Janet Napolitano on working for Anita Hill, the misery of airport security, and why she just wants ‘the best candidate’ on the 2020 Democratic ticket

Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano

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Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano
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Kevin Reilly/Samantha Lee/Business Insider

  • Janet Napolitano is the first woman to serve as both attorney general and governor of the state of Arizona, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (2009-2013), and president of the University of California.
  • In 2012, Forbes ranked her as the ninth most powerful woman in the world.
  • She’s the author of a new book about homeland security, “How Safe are We?”
  • Napolitano spoke with INSIDER’s politics editor Anthony Fisher for a frank discussion about her work with Anita Hill, her regrets as homeland security security, the failures of the TSA, and what she thinks are the greatest threats to the homeland today.

Janet Napolitano is the first woman to serve as both attorney general and governor of the state of Arizona, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (2009-2013), and president of the University of California. In 2012, Forbes ranked her as the ninth most powerful woman in the world.

Napolitano, author of the new book “How Safe Are We?” spoke this week with INSIDER’s politics editor Anthony Fisher, about helping to prep Anita Hill for her Senate testimony in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, her regrets as homeland security secretary, the failures of the TSA, and what she thinks are the greatest threats to the homeland today.

She also addresses whether she thinks a woman should be on the 2020 Democratic presidential ticket.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can watch a portion of it on “Business Insider Today.”

INSIDER: A lot of people might not know that before you were Homeland Security secretary, and before you were governor and attorney general of Arizona, that you were a lawyer in private practice and you worked for Anita Hill when she was testifying before Congress during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Can you talk a little about that experience?

Janet Napolitano: Oh, it was amazing. And not in a good way. John Frank, a senior partner at the law firm where I worked was an expert on Supreme Court nominations. And when the Senate Judiciary Committee decided they needed to have a hearing on a Professor Hill’s statements, the people around Professor Hill said, “Well, you need somebody around you who’s been through this rodeo before.” So [Frank] came around the corner and said, “I’ve been asked to represent Anita Hill, will you come and help?” And I said, “Let’s go.” So we took a red eye to Washington, met our client the next day, and within 72 hours the hearing was on. So it was very rushed. My responsibility was putting on a panel of witnesses that she had told at the time that Clarence Thomas was harassing her. And this was really the first time that sexual harassment in the workplace was raised, in the national consciousness.

INSIDER: It was 1991. I actually remember afterward there being a sea change in both law and the workplace, and just the perception of what a man – or what anyone – could say to a colleague in the workplace.

Napolitano: Yeah, that’s right. It did cause a sea change. Unfortunately it didn’t necessarily cause a sea change in the Senate. We saw kind of a reprise with the Brett Kavanaugh hearing last year. The thing about Professor Hill’s testimony was she was so powerful and so poised and so professional in what she said and what she related to the committee. And you could just tell the committee was so uncomfortable. They just didn’t really know what to do with this. And ultimately of course, Thomas got confirmed.

INSIDER: How do you think Hill would have been received by the Senate had she testified today?

Napolitano: Well, unfortunately I think it would have been what happened Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford when she testified against Brett Kavanaugh. You have the woman come in, she’s very professional. She relates what happened. And then the man in this case, Kavanaugh, comes in and just explodes all over the place. There was no real change. It was disappointing.

INSIDER: Former Vice President Joe Biden was a vocal critic of Professor Hill during those hearings. It’s probably going to be an issue should he decide to run for president. Do you think it’s fair that his comportment during those hearings be brought up as a candidate?

Napolitano: I think that for all candidates, what they’ve done in their background is fair. I think with Vice President Biden, he’s done so much since the hearing to come out and recognize that sexual harassment is a real thing. Violence against women is a real thing. He was a primary proponent of the Violence against Women Act, for example. So I think he’ll need to answer those questions, but he can answer them.

Read more: Joe Biden says he regrets not getting Anita Hill ‘the kind of hearing she deserved’

INSIDER: Some of the things that you wrote about in your book, “How Safe are We?” are the threats to homeland security that are not getting enough attention in the public consciousness. Could you explain briefly why you think climate change should be a paramount concern for homeland security?

Napolitano: We’ve seen a rise in extreme weather events. Their frequency, their potency. The number of landfall hurricanes, the size and scope of tornadoes. The wildfires that have really plagued where I live now, California. And we can anticipate that that is only going to increase because the planet is warming. So we need to do two things. One is as a country, we need to do our part to reduce the pace of global warming. But the second thing is we need to adapt to the climate change we already have. And that means how we construct our roads. The materials we use in our buildings, how we build airport runways. That all needs to be taken into account that the sea levels are rising. And our communities, our first responders and the like, all need to be prepared for the adaptation that’s necessary.

Read more: A troubling new map shows what your city’s climate may look like in 60 years. San Francisco may feel like Los Angeles, and New York may be more like Arkansas.

INSIDER: Do you think that there’s a political will to do that right now?

Napolitano: Unfortunately there’s not. I think the three key issues for homeland security are cyber, climate change and mass gun violence. All three of those deserve more focus, more national attention, as opposed to say, building a wall on the southwest border.

INSIDER: Cybersecurity. A lot of people are very passionate about it. A lot of other people, their eyes will just glaze over as though it’s a problem for the future. Could you explain why you think it’s not a problem for the future?

Napolitano: It’s a problem now. Everybody’s talking about the Mueller report and what Attorney General [William] Barr’s letter about the Mueller report says. But one thing that’s very clear that Mueller found that Russia was all over our 2016 election. They were over it in terms of hacking the Clinton campaign, releasing the emails and the like. They were over it by planting false and misleading pieces on social media. All designed to help President Trump get elected. If a foreign country, an adversary, is directly interfering in our elections, that’s a homeland security issue.

INSIDER: What should be done? How do we prevent the next case of foreign interference into an election?

Napolitano: One of the things I point out in the book is that after the attacks of 9/11, there was a commission established of very well respected thought leaders. They were analyzing how the attacks actually occurred. And what they said is, “Look, there were all these red flags that were not connected and there was a failure of imagination. A failure of really thinking about worst case scenarios.”

We’re kind of in that stage now in cybersecurity, where there are red flags all over the place, where infiltration’s and hacks are being detected. Some by state actors, some by nonstate actors. By state actors like Russia and China, and by non-state actors affiliated with different types of groups.

We have all these red flags, so we shouldn’t suffer the same failure of imagination. We should assemble a commission now with the direct charge to organize the federal agencies who touch cybersecurity in a cohesive way. Now there’s a lot of overlap and a lot of confusion about who has responsibility for what. To set national standards for critical infrastructure, most of which is in the private sector’s hands. And to educate, individuals across the country on what they should be doing with respect to their own cybersecurity.

Read more: The NSA publicly released a tool for cracking software wide open, and hackers are loving it – so long as the NSA makes good on its promise not to use it to spy on them

INSIDER: So going back to the Mueller report for a moment. Some Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer say that Attorney General Barr has an inherent bias against the report and they’re not satisfied with the summary he’s released. Do you agree with that assessment and what do you think the attorney general should do?

Napolitano: The American people need to see the entire report. Congress definitely needs to see the entire report. They shouldn’t have to rely on political appointees’ judgment about it before reaching their own conclusions. And, I think it’s important to point out that Attorney General Barr when he was a private citizen wrote a 19-page a manifesto about how it was improper for special counsel Mueller to even be thinking about obstruction of justice. So you do have to take his conclusion with a grain of salt. So I think the full report needs to be released.

INSIDER: What’s your biggest regret from your time as homeland security secretary?

Napolitano: I wish we had been able to arrange airport security so that people could leave their shoes on and take their liquids on planes. The technology just simply wasn’t there. The alternative, what we developed, was TSA Precheck where for a small fee you’d get registered and then you can go into a separate line and leave your shoes on and so forth. When I was secretary, the threat streams involving aviation were constant, people were always trying to get explosives on planes. A lot of that inconvenience in airports, there’s a real security reason for it.

INSIDER: Critics say that some of these measures were reactive, like the shoes and the liquid bans, has the technology reached the point that we don’t need to limit three ounces per bottle? Is the three ounce limit still relevant?

