At a meeting in the White House to review Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253, the Situation Room was packed with major security brass: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder—as well as CIA and FBI heads Leon Panetta and Robert Mueller, respectively. President Barack Obama, upset about the embarrassing Christmas Day security breach, reportedly told his top security advisers that the United States “dodged a bullet, but just barely.”
With the notable exception of Holder and Obama, the roundtable was mostly white. This has been the case for national security leadership stretching back to, well, forever. But George W. Bush’s first term as president—featuring National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell—changed the game. As the fallout from the Detroit bombing attempt shows, keeping America’s homeland secure implicates an enormous web of mutual responsibility—from the secret service agents outside the Oval Office to the foreign intelligence officers that have been dispatched to Nigeria. And like many aspects of government under Obama, diversity in the ranks of America’s security apparatus is increasing.
Indeed, much controversy surrounding the Christmas Day bombing has focused on Errol Southers, an African-American former FBI special agent and director of Homeland Security for California—whose nomination to lead the TSA has been blocked by Republicans. (Senate Majority leader Harry Reid has said he will force a vote to instate him in the next week.) Southers, who is the latest in a line of blacks implicated in the American national security apparatus, takes a macroscopic approach to counterterrorism endorsed most recently by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Terrorism engages every discipline: sociology, education, physics, engineering,” Southers said in a recent interview. “It doesn’t call for a military solution. It’s an interdisciplinary solution. As globalization increases, terrorism will not be confined to any one region or country.”
His perspective and experience may be essential to averting future terrorist attacks. Here are some other African Americans who made their mark on the front lines of what the Obama administration no longer calls a “war on terror.” Between underpants bombers, state dinner party crashers (now three of them) and foreign wars (now two of them) their work is all the more important.
A brilliant lawyer, former federal judge and friend to President Obama, Holder has a combined 20 years of experience at the Justice Department. As the attorney general, Holder has assumed an enormous amount of responsibility for the thorny legal issues that the age of terrorism has wrought. Less high profile than cabinet secretaries Hillary Clinton or Robert Gates, he has nevertheless been a key voice on decisions about national security—from whether to allow military caskets to be shown on television, to releasing the infamous Bush-era “torture memos,” to the administration’s controversial attempts to empty Guantanamo Bay. On his plate now: Deciding whether to release Yemeni prisoners to their homeland and determining the fate of “Category 5” detainees at risk of being held indefinitely in lockup.
Key quote: “I will use every available tactic to defeat our adversaries, and I will do so within the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.”
The first black woman to lead the U.S. delegation to the United Nations is also the youngest ever member of the National Security Council. Rice, an Africa specialist, has pushed for a human rights-oriented approach to national security since her days in Bill Clinton’s cabinet. Now, she sits in on meetings to plan Afghan strategy as well as coordinate nuclear non-proliferation strategy and trade talks with China. Her belief, shared with Obama, that the “soft power” of diplomacy is equally part of the counterterrorist toolkit, prompted the president to elevate Rice to a cabinet-level position.
Key quote: “Transnational security threats … cross national borders as freely as a storm. By definition, they cannot be tackled by any one country alone.”
Before Holder became attorney general, Noble—the son of a German mother and African-American father—was the highest-ranking black law enforcement official in the United States. A Clinton administration veteran, he has supervised the Secret Service, Customs and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. In 2000, he became the first American to head Interpol—the European-based criminal policing version of the United Nations—and was reelected unanimously in 2005. As secretary general, he made Arabic one of the official languages of Interpol—in anticipation of what he saw as a mounting threat of Islamic extremism emanating from the Middle East.
Key quote: “Investing in the world’s police forces and Interpol is the only way to ensure that valuable intelligence can be gathered, analyzed, and shared internationally.”
Rep. John Conyers
The 23-term congressman may be best known for his domestic political advocacy for the recession-stricken Michigan district he has represented since 1965. But as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the oldest member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Conyers emerged as a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s policies on warrantless wiretapping, torture and the use of military force in Iraq. Conyers continues to fight for transparency and civil liberties in the Obama era—joining with Sens. Dick Durbin and Russ Feingold to denounce the administration’s policies on surveillance and its moves to reauthorize the Patriot Act.
Key quote: “Civil liberties and national security are not contradictory; they are inextricably linked.”