“Make no mistake — we are a nation under attack,” Kelly said at George Washington University in his first major public speech since taking the helm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“We are under attack from people who hate us, hate our freedoms, hate our laws, hate our values, hate the way we simply live our lives. And we are under attack every single day,” he warned. “The threats are relentless.”
Kelly covered a wide swath of issues — from transnational criminal organizations to cyber-attacks to homegrown violent extremism, often using graphic descriptions of human suffering to illustrate the dangers.
The speech harkened back to President Trump’s inaugural address to Congress, in which he described “American carnage” outside of the Beltway.
On the topic of human smuggling — which Kelly discussed as a partial defense of tougher border security — the Homeland Security chief invoked Dante’s journey to hell. Describing online radicalization, he cited images of “headless bodies, innocent people being thrown from buildings, rape victims being stoned to death.”
He described the threat of terror in the U.S. as being as high as it was at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, citing open FBI investigations currently underway in all 50 states.
He warned that proliferating encrypted communications technology would soon make it “impossible” to track terrorist threats.
Offering a defiant defense of the sprawling agency, Kelly repeatedly and fiercely defended the DHS while simultaneously backing some of the Trump administration’s more controversial national security policies.
Pushing against claims that President Trump’s travel ban was intended to block Muslims from entering the country, he argued that critics should instead applaud Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials for “doing what they do.”
In an apparent allusion to widespread outcry that followed the first executive order, which temporarily banned immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, Kelly dinged lawmakers for criticizing the agency personnel responsible for carrying out U.S. policies.
Personnel are “often ridiculed and insulted by public officials, and frequently convicted in the court of public opinion on unfounded allegations testified to by street lawyers and spokespersons,” Kelly said.
“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,” Kelly said, to a burst of applause in the auditorium.
Reports emerged in the first chaotic hours following the signing of the Trump’s order that CBP officials had verbally abused detainees and left many standing for hours on end.
Large numbers of protesters, including some Democratic members of Congress, popped up at airports around the country the first weekend the ban was in effect.
The courts have since blocked that order and a subsequent rewrite. Kelly provided few new details on Tuesday, but said that he is “standing by with bated breath.”
The retired Marine general also warned of the dangers of the Salvadoran crime gang MS-13 in the United States, saying “sophisticated networks” of transnational criminal organizations “move anything and everything across our borders, including human beings.”
That came as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a separate address earlier that morning, blamed open borders and lax immigration enforcement for the growth of the gang.
Kelly also course-corrected on a previous statement he made regarding the dangers of marijuana.
Calling it “a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs,” Kelly vowed that DHS personnel would continue to investigate and arrest those involved in illegal trade of the drug.
That comes after Kelly on Sunday told “Meet The Press” host Chuck Todd that marijuana was “not a factor” in the war on drugs, arguing that solving the nation’s drug problem does not involve “arresting a lot of users.”
In a defiant finish that illustrated the tone of his address, Kelly closed with a no-apologies mantra.
“We will never apologize for enforcing and upholding the law. We will never apologize for carrying out our mission. We will never apologize for making our country more secure.”