John Kelly Proves He Has the Vision, Skills to Improve Department of Homeland Security

As commander of U.S. Southern Command, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015, "In my opinion, the relative ease with which human smugglers moved tens of thousands of people to our nation's doorstep also serves as another warning sign: These smuggling routes are a potential vulnerability to our homeland." (Associated Press)

As commander of U.S. Southern Command, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015, “In my opinion, the relative ease with which human smugglers moved tens of thousands of people to our nation’s doorstep also serves as another warning sign: These smuggling routes are a potential vulnerability to our homeland.” (Associated Press)

Opportunity Lives, by Tom Rogin, January 12, 2017:

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday held hearings on whether to confirm President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for the next secretary of Homeland Security.

Former Marine Corps General John Kelly did a fine job.

He impressed the assembled senators with direct answers. And where he didn’t know a particular regulation or law in sufficient detail, Kelly had the humility to admit it. Yet Kelly also promised to reform the Department of Homeland Security.

All Americans should thank him for it. Defined by a top-heavy bureaucracy, inefficiency and overlapping responsibilities, DHS needs reform.

While much of his testimony was focused on counterterrorism, Kelly offered specific proposals for reform in other areas.

To improve the department’s organizational efficiency, Kelly pledged to reduce its top-heavy structure. He noted the high number of undersecretaries at DHS, low-morale with junior personnel, and a sense that too many programs are working too poorly. To address these challenges, Kelly said he would appoint deputy-secretaries (his direct subordinates) who have proven leadership records.

As important, he said his deputies would be expected to listen to subordinates and ask for their honest advice. That might seem simple, but it’s a big deal. Today in too many government agencies, respectfully disagreeing with a leader harms a career. But to get the best ideas into action, we need agencies that work to pool their best potential together. We need leaders who can take alternate points of view.

Kelly also argued that DHS is weak on cyber-security and needs dramatic improvement. His solution would be to work with tech firms in Silicon Valley and beyond to leverage their talent and ideas for public benefit. Beyond platitudes, such outreach has been sorely lacking in recent years. Part of the problem is the government’s security clearance requirements have thrown up bureaucratic obstacles to private-sector cooperation. But if Kelly makes a serious push here (perhaps by declassifying some material and offering interim security clearances), we might see some progress. It would help. Leading innovation often comes from the private sector.

Kelly also addressed the nation’s epidemic of opioid-drug abuse, calling for an integrated effort across government to reduce demand. Specifically, Kelly complained that the U.S. government has never had a coordinated strategy to educate, deter and treat drug use. He pointed to the successful efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. What was also appealing here was Kelly’s tone. Rather than escalate a war on drugs, he implied that the key to reducing drug-related crime and suffering is to win individuals from the reach of drug addiction.

Another Kelly priority is strengthened DHS alliances abroad — most crucially, with Central and South American nations. The DHS Secretary-in-waiting knows that this agenda isn’t important solely for reasons of deterring drug smuggling. While commanding U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) in 2015, Kelly explained how terrorist organizations and Latin American drug organizations are increasingly collaborating. In order to reduce illegal immigration and criminality, the United States should help Latin American nations improve their law enforcement capabilities. Greater security would also help reduce poverty in these nations.

Ultimately, Kelly has a big challenge ahead of him. Still, his military career gives cause for optimism. Serving the nation, he said, requires speaking truth to power. And we should take him at his word. One of his sons, Lieutenant Robert Kelly (USMC), was killed in action in Southern Afghanistan in 2010. This is not a leader predisposed to playing the Washington game. Kelly’s career proves as much. During his hearing, he noted that while commanding SOUTHCOM, he faced Latin American militaries that wanted to buy expensive jets to gather intelligence on drug gangs and terrorists. Kelly, however, convinced them that outcomes are more important than snazzy tools, and persuaded them to invest in cheaper unmanned arrival vehicles.

It was about doing more with each dollar and individual.

As Kelly carries that ethos to DHS, let us hope that his boss and Congress support him.

Tom Rogan is a senior contributor for Opportunity Lives, a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets.