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Kayyem provides insights into Homeland Security

Date: 10/15/2015

SPRINGFIELD – When asked was her “average day” was like when she served as the assistant secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration, Juliette Kayyem was refreshingly blunt: “There was no average day.”

Kayyem answered questions and provided insights on a broad range of topics during a one-hour talk at the 89th annual meeting of the World Affairs Council of Western Massachusetts on Oct. 9.

Before taking the federal position, she acted as former Gov. Deval Patrick’s homeland security advisor and oversaw the state’s National Guard. Since then she has been named a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for columns she wrote for The Boston Globe, teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and has her own consulting business. Her third book, “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home,” will be published next year.

She also was a Democratic candidate for governor during the last election. As part of her run she saw how communities in Western Massachusetts cooperate with one another and praised the area for having better regional planning that what she saw in the Boston area.

“Regional planning is just amazing out here,” she said.

Kayyem readily admitted the Department of Homeland Security is “incomprehensible” to the average person whose most frequent interaction is with the TSA – “not a grand experience.”

Kayyem noted her job was one in which she would have to leave at a moment’s notice. “You pack you’re bag and you’re on,” she noted.

Her first days in office included reacting to the threat of the H1N1 virus. Later she worked on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  

She noted no legislation aimed at strengthening practices to prevent another offshore oil leak such as the BP incident have been passed by Congress. While there have been no new statutory obligations, Kayyem added the oil industry was “terrified” by what happened and instituted more rigorous safety protocols.

The BP incident shows how global companies had to understand and practice local politics “with a parish president in Louisiana”

Kayyem added, “Companies had to learn the tactics of relating to people in a crisis.”

Out of these experiences Kayyem said she learned the American people have not been empowered with the tools they need to react to emergencies “for a more resilient country.”

She noted the public reactions are most typically “tuning out or freaking out.” She said there should be a middle ground created by people having knowledge and skills.  

The threats the country faces range from terrorism to Hurricane Katrina, events that are radically different, she said.

Kayyem offered advice to how to react to a shooter in light of the recent mass killing in Oregon. She said that people should “run as fast as they can” from a shooting incident. “Don’t stay put,” she advised.

If a person can’t run, they barricade oneself. The last option should be to go after the shooter.

She said there basic steps a person should take to ensure getting through an emergency. She advised scanning important documents to cloud-based storage; the writing of an emergency plan that doesn’t include the use of cell phones; and having 72 hours of food and water were among her suggestions.

“If people feel they own it [emergency preparedness] their fears will go down,” Kayyem said.

Kayyem called for criminal justice reform and noted about $10 billion is spent every decade for prison construction has become “unsustainable.”  She added incarceration on the level it has become in this country has proven ineffective.

“It’s an industry now and we have to shake it to its core,” Kayyem said. She noted there is now bipartisan support in Congress for criminal justice reform.  

She also called for “complete immigration reform.” She asked the audience to consider what kind of country should the United States be in the future and noted the role immigration has played in the past.

“The option to deport them all is not an option,” she asserted.