At the U.S. Travel Association’s inaugural Secure Tourism Summit, Jeh Johnson, former Secretary of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, spoke on the challenge of balancing the need to secure against evolving terrorist threats while still preserving fundamental freedoms, including the freedom to travel.
To illustrate this balancing act, Johnson spoke about the October 2014 Ebola crisis, when a major outbreak occurred in several countries in West Africa.
“A number of us seriously considered simply suspending visas from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia,” Johnson said. “I admit that, for awhile, I thought that this was a good idea – suspend travel to lower the risk.”
Concern grew, however, that if the United States suspended travel from those countries, a number of other countries around the world would have followed suit.
“The countries that had not were looking to the U.S. to be leaders,” Johnson said. “The effect would have been to isolate those countries [affected by the Ebola outbreak] when they were needed the most.”
Instead, the administration came up with another solution in which air travel from those nations was funneled into five U.S. airports, allowing the U.S. to set up dedicated screening areas to check travelers for signs of Ebola.
“There is always a balance between our physical security and preserving those things that in a free and open society are cherished,” Johnson said. “The freedom to travel, freedom to associate, freedom of religion. Those of us in national security are the guardians of our physical security and the guardians of our freedoms, as much one as the other.”
Since 9/11, the U.S. government has gotten much better at detecting large-scale, 9/11-style plots overseas at their earliest stages, Johnson said. At the same time, the threat has shifted to smaller-scale attacks by self-radicalized actors – the so-called “lone wolf.”
Johnson’s remarks came just one day before last night’s attack on the Champs Elysees in Paris, in which a gunman opened fire on a police van, killing one police officer during a major campaign event in the French election. ISIS has since claimed responsibility for that attack. Other recent attacks include a man who drove a 4x4 into a crowd of people walking on Westminster Bridge before crashing into the gates of the House of Commons in London.
“We face a more complicated threat environment in which we have to be concerned about a range of threats, those who may travel here but those who may self-radicalize as well,” Johnson said. “We have to be concerned about public places and events, but not to the exclusion of any one of those. We still have to be concerned about aviation…about transportation hubs.”
To adapt, Johnson recommended keeping the public informed. “As the Secretary of Homeland Security my general posture was, ‘Here are 12 or 13 things we are doing to help you,’ encouraging the public to help but to continue to go about their daily lives.”
During a Q&A session with the moderator, Johnson was asked about recent moves regarding travel and security by the Trump administration, including the travel ban, which is still in the midst of a court battle. Johnson noted that the current Secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly, was a personal friend, and that it was important to give his successor space to do his job.
“Things like refugee vetting always need evaluation and reevaluation in the face of an evolving threat picture,” he said. “But in homeland security there should be very few absolutes, like suspending all refugees from particular countries or suspending all issuance of visas from a particular country, because if you’re doing that, you’re doing harm to a lot of innocent people.”
“The first reaction, ‘Shut it down,’ is not always the best reaction,” Johnson said.
At the event Ari Fleischer, who was the White House Press Secretary for President George W. Bush during 9/11, laid out a five-step plan for how to communicate when a disaster happens. You can find it here.