Homeland Security Secretary: Travel Vetting Could Include Passwords, Tweets

Feb 9, 2017
Originally published on February 9, 2017 8:07 am

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly says the U.S. needs to "do a better job to vet" residents of seven majority-Muslim countries that the Trump administration has temporarily banned from entering the U.S.

In an interview with Morning Edition host Rachel Martin, the retired Marine Corps general said the ban, which has been blocked by a district court order that is now being reviewed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, "is not based on religion in any way."

He said the seven countries — Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Yemen — are unable to vet their citizens and "provide us with information that we're comfortable with."

Kelly said the administration is considering requiring residents of the seven countries to provide lists of the websites they've visited and their passwords, to enable officials "to get on those websites to see what they're looking at."

Kelly said some of the other "ballpark things" that his department is considering include looking at applicants' social media use "to see what they tweet," as well as financial information and cellphone contacts so that officials can check the numbers against databases kept by the U.S. and the European Union.

Kelly took the blame for the rocky rollout of the travel ban, and as he said in a hearing on Tuesday, he admitted he should have prepared congressional leaders ahead of the policy's implementation. He told NPR that in the future he will tell administration officials, "OK, give that to me and I will roll it out and I will tell you how I'm going to do it." Kelly said the rollout will include notification to select members of Congress and the press.

Kelly showed a willingness to work with the news media that has not been evident from some other members of the Trump administration. It is "very important to engage the press," he told NPR, "because if you engage the responsible press, they will help you write an accurate story." It may "not be the story you want," Kelly said, "but it will be an accurate story."

Kelly said "the great success" of the U.S. has been people from diverse backgrounds coming here "following every kind of religion," or "not following any religion at all."

Asked about President Trump's comments that his promised border wall was "getting designed right now," Kelly said he is traveling to the Southwest this week to speak with Customs and Border Protection agents. He said those he has spoken with so far have asked for a barrier they can see through so they can react quicker.

"You can't build it all at once," he said, but the administration is deciding "where to put it immediately given financing" and construction capacity. Kelly said any wall "has to be backed up by people, and it has to be reinforced, if you will, by technology."

As the former commander of U.S. Southern Command, Kelly said it "breaks my heart" when he hears about people from Central America who have lost their lives trying to enter the country: "It's a humanitarian thing to me to somehow create an environment that deters them from leaving."

Kelly said the U.S. "has a moral responsibility" to help people in those nations economically, with investment. He also said the drug demand in the U.S. is creating most of the problems in countries to the south, and even "if we don't care about" drug use here, "we ought to care about what it does to other countries."

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President Trump has made a point of talking about how much he respects the retired generals in his Cabinet. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly is at the top of that list.


But only a week or so into the administration, their relationship had its first big test when the president signed the executive order on immigration. It was pushed through fast - so fast that there was confusion at airports across the country and around the world about who could and could not come into the U.S.

INSKEEP: Fixing the chaos felt to Secretary John Kelly. This week, when he was testifying before a congressional committee, the retired Marine Corps general took blame for the way it was rolled out.


JOHN KELLY: I should have - this is all on me, by the way. I should have delayed it just a bit so that I could talk to members of Congress, particularly the leadership of committees like this.

MARTIN: In the days that followed the rollout and widespread protest, the Department of Homeland Security modified the order. Exceptions were carved out for green card holders and Iraqis who had worked alongside the U.S. military. I sat down with Secretary John Kelly yesterday in our studios to talk about the ban, what he would do differently and his belief that tightening the borders doesn't mean changing who we are.

KELLY: The reason we're doing this is to just really take a pause, take a hard look at how we vet people overseas. Again, the seven countries involved here were identified, you know, by the United States Congress. And the seven countries were identified by the Obama administration, so it's certainly a good start point.

MARTIN: Starting point - does that mean you expect to expand the list of countries?

KELLY: You know, I don't. But again, we're looking. In some cases - particularly with these seven countries, because of the chaos and disorder they're in internally, we may not be able to get there for a while. In other cases among the seven countries, I think it's entirely possible one or two could come off at the end of the evaluation period.

MARTIN: So what does that change look like? Can you give me some specifics?

KELLY: Yeah.

MARTIN: We hear the president talking a lot about extreme vetting. But what does that mean on the ground?

KELLY: Yeah. You know, pick a country. The thing that we're looking for is when a person comes in, the State Department does these interviews. Someone comes in and says, I want to come to the United States. Then we ask them to give us a list of websites that they visit and the passwords to get on those websites to see what they're looking at. This is...

MARTIN: You require that of anyone who is looking to immigrate to the U.S.?

KELLY: Well, considering that, yeah - social media to see what they tweet; cell phones - cell phone conversations or cell phone contact books to where we can run them against databases, telephone numbers, people's names. Europe, the United States maintains databases and shares those databases. So these are some of the things we're thinking about.

