretary of Homeland Security under  Obama.

“We talk about how we are a nation bitterly divided,” Johnson said, “but … that misses the mark, in many ways. I hate to say this, but the reality of our country is that there is a strand in our society that is racist, intolerant and prone to violence.”

That was evident in the bitter resistance to the desegregation of public schools and universities during the civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and ‘60s, he said. More recently, the same intolerance inspired the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and the attack on the U.S. Capitol last month.

“What is new now,” Johnson said, “… is this segment of our population has been told it’s OK to crawl out from your rock. They have been emboldened by national leadership who say, ‘You’re special people’ and ‘There is good on both sides,’ and therefore it’s OK to go to Charlottesville and demonstrate your hate in the open or go to the U.S. Capitol and engage in what amounted to an insurrection.

“That’s not going away any time soon.”

As the discussion explored the range of looming challenges that confront new Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, a Berkeley alumnus, the panelists returned repeatedly to one theme: the need to rebuild trust.

“The disunity that we are experiencing in our country,” Napolitano said, “emanates, in part, from a lack of trust — a lack of trust in our institutions, a lack of trust in our government, our lack of trust in the media, a lack of trust in higher education.”

But how to repair it? Napolitano suggested that Biden’s efforts to control the pandemic and repair the economy will be vitally important.

“Showing that government can work for the people will help restore trust,” she said. “Out of trust, I think, comes a greater unity of effort and purpose and a shared sense of country.”