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Former Homeland Security Head Breaks Down Latest Terrorism Bulletin On Iran


The Department of Homeland Security put out a bulletin over the weekend describing the terrorist threat from Iran. It says Iran and its partners have shown both the intent and the ability to conduct an attack in the U.S. But it says there is, quote, "no information indicating a specific credible threat to the homeland."

I spoke about the bulletin with Jeh Johnson. He was secretary of homeland security under President Obama.

JEH JOHNSON: That's a pretty straightforward statement, and I'm not sure there's much left to read between the lines. I do think that what the department is saying here is that of late, we are in a heightened, alert environment and that, at least in the short term, we all need to be extra vigilant. And I'm sure the department will be.

SHAPIRO: It sounds to me like this bulletin is saying that an attack could come from virtually anywhere from any number of organized groups or individuals or a cyberweapon. When the threat is that vague, how does the U.S. prepare for it?

JOHNSON: Well, you will see, I'm sure, a heightened law enforcement presence in various government buildings and military installations around the nation. You will also see, I suspect, at ports of entry - land, sea and air - additional screening of some type. There was something in the news over the last 24 hours about what happened on the Canadian border.

SHAPIRO: People with connections to Iran were detained at the border.

JOHNSON: Yes, correct.

SHAPIRO: One line here says, previous homeland-based plots have included, among other things, scouting and planning against infrastructure targets and cyber-enabled attacks against a range of U.S.-based targets. Can you give us a sense of what Iran has tried in the past?

JOHNSON: Well, of course, there are the efforts referred to in the bulletin. You may remember from 2011, there was an indictment - a criminal indictment of some individuals who were plotting an attempt to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C.

And in the new era that we are in now, we have to be prepared when it comes to cyberspace. That is a new capability, and it is a new method of conflict. And so this bulletin, in addition to all these other things we've talked about, is telling those in critical infrastructure, like public utilities, just for example, or financial services, to be sure that you've hardened your own cybersecurity.

SHAPIRO: I know that the U.S. has detected cyberweapons in the past that have penetrated American defenses. Are you aware of Iranian cyberweapons that may even now be lurking in U.S. systems?

JOHNSON: The Iranian government very definitely has a cybercapability. And there is the potential from a range of actors to implant various forms of malware in critical infrastructure or elsewhere that could lie latent for a period of time and be triggered on a moment's notice.

And so the intent of the statement is to communicate to the public in as clear terms as possible what we are looking at now and how the public can help and how the public can participate in our homeland security efforts. I would say to Americans, this is not a message to say, go hide under your mattress. This is a message - we should all go about our daily lives, go to public events, go to public gatherings, but be vigilant and be aware.

SHAPIRO: The secretary of homeland security is now an acting official. Many of his deputies are acting. There are vacancies throughout the department. Does that have a harmful effect at a time like this?

JOHNSON: Frankly, yes, it does. Having so many vacancies in presidential appointments - in Senate-confirmed presidential appointments in a cabinet-level department so vital to our safety at a time like this is not good. We have to remember that the Department of Homeland Security protects Americans not at the 40-yard line or the 50-yard line, but at the 1-yard line at land, sea, air and in cyberspace. And to do that, and I've seen this firsthand, you really do need to have capable Senate-confirmed people in the job with a certain degree of job security who can think longer term, not day to day, to do the job necessary to protect the American people.

SHAPIRO: That's former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, now with the law firm Paul, Weiss.

Thanks for speaking with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.