MARTIN: And you're thinking about them as it pertains to these seven countries and places where refugees are fleeing from. But also, do I hear you saying it could be expanded?

KELLY: It could be, yeah. It could be. It all comes down to the confidence we have in the individual we're talking to is a person who is coming to the United States for the right reasons.

MARTIN: When you were before Congress this week, you said that it was your responsibility - that you took the blame for not delaying the implementation of the ban so you could inform Congress of what it was really going to look like.

KELLY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Does that extend to how it was rolled out?

KELLY: You know, I'm new to this, this federal civilian side. You know, my first real day at work was Monday that week. I had a small number of staff at Homeland Security that were working with the White House in the final stages of the development of the three EOs, executive orders. That was consistent with certainly most things that the president had said during the election, and then I knew it was coming out on Friday.

In retrospect, I should have said - and I will do in the future for sure - to say, OK, give that to me, and I will roll it out. And I will tell you how I'm going to do it. But I will roll that out. And that rollout would have included notification to select members of Congress - the leadership for sure, as I say - and even a press rollout. I mean, I think it's very, very important to engage the press.

MARTIN: Did you communicate this now to the White House? Does the White House understand that, moving forward, that this is how you'd like to operate?

KELLY: I would say that we have an agreement. We developed a policy jointly. It goes to the president. He says OK, I like this. Go with it. Once you've given it - again, this is kind of a military thing - once you give it to the commander to execute, get out of the way. I'll keep you informed. So in future, we will do it a better way.

MARTIN: More than a hundred former national security officials that served under presidents from both parties signed a letter. It was addressed to you, as one of three recipients, saying that this executive order makes America less safe. And the signatories included former acting heads at State and Justice Departments. They are people who you know, people you have worked with. Did that give you pause?

KELLY: Well, I haven't seen the letter yet. What did it say?

MARTIN: It said that the executive order puts America at risk, that it reinforces a narrative about the West being embroiled in a battle with ISIS that ISIS welcomes because it reinforces the story they use to recruit.

KELLY: Yeah. You know, with respect to well-meaning people who signed the letter, you know, I ran Guantanamo, as you know. If that logic is accurate, then, you know, why did 9/11 happened? Because we - I mean, there are people in the world - a small, small percentage of people who follow a different radical Islamic faith, who hate us. And they hate us for a lot of different reasons. And I say it all the time - it's because of who we are, the way we live our lives, the way we worship any god we want or no god. They just hate us.

MARTIN: Do you think that in light of what you just said and the security risks that are out there, can America still afford to be a multicultural, pluralistic society?

KELLY: Can we still afford to be? Of course. You know, the great success of our country has been people from diverse backgrounds coming to the United States and becoming Americans. The strength has been the melting pot. So I like to think everyone in this country should consider themselves Irish on St. Patrick's Day. Everyone in this country should consider themselves Jewish at Hanukkah. Everyone in this country should consider themselves...

MARTIN: Muslim on Eid.

KELLY: On Eid. Every one of them. I've been to Eid dinners where we were almost blown up to get there in Iraq. Sure, they go to a mosque or they go to a synagogue or a church. But 364 days a year, they're Americans. And then on the day that we celebrate being Irish or Jewish or Muslim, then we're all Irish or Jewish or Muslim - or Mexican on Cinco de Mayo.

MARTIN: So much of this is about who is able to come into this country and who is not. And also under your purview as secretary of Homeland Security is the U.S.-Mexico border. President Trump, this week, said when he talked to police chiefs that the wall is currently under design. This is something that Congress has yet to approve - and that's constitutionally mandated.

KELLY: Right, of course.

MARTIN: There is no plan yet on how to pay for this. Is the wall currently under design?

KELLY: What I'm doing - in fact, I was down on the Texas border last week, met with the Texas governor, his public safety people. And I go to the Tucson sector of the border and meet with, again, sheriffs, local police.

MARTIN: So you've got meetings.

KELLY: I got what?

MARTIN: But is the wall currently under design?

KELLY: Absolute - well, the wall is, I'd say, designed but, first, evaluations. So what are they telling me? What do I CBP, the great men and women of the Customs and Border Protection, what are they telling me? They're saying - hey, boss, I'm sure a wall will be great. Barrier would be great may be a better way to say it right now.

MARTIN: So what does the president mean when he says the wall is being designed?

KELLY: We're in the process now of deciding - you know, we can't build it all at once in the same place. But we're deciding where to put it immediately given financing and given, you know, construction capability, capacity.

MARTIN: Retired Marine Corps General John Kelly - he is now the secretary of Homeland Security.

Thank you so much for coming in, sir.

KELLY: Of course. Anytime, Rachel. Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.