(CNSNews.com) - In a remarkable exchange on Monday, Janet Napolitano -- President Barack Obama's first Homeland Security Secretary from 2009-2013 -- described the porous Southwest Border with Mexico as just a "zone to be managed." It is not a national security threat, she testified.
Napolitano urged the Senate Homeland Security Committee "to consider putting an end to discussions on a border wall and to return your worthy attention to more immediate challenges of security our homeland."
Napolitano, along with two other former DHS secretaries, was speaking at a Senate Homeland Security Committee field hearing in New York City.
In her opening statement, Napolitano listed three areas of concern as cybersecurity, mass casualty shootings, and climate change. "I would like to address a topic that I do not believe is a threat to the Homeland - the U.S. border with Mexico," she said.
Napolitano said she's worked on border-related issues for nearly 30 years: "I've walked it, ridden it on horseback, flown it in fixed- and rotor-wing aircraft, explored its tunnels, and visited almost every land port of entry.
"There have been times, during my three decades of public service, when I did argue that the border was a threat. But now is not such a time."
According to Napolitano, the border is an economic zone. "Proper border management requires a blend of physical infrastructure, manpower, and technology. What we do not need and what doesn't make sense is a wall from one end of the border to the other." She called for an end to the debate about "a costly and needless border wall," calling it a "red herring" that "distracts from the overall mission of DHS."
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told Napolitano he must have misheard her:
Hawley pointed to the epidemic of drug abuse "that is crippling and killing entire communities," including some in Missouri. According to the federal government, the drugs are coming over the southern border, Hawley noted.
"I heard you say in your opening remarks that you did not think that the border represents any threat to the homeland," Hawley told Napolitano. "I must have misunderstood you, because surely you couldn't have meant that the people in my state who are losing their lives, losing their children, losing their family members, that the law enforcement who are completely overwhelmed by this epidemic that is coming across the border -- I mean, surely that constitutes a threat to the security of people of this country, don't you agree with that??"
Look, I think the border, as I said, it is a zone to be managed. It is certainly an area where law enforcement needs to be engaged in terms of drug smuggling and gun smuggling and the like. It requires a whole of government effort. It requires partnership with Mexico, in terms of how the ports themselves are managed."
Napolitano said the bulk of smuggling happens at ports of entry, and she said those ports must have "the best available technology for inspection of vehicles."
"But what I mean to suggest is that the border itself is not the number one threat to the safety and security of the American people, despite the overwhelming public attention being drawn to the border as the function of DHS."
Hawley followed up:
"You said in your testimony both this morning and in your written testimony, you did not think it was a threat at all. Not the number one threat, but no threat... I can't understand that," the senator said. "And what concerns me about it is, it seems to be increasingly the position of some members of your party who say it's also not a threat at all,” Hawley continued.
"And I do not understand how that can be the case, given the threat that my state and the people in my communities are facing. If we don't do something to stem the flow of illegal drugs across that border, I don't know what these folks are going to do, and I just don't understand when people say, it's just not a threat."
"I think we need to look for areas of agreement," Napolitano told Hawley, "We can all agree that we deserve a safe and secure border. That the border needs to be enforced. And you won't get any question about that from me," she said.
"The way I wrote my testimony, however, was to say that the border is a zone. It's a zone to be managed in terms of threat. But it is not the number one threat to the safety and security of the American people.
"When you talk about drugs, right, and I understand the opioid epidemic and the meth epidemic. I was a local and state prosecutor, I was a federal prosecutor. I understand this phenomenon very well." Napolitano said she "empathizes" with the people of Missouri and other states across this country who have been devastated by the opioid epidemic.
"I think we need to be looking for is, how do we prevent the importation of drugs? How do we deal with addiction as a disease, as a country? That's really where the threat is. Not in terms of overall border management. Not in terms of a wall between the United States and Mexico."
Napolitano ended on that note, and Hawley's time was up.
Napolitano did not address the national security threat posed by gang members, possible terrorists, human traffickers and diseases that an open border presents.