In an April speech, then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly gave a pure distillation of a point of view that I find toxic. We hear this view from a tiny sliver of people in the military or law enforcement. More often, it comes from politicians who would “unshackle” soldiers, police, or spies.
This is a lengthy quote, and the boldface is mine:
While you’re having your morning coffee, the Coast Guard is pulling a fisherman aboard after his boat capsized in stormy seas. While you’re deciding what you want for lunch, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center is teaching law enforcement officers how to respond to an active shooter. While you’re scrolling through Facebook, our Science and Technology Directorate is helping local bomb squads defeat IEDs. While you’re zoning out on your commute home, Homeland Security Investigators are closing in on a dangerous child predator. While you’re binge-watching Mad Men on Netflix, TSA is stopping an actual mad man with a loaded gun from boarding a flight to Disney World.
In his next paragraph (actually one very long sentence), Secretary Kelly went further. He used this “you have no idea what we really do” theme to go after watchdogs who investigate human rights abuse or corruption.
While some members of [C]ongress, or state and local politicians, or a member of an advocacy group read or listen to a partial or inaccurate media report on some alleged event at an airport, in a courthouse, or at a border crossing and assume the men and women or DHS are intentionally abusing innocent individuals while breaking or ignoring US law or court orders—instead of assuming as they should that the men and women of DHS are carrying out their assigned mission in accordance with the law—the professionals at DHS are protecting the homeland and in many cases putting their lives on the line for a population the vast majority of whom will never know they are protected by such dedicated and well trained public servants.
In February comments, Secretary Kelly aimed this same ire at the federal judges who struck down President Trump’s executive orders banning immigration from certain countries. He dismissed the judges as out-of-touch “academics.”
I have nothing but respect for judges, but in their world, it’s a very academic, very almost in a vacuum discussion. And of course in their courtrooms, they’re protected by people like me. So they can have those discussions and if something happens bad from letting people in, they don’t come to the judge to ask him about his ruling, they come to people like me.
Later in his April speech, Secretary Kelly had some advice for unnamed members of Congress whose criticisms, in his view, have damaged border and immigration agents’ morale: “shut up.”
If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce—then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines. My people have been discouraged from doing their jobs for nearly a decade, disabled by pointless bureaucracy and political meddling, and suffered disrespect and contempt by public officials who have no idea what it means to serve.
Before I explain why this bothers me so much, let me emphasize what I hope comes through here: my profound respect for people who have dedicated their careers to protecting their fellow citizens. I try to talk to them often, and I hold many of them in awe. These are people who have decided to sacrifice wealth, time with their families, a regular schedule, and even their lives, for others.
Most military officers, Border Patrol agents, and intelligence agency personnel I’ve met over the years do so with no resentment. They are honorable, kind, thoughtful people. Our personal political views may diverge (not always), but most get it: when you’re dealing with the most troubled 10 percent of humanity, you’re dealing with complexity and can’t shoot your way out of the problem.
Very few people in uniform whom I’ve met even come close to the stereotype of grown-up high school locker room bullies. (A stereotype reinforced whenever an AM talk radio host talks about them.) They almost never tell me, face to face, that I “don’t get it” and should get out of their way and let them do their job.
Still, the military/law enforcement/intelligence “id” is real. It comes out in speeches by Trump and Kelly, in commentary on Fox News, or on the Border Patrol union’s podcast.
In this view, Defense, Homeland Security, and intelligence forces are a sort of superhero caste, putting themselves in harm’s way for an ungrateful, oblivious, and “soft” mass of citizens. This superhero caste should be above criticism from the binge-watching, video game-addled, shopaholic public. How dare such people scrutinize or question people on the front lines?
This view is a threat to life in a free republic. For many reasons, but especially two.
First, regular citizens can be, and often are, at least as honorable as members of the armed forces and law enforcement. That goes for people in all walks of life. It includes many citizens whom I’ve gotten to know well in my work: those who investigate and oversee what the armed forces and law enforcement are doing.
The effective people in my community—the ones who’ve decided to make a life out of doing this—don’t binge-watch Netflix. Anyone who does will end up on another career path. People who work to reveal truth, propose evidence-based reforms, protect minorities, defend migrants, or safeguard freedoms? They’re a tough bunch.
They rarely have a spare moment, and get impatient if they lose 15 minutes on an activity whose strategic purpose is unclear. But they’re also patient teachers who’ll share everything they’ve learned. They feel bad about neglecting their families, missing anniversaries and school plays. You’ll get messages from them at crazy hours—but they respond to calls for help at weird hours, too. They closely guard their credibility, a crucial support when—as often happens—powerful people are angry with them. Their offices may be messy, but they work with strict discipline.
They’re driven by something. A sense of right and wrong. A zeal for truth. A definition of justice or fairness. A vision of a better world. Religious teachings. The work of past heroes like King, Murrow, or Romero. A desire to preserve what’s civilized about our civilization.
And they do it without a large bureaucracy or base of taxpayers to support them. No predictable hierarchy or chain of command. No clarity about promotions or even about clean “victories.” Few awards ceremonies, no guaranteed retirement, no guaranteed income security beyond the current grant period.
This is an honorable life. A good soldier maintains and defends his or her honor. So do good journalists, human rights advocates, legislative oversight staff, judges, and activists—though they may use words like “credibility,” “relevance,” or “rigor” instead of “honor.”
Second and more importantly: as brave as they are, our military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies are among those who most need scrutiny and questioning in a democratic society. That goes double for their management.
They’re the ones we’ve entrusted with guns, with surveillance capabilities, and with the legal right to detain, to search, to seize, and to interrogate. They work in gray areas that make them susceptible to corruption, or tempted to “circle the wagons” to protect colleagues accused of abuse. They need to do the right thing if a leader gives them an illegal order. They deserve our admiration and our gratitude. But they also require our unblinking scrutiny.
Secretary Kelly said that “day in and day out,” critics call Homeland Security personnel “Nazis” and accuse his “foot soldiers” (they’re actually civilians) of “storm troop tactics.” I’m not sure what critics he’s talking about: Twitter trolls, perhaps? But this element, be it fringe or straw-man, can be safely ignored.
Those whom we must not ignore are judges, prosecutors, investigators, whistleblowers, victims, internal-affairs personnel, legislators, journalists and “advocacy groups” with long records of credibility. When they do their job well, these people ensure that the agencies they monitor are protecting more than just a land mass: they’re protecting a precious set of values.
Trying to wriggle out from oversight is something that all institutions do. Doing it in the name of honor or implied superiority is effective: it silences many in Congress and even in the media. But it’s dangerous. A sentence that starts with “You don’t appreciate that we put our lives on the line for you” can end in some very bad ways:
- “And so we won’t respond to your information request.”
- “And so you need to double our budget, even if it means cutting education and healthcare.”
- “And so you’re doing the unwitting bidding of terrorists.”
- “And so you’re an obstacle to law and order.”
- “And so your newspaper is an ’enemy of the people.’”
Gen. John Kelly would never phrase a sentence this way. But he risks paving the way for future officials who might.