Established in 2002 in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security is the nation’s youngest executive department, with continually evolving practices. On Wednesday, former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, who served in the administration of former President Barack Obama, visited Yale Law School to discuss his work there and the department’s current direction.

“Where we are politically is very unfortunate on every side of it,” Johnson said during his talk.

Still, he added, “Despite the fact that there are probably no two human beings more different than Barack Obama and Donald Trump, their approaches to many of our national security missions have not been that different.”

Over 100 students, professors and visitors attended the hour-long talk, co-hosted by the Yale Law School Center for Global Legal Challenges and the Yale Law and Business Society. After briefly introducing Johnson, Oona Hathaway LAW ’97, an international law professor who moderated the talk, posed a series of questions before opening the talk up to questions from the audience.

The topics discussed included the perceived threats posed by North Korea and Iran, issues that could arise as wartime power continues to move informally from Congress to the executive; congressional inaction as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals work provisions expire; and the cybersecurity implications of recent and pending Supreme Court cases involving Microsoft.

In her introduction, Hathaway spoke highly of Johnson, highlighting both his time heading the DHS and his previous work. Before Obama appointed him to his cabinet, Johnson served as general counsel of the Department of Defense. Before that, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton as general counsel of the U.S. Air Force, and he also worked as a federal prosecutor, a special counsel in the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry ’66 and a trial lawyer. Hathaway added that the homeland security position is “extraordinarily complex” and requires overseeing a “department [that] is constantly in the process of construction.”

Asked about the major changes that have taken place since Trump’s inauguration, Hathaway brought up what he said was always one of the most important issues when he was leading the DHS — cybersecurity. He added that, while it is important to balance privacy with national security, he believes the government errs too heavily on the side of civilian privacy.

“My basic view is that when it comes to encrypted communications and encrypted data, we do need to move the pendulum a bit in the other direction. I think the pendulum has swung very far in the direction of privacy,” he said. “Those on offensive have the upper hand right now.”

Other major developments he mentioned included the defeat of “core ISIS” and an overall shift in threats to security from overseas terrorist organizations to “self-radicalized attackers living in the homeland.”

Another major topic discussed was the repeal of DACA work protections. While the majority of members of Congress would support providing legal status to people in the U.S. protected by DACA, Johnson said, the failure to pass legislation highlights how dysfunctional Congress can be, with legislators using proposed bills to draw attention to other, more politically divisive issues.

One of the event’s organizers, Tianyi Xin LAW ’19, a student fellow for the Center for Global Legal Challenges, said one of the event’s goals was to bring someone who had practical involvement in government and law to discuss security issues.

“Secretary Johnson is someone who’s had his hand in many different security issues,” she said. “We wanted that breadth of experience.”

Johnson now serves on the advisory board of the Committee to Investigate Russia, a self-described nonpartisan organization that attempts to uncover the ways in which the Russian government might have interfered with the American political system.

Attendee Sierra Perez-Sparks LAW ’20 said the talk fit well into what she considers one of the Law School’s main goals — giving students exposure to practical law, not just theory.

“You get the sense of the practical considerations that go into this work, and I think that’s one of the special things about law,” she said. “You can talk about the theory and frameworks, but when you actually have a practitioner … it’s valuable.”

The secretary of Homeland Security is 18th in the presidential line of succession, immediately after the secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Niki Anderson |