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.”
Like the presidents it has protected in the past, the chief security detail for the Obamas—christened Renegade, Renaissance, Radiance and Rosebud—is primarily white. But Curtis Eldridge is an exception. A nearly 30-year Secret Service veteran who has worked in the White House, vice president’s house and abroad, Eldridge is now the chief of the Secret Service Uniformed Division, running operations for hundreds of officers in the United States. This doesn’t mean the Secret Service is a great place for African Americans—10 years ago, a group of black Secret Service agents filed a high-profile class action lawsuit against the government, alleging discrimination—but the department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service, says today that one-third of its newest recruits are minorities. And according to Ronald Kessler’s new book, Inside the President’s Secret Service, African Americans have been promoted to higher pay grades more frequently than white agents since 2001.
Key quote: “Always make yourself competitive and remain above reproach.”
Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III
Lt. Gen. Austin is the No. 2 commanding officer in all of Iraq and the first black general to lead an Army division in combat during the 2003 invasion, during which he earned a Silver Star. Americans of African descent now comprise 12 percent of the Army, compared with 2.5 percent in 1975—the year Austin graduated from West Point. The numbers are lower for the Marines, Navy and Air Force, but black Americans like Austin are today consistently deployed to bases and active military theaters from Iraq to Afghanistan, Germany to Guantanamo Bay. Austin is at the head of a wave of black Americans moving into the officer corps and other management and highly skilled positions. Naturally, there is nowhere to go but up—in 2008, only one of 38 four-star generals or admirals was black. Incentives to enlist—including ROTC college scholarships—are attracting men and women in communities of color. At the same time, recruiting for active duty service and for military reserves has dipped since 2000, when blacks made up 23 percent of Army recruits.
Key quote: “Certainly when you have my job you consider yourself to be a role model for a number of elements in the community, not just African Americans.”
Rogers is a Harvard-trained businesswoman turned White House social secretary who counts herself as a leading light in Washington—but whose job description also requires her to play some heavy-duty defense. During her first official state dinner, three gate-crashing Washington socialites exposed her as a weak link in the chain that keeps the Obamas safe. While Secret Service chief Mark Sullivan has claimed full responsibility for the incident, Rogers appears chastened: At the series of White House holiday parties that followed the security breach, Rogers ditched the couture and donned a headset.
Key quote: Rogers has yet to comment on the party-crashing incident.
The buck stops here. In the Situation Room meeting with his national security team, Obama chastised his deputies for leaving the private citizens as the last line of defense against Abdulmutallab. Speaking to reporters afterward, he sounded irritated. “I will accept that intelligence, by its nature, is imperfect,” he said. “But it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged. That's not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it.” As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show, Obama’s portfolio comprises more than just coordinating the alphabet soup of agencies (TSA, NSA, CIA, FBI, CSS) that are supposed to fight terror. His management of this life and death situation will test his ability to motivate as well as negotiate.
Key quote: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken—you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.