Napolitano: Yeah, it is still relevant. It is still relevant. And you know, another thing was left on the table when I left as secretary was any real effort for comprehensive reform. It’s a toxic issue. It’s a third rail, politically, for so many members of Congress.

But I’ll tell you not having an updated immigration law is hurting the country. It hurts us in terms of our economy. It hurts us in terms of our values. So I really wish that the president would take the lead and say we need comprehensive immigration reform that’s fair, that recognizes the humanitarian and economic needs for immigration, that fulfills our responsibilities in a community of nations for accepting refugees and asylum, and that Congress would be able to take it out.

Read more: Trump said he wanted more ‘highly skilled’ immigrants to come to the US. But skilled, educated foreign workers are leaving the US dejected, saying Trump doomed their American dreams – leaving businesses in the lurch.

INSIDER: On the topic of immigration, you were very critical over the Trump administration’s policy of detaining families, separating parents from their children. Your successor as Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson, in 2014 changed DHS policy to detain families, whereas before, women and children would not be detained. He built facilities for women and their children and specifically told The New York Times that he thought that this was an effective deterrent. Did he lay the seeds for the Trump administration’s immigration policies?

Napolitano: I think the Trump administration policies are very different. I think what Secretary Johnson was saying was that families would be kept together, but they would be detained. They wouldn’t be released pending their asylum hearings.

INSIDER: Which was a new policy.

Napolitano: Yeah. And I don’t think it was ever actually enacted. (Editor’s Note: Family detention was enacted under President Obama.) And I don’t think it would serve as a deterrent. What the Trump administration did, and what resulted in the separations, is it said that not only would they detain the parents, but they would be charged criminally. Immigration offenses are civil. Once you go on the criminal side, you’re detained in jails and in prisons where children cannot be. So it automatically results in children and the adults they are traveling with being separated. And the tragedy of the Trump policy was that they weren’t organized at all.

I mean, you have three agencies – Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human services – all of whom have roles to play. But they announced this plan without any kind of thought given to how parents and their children get reunited. How do they stay in touch with each other? So even if you agreed with the original decision that you’ve got to prosecute everyone for the federal misdemeanor of illegally entering the country, which I think is a misuse of prosecutorial resources, and not to plan ahead for how you reunite the families, that was just government malpractice.

INSIDER: One suggested solution is vastly increasing the number of immigration judges able to process these claims at the border? Why do you think that hasn’t happened?

Napolitano: I don’t know, because I actually think what should happen is we should flood the zone with the rule of law, so to speak. Deploy more immigration judges so that potential asylees as they enter the country, they can make their claims before an immigration judge who says yay or nay and then get processed accordingly. I think the president should be very forthcoming and move immigration judges to the border where they’re needed. And also set up more spots for more judges.

Read more: THE TRUTH ABOUT THE BORDER CRISIS: Experts say there is no security crisis, but there is a simple way to fix immigration – and it’s not a wall

INSIDER: So moving back to the TSA, in your book you admitted that there were security failures where undercover agents have been able to get contraband onto planes. But you added that the agency has a “pretty good batting average.” A 2016 DHS inspector general report that undercover agents were successful 96% of the time in smuggling weapons and explosives past TSA agents and on to planes. Is that a good batting average?

Napolitano: No. One of the things we should inquire into is the basis for that report. How they managed to get things on. Sometimes when you do these investigations, they know all the places to prod and are deployed so that they kind of have a roadmap as it were.

INSIDER: But wouldn’t terrorists, as well?

Napolitano: Well, no, not necessarily. And I think that’s one of the key differences. When you think about the kind of attack that occurred on 9/11, where commercial aircraft were weaponized to be flown into iconic buildings like the World Trade Center, like the Pentagon. That really can’t happen anymore. You’ve got doors sealing off the cockpit and you can’t get explosives into the luggage hold. That’s a big change, as well.

INSIDER: Those are two great but very simple solutions – fortifying the cockpit doors and making it so that people can’t check their luggage and not board a plane.

Napolitano: Exactly.

