Former Homeland Security secretaries discuss Capitol riots, social media

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Tom Ridge, a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Home Security, or DHS, stated that the riots that occurred at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 demonstrated the drastic change of security in the nation's politics over the past few decades.

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During a virtual inaugural event Thursday for the opening of UC Berkeley’s Center for Security in Politics, or CSP, four former secretaries of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, discussed the most pressing security challenges the nation faces.

During the Berkeley Conversations event, “Homeland Security in a Post-Trump Era,” the former DHS secretaries explored domestic security threats and focused on how the Biden administration can begin to tackle these challenges.

The CSP, established as part of the Goldman School of Public Policy, aims to connect campus research on security issues with policymaking initiatives, according to Daniel Sargent, campus associate professor of history and public policy who is a part of CSP leadership.

“(The CSP is) incredibly exciting because it brings together a cluster of interests and expertise from really all over campus to engage with some of the most compelling challenges of our times,” Sargent said. “In doing so, it promises to expand Berkeley’s institutional capacities for addressing political, policy and governance issues in a proactive and consequential way.”

Sargent added that the CSP will focus on three research areas in particular: election security, climate change and cybersecurity.

According to Tom Ridge, a former secretary of DHS, the riots that transpired at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 indicated that security in politics has changed significantly in the past few decades. Ridge added that the potential for social media to change attitudes and instigate action will remain an ongoing challenge for the new administration.

“We talk about how we are a nation bitterly divided,” said Jeh Johnson, a former secretary of DHS, during the event. “I think that misses the mark in many ways. I hate to say this, but the reality of our country is that there is a strand in our society that is racist, intolerant and prone to violence.”

According to Michael Chertoff, a former DHS secretary, the Trump administration caused a “rupture in people’s confidence” in the department, particularly in the area of border security. Chertoff said establishing the department as a nonpartisan and apolitical agency will be important moving forward.

Janet Napolitano, CSP director, former UC president and former secretary of DHS, noted that the new administration can begin to rebuild trust in the United States public by containing the COVID-19 pandemic and establishing a vaccination plan.

“The disunity that we are experiencing in our country emanates in part from a lack of trust — a lack of trust in our institutions, a lack of trust in our government, our lack of trust in the media, a lack of trust in higher education,” Napolitano said during the event. “I think restoring that trust will help us restore some sense of unity.”

Contact Amudha Sairam at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AmudhaSairam.