Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to run the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, says he agrees with spy agencies’ assessment that Russia sought to influence the U.S. election through cyber attacks — going much further than Trump, who has declined to say whether he agrees with the official assessment.
Asked by Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the ranking Democrat, whether he agreed with their assessment that there is “high confidence” Moscow sought to meddle in the U.S. electoral process, he replied: “Yes.”
He has also said that if confirmed his top priority would be to lock down the U.S border with Mexico — and it will begin “with physical obstacles like a border wall.”
Kelly, who appeared for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said in written answers to a series of questions from the committee that “If confirmed my highest priority would be to close the border to the illegal movement of people and things.”
But he’s also so far decidedly noncommittal on Trump’s call for a deportation force to round up and remove illegal immigrants.
“At this juncture, I have given no thought to the topic of a deportation force,” he wrote the panel. “As I understand it, we have — generally speaking — appropriate laws and regulations in place.”
“I do not have a plan at this time, other than enforcement of the law,” he said.
As for Trump’s call for “extreme vetting” of certain classes of legal immigrants, Kelly said he’s made “no commitments” and that “my understanding is that the president-elect is not proposing new limits for Muslim travel and immigration to the United States.”
Here are some highlights of the 70-page questionnaire that Kelly filled out in advance of the confirmation hearing:
Kelly is striking a much different tone on Islam than retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, who last year said “Islam is a political ideology” and that the religion “is like a cancer.”
“I have a fair understanding of the Islamic faith, and have seen the comfort it brings to those who believe in its teachings,” Kelly told the panel’s chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), in written responses to his advance questions. “I do not believe that every faithful Muslim seeks to impose a political agenda upon others.”
He also said he doesn’t believe that non-radicalized American Muslims “are any less likely to report truly suspicious behavior that they deem to be dangerous.”
Johnson also wanted to know if Kelly had discussed a proposal to shut down mosques with Trump.
“No. None,” he responded.
An early topic was the question of torture.
Sen. John McCain, who introduced Kelly to the panel, asked him “What is your personal view of waterboarding?”
“Senator, I don’t think we could ever come close of crossing a line that we as Americans would expect to follow when it comes to interrogation techniques,” he responded.
“That includes the Geneva Convention?,” McCain continued.
The current efforts to prevent the recruitment of home-grown radicals, in Kelly’s view, are “inadequate” and he pledges to conduct a review and develop an action plan for improvements.
“We need programs that effectively contribute to defeating the top terrorist threat of radical Islamic terrorism
A major priority, he added, need to be preventing attacks using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
Kelly says that “without control, every other kind of threat — drugs, illegal immigrants, counterfeit manufactured goods and pharmaceuticals, diseases, terrorists, and the list goes on — can enter at will, and does.”
But he was quick to add that a wall isn’t enough.
“The presence of physical barriers and additional technology,” he argued, will allow DHS personnel “to focus their efforts on identifying the flow of drugs across the border.”
“No physical structure will accomplish the mission on its own,” he said. “The wall will funnel the flow in certain directions and into specific cul-de-sacs, but it must be part of a well-designed and executed layered defense that includes sensors, and most importantly, well-trained and professional men and women.”
Playing defense is not enough, however.
“I really do think the defense of the border really does start about 1500 miles south, including partnering with key countries, to include Mexico,” he said in early questioning from the committee.
He also added in his written answers: “We must also help the ravaged Central American Republics as we did the Colombians under the tremendously successful Plan Columbia. But it will also require far more aggressive efforts to combat illegal drugs and economic investment and social progress in many of those countries.”
Deportation of illegal immigrants who make it across the U.S. border will also have a major impact, Kelly said, citing what he learned as head of U.S. Southern Command responsible for Latin America.
“The message I heard was always the same: ‘If you do not start sending them back to their country of origin quickly and in large numbers they will never stop making the trek north.’ I believe they are right. I know they are right.”
The retired four-star general signaled he could step up immigration enforcement as secretary of Homeland Security.
“My understanding is that under current policies, virtually all illegal aliens get a pass until they commit, and are convicted of, a violent crime,” Kelly said. “The Congress has passed longstanding laws making foreign nationals without legal status removable from the United States, and it is proper for DHS, like any other law enforcement organization, to faithfully execute the laws on the books.”
Kelly declined to state his policy position on a deportation relief program for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. at a young age.
The fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields more than 752,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation, remains unclear as Trump prepares to take office on Jan. 20.
Kelly wrote that he “cannot provide a detailed answer” at this time.
More broadly, he said, “We must be faster and more agile across everything we do to safeguard and secure cyberspace — hiring, technology deployment, and response.”
Kelly gave multiple nods to TSA’s dual missions, which highlights that the agency is tasked with keeping the traveling public safe and keeping them moving.
“While protecting our citizens, we also want transportation networks that will serve the public good,” Kelly said. “TSA has a vital role to play in achieving both these objectives.”
He acknowledged that “improving the efficiency and effectiveness of TSA has been a priority” for the Obama administration.
“Should I be confirmed, I will review the agency’s strategic plan with department leadership and set a course to ensure continuous improvement in the Agency’s performance,” Kelly said.
He also argued for the need for more capacity to process private and commercial vehicles at ports and at the border.