Trump DHS Pick Addresses Border Wall, Russian Hacks During Confirmation Hearing

Retired Gen. John Kelly has gained bipartisan support

John F. Kelly
John F. Kelly / AP
January 10, 2017

Retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly faced questions about border security, counterterrorism efforts, and cyber attacks during his confirmation hearing to serve as secretary of homeland security in the Donald Trump administration.

Kelly delivered testimony Tuesday afternoon before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, shedding light on his 45-year career in the Marine Corps and his experience leading the U.S. Southern Command.

Kelly highlighted his military service, commitment to respect, tolerance, and the rule of law, and his willingness to "speak truth to power" during his opening statement.

"I believe in America and the principles upon which our country and way of life are guaranteed. I believe in respect, tolerance, and diversity of opinion," Kelly told the senators on Capitol Hill. "I have a profound respect for the law and will always strive to uphold it."

"I have never had a problem speaking truth to power, and I firmly believe that those in power deserve full candor and my honest assessment and recommendations," he said. "I also value people who work with me speaking truth to power."

Kelly answered questions about Trump's plan to build a wall at the southern border, cyber threats, immigration, homegrown terrorism, and the drug trade, among many topics covered in the over two-hour hearing.

Kelly said a border wall would not be sufficient to stifle the flow of drugs and people across the southern border without proper human patrols and sensors.

"A physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job," Kelly said in response to questions from Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.). "It has to be really a layered defense."

The retired general said that defense of the southern border should start with partnering with other countries, such as Mexico, to stop the drug trade. Kelly also acknowledged the key role played by technology, including drones and sensors, in border security.

Shifting to cyber security, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.), the committee's ranking member, asked Kelly about the intelligence community's recent report stating Russia engaged in a sophisticated campaign aimed at influencing the presidential election. Kelly said he accepted the the intelligence community's conclusions about Russia's election meddling "with high confidence."

When asked about countering cyber threats generally, Kelly said he would like to follow the example set by Defense Secretary Ash Carter by seeking more cooperation between the private sector and federal and state governments.

Kelly said the United States faces "some pretty darn close-to-peer competitors" in cyber space, and that working together with the private sector while honoring privacy laws is the government's best way forward. He added it is time to focus on developing a comprehensive cyber doctrine to prevent a "seriously catastrophic cyber event."

Kelly also fielded inquiries about Trump's proposals to create a Muslim registry and implement surveillance on some mosques in an effort to crack down on Islamic extremism. Kelly said he believes it is "not appropriate" to use religion as a basis for counterterror or law enforcement policy.

Kelly was introduced by Sens. McCain and Tom Carper (D., Del.) as well as Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense between 2006 and 2011. All three spoke highly of Kelly's experience and character, providing full-throated endorsements of his nomination to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

Kelly, a Boston native, served as commander of Southern Command from 2012 to 2016 before retiring last January. Prior to that, he served as senior military assistant to two secretaries of defense, including Gates.

"I have been privileged to serve my country as both an enlisted Marine and as an officer," Kelly said during opening remarks. "I have led platoons and divisions and corps. I have held senior command positions in Iraq, served as the combatant commander of the U.S. Southern Command, and … as the senior military assistant to Secretaries Gates and Panetta. I have worked with our allies, across agencies, the private sector, and with independent experts to identify innovative, comprehensive solutions to current and emerging threats." 

"These assignments—while varied—shared the common characteristics of working within and leading large, complex, and very diverse multi-missioned organizations, while under great pressure to produce results," Kelly said.

Trump announced Kelly as his choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security in December, cheering the retired general for his "decades of military service and deep commitment to fighting the threat of terrorism inside our borders."

As secretary of homeland security, Kelly would deal with a number of issues, including immigration, border security, domestic terror threats, passenger screening at airports, critical infrastructure security, and cyber security. The department was created in response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. It is currently led by Jeh Johnson.

Kelly will need to be confirmed by the Homeland Security Committee and then the full Senate. Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wisc.), the committee chair, on Tuesday expressed hope that the Senate would confirm Kelly on the first day of the new administration. President-elect Trump will be inaugurated on Jan. 20.

If confirmed, Kelly will be the fifth secretary of homeland security, leading a department that operates on a budget of more than $40 billion and employs roughly 240,000 workers.