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How The Department Of Homeland Security Has Evolved Since 9/11

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Since the Department of Homeland Security was created, it has grown to become the third-largest cabinet department in the U.S. government. Its responsibilities include everything from disaster relief to border security. Alejandro Mayorkas is secretary for Homeland Security. When we spoke yesterday, we asked what he thinks has prevented another attack on the scale of 9/11.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: The agencies and departments across the federal government learned to share information to learn how to identify threats before they materialize. And we've also learned, critically, to share information with our state and local tribal territorial partners. It requires an all-of-society vigilance and response.

SIMON: Is domestic terrorism a larger threat right now than anything from overseas?

MAYORKAS: We do think it is. Of course, for a number of years after 9/11, we were focused on the foreign terrorist threat. We saw that evolve to the individual radicalized here in the United States by a foreign terrorist organization. And now, over the last few years, we've seen the rise of the domestic violent extremist drawn to violence because of an ideology of hate. You know, Scott, the evolution of the threat doesn't mean that the prior iterations have disappeared, but we've just seen a different threat rise to prominence over time.

SIMON: What about cyberwarfare? Are there elements in Russia and China already waging what I'll carefully call a kind of cyberwarfare in the United States?

MAYORKAS: I think they are. And the consumer, the small business, the large enterprise, our critical infrastructure - we're all vulnerable. And that's why we all have to be vigilant, increase our cyber hygiene and build stronger and better defenses.

SIMON: Was the department surprised? Were they directing so many resources, say, toward combating Islamist extremism that the cyber threat was discounted for a while?

MAYORKAS: I think, quite frankly, our focus has grown as the threat has increased. And it was really the Colonial Pipeline attack that impacted the American consumer that brought cybersecurity and the cyberwar, if you will, to the top of the American public's mind.

SIMON: There is, I don't have to tell you, Mr. Secretary, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees now in resettlement centers in the U.S. and U.S. bases overseas. You've been charged with leading what's now called Operation Allies Welcome. Give us some idea of what your agency has to do to help so many people make new lives in the U.S.

MAYORKAS: Scott, it's a privilege for us to lead this effort. We're screening and vetting the Afghan nationals who are coming to the United States to protect and ensure the safety of the American public and the homeland. Then we are addressing their immediate needs with providing them with food, water, counseling, COVID testing, vaccination. We're moving them to military facilities if they do not already have family and friends here in the United States. It's really an extraordinarily moving operation and effort.

SIMON: What do you say, Mr. Secretary, to those voices that have - and you've heard them, I'm sure - who've raised concerns, that there might be aspiring criminals or even terrorists embedded with Afghan refugees?

MAYORKAS: When I say in response, Scott, is that that's what we do in the federal government. We screen, and we ensure that the individuals who are coming to the United States do not seek to do us harm. I have to share with you, if I may, a story, though. You know, at Fort Lee, one of the military facilities where the Afghans are brought to reside until they're resettled, and they get off the bus and American soldiers give the children an American flag. And the children's fathers instinctively put their hands over their hearts in reverence and in gratitude to the country that has given them safety and a place of refuge. That's who we are.

SIMON: Alejandro Mayorkas is secretary of Homeland Security Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

MAYORKAS: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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