INSIDER: But that has nothing to do with the painful process of boarding a plane. It’s painful for the TSA agents who are underpaid and undertrained it’s a painful process for travelers. But if it’s not effectively weeding out contraband and weapons, is there another way to do this?

Napolitano: No. It’s hard to identify another way. The plain fact of the matter is that we haven’t had a successful intrusion of an actual passenger with explosives since the underwear bomber. And I talk about the underwear bomber in the book and all of the red flags that were apparent before he got on a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit, et cetera. So one of the things we did when I was at DHS was we went back and kind of reverse-engineered how he got on that plane and fix those gaps. INSIDER: In 2015 you told an assembled audience at the Council on Foreign Relations that you felt “oversight can be overdone.” You were basically complaining about the bureaucratic logjams for you to effectively do your job as DHS secretary. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Napolitano: Well, when I say an oversight could be overdone, I was specifically talking about Congress. So, the Department of Homeland Security came together. It’s an amalgam of two dozen or so different federal agencies all put under one roof. And so the department had [to answer to], depending on the day, 110 or so committees and subcommittees of the Congress, all of whom had some oversight jurisdiction. And the result of that was in my nearly five years at the department, I testified before Congress 55 times. I mean that’s not good. And it means that no one committee on Congress has overall responsibility and can think strategically about what the Department of Homeland Security ought to be doing.

Read more: 4 reasons the number of families crossing the US-Mexico border illegally is soaring, and how Trump may have made the problem worse

INSIDER: “Abolish ICE” has become a big movement among young Democrats. I know that you think ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) should be fixed but not abolished. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Napolitano: I think ICE works best when it’s given clear priorities. When it focuses on those in the country illegally who’ve committed other serious crimes, who are known gang members or known security threats. For example, when I was secretary, we abolished workplace raids. Why that? Because they went after workers, they didn’t go after the employers, and caused tremendous disruption in immigrant communities. We started DACA – deferred action for childhood arrivals – where we used our prosecutorial discretion to say, look, there’s this group of young people brought here usually at the age of six or younger who grew up in the United States and are productive members of the United States. Why are we going to expend federal government resources to deport them to countries where they probably don’t even speak the language.

INSIDER: If you were talking to young Democrats in Congress or young Democratic activists, how would you convince them that “Abolish ICE” is a mistake? Napolitano: I would say that every nation has immigration laws and are entitled to have immigration laws and have trained agents properly directed to enforce the immigration laws. But also to deal with things like customs enforcement. The import and export of dangerous materials and organizations that support that. That’s a very useful law enforcement function and it needs to continue.

ICE raid arrest immigrant criminals

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Paul Caffrey

INSIDER: What do you think about the Trump administration’s policy to use ICE agents to stake out of courthouses and schools to detain undocumented immigrants?

Napolitano: That’s an example where ICE is not being properly directed. We are a country where we have 10 or 11 million individuals in the country, undocumented, many who are very law abiding members of our communities. They’re going at courthouses either to testify, they’re witnesses to crime, or they’ve been victims of crimes. They shouldn’t have to run the gauntlet of an ICE agent to do that.

INSIDER: Moving to politics for a minute, among the crop of new freshmen Democrats, there’s a small but influential group who are very progressive, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. What do you think about the legislation that they been pushing, especially the Green New Deal?

Napolitano: I think the Green New Deal is a great label. I think it needs to be filled in and properly constructed. What are we really talking about there? But I do think it’s been an important way to put the whole issue of climate change on the national scene, particularly since President Trump withdraws from the Paris accords.

Read more: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and team attempt damage control after a fumbled Green New Deal rollout that included a line about paying Americans ‘unwilling to work’

INSIDER: I don’t expect you to endorse anybody at this point, but I’m wondering what you hope emerges from the Democratic primary process with so many different voices in the field.

Napolitano: Like most Americans, I’m listening. On the Democratic side we have a very vigorous debate on things that really matter to the American people like health care, things like wage inequality. So I’m listening for people’s ideas about that and I’m listening for how they address these issues of homeland security.

INSIDER: Do you think it’s important for a woman or a person of color to be on the ticket either as president or vice president?

Napolitano: I think it would be nice, but is it is essential? I think we want the best candidate.