Former Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Talks Current Events with Harvard Students


Former United States Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Juliette N. Kayyem '91 spoke to Harvard College students about her experience in public service and her perspective on various current homeland security issues at a Q&A session Wednesday.

Kayyem has worked with both the Massachusetts government and the Obama administration on Homeland Security issues ranging from terrorism to the H1N1 pandemic and is now a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. The event — hosted by the Harvard University Foreign Policy Initiative — covered a wide range of topics, including white supremacy and the current administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kayyem spoke on increased hyperpolarization in United States politics and the ways politicians can contribute to this radicalization.

“This is where a leader uses his pulpit to incite — through speech or Twitter feed or debate — to incite violence that is interpreted by the followers as approval and domain [...] but allows the leader to have plausible deniability,” she said.


When asked how she would advise national leaders on COVID-19 policies, Kayyem said that while the military is often proposed as a solution for vaccine distribution, she does not believe this should be their role.

“The military has to be very careful about being viewed as settling political differences,” Kayyem said.

Instead, she said she believes that governors should be in charge of vaccine distribution.

“The vaccine distribution is going to be very, very political,” Kayyem said. “I would rather have a civilian entity, a civilian expert who knows how to do this.”

Andrew J. Shaw ’24 asked Kayyem about the role of traditionally nonpartisan representatives — particularly if officials, like former United States Secretary of Defense, General James N. Mattis, should take political stances against President Donald J. Trump.

“My barometer would be: If I don't speak and, let's say with Trump, the person is reelected, how will I feel the next day?” Kayyem said.

Mattis resigned from his post as Secretary of Defense in late 2018 after Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Syria and Afghanistan against the advice of advisors like Mattis. Since his resignation, Mattis has criticized the president for ordering the U.S. military to quell protests in cities across the country after the police killing of George Floyd.

Kayyem added that this is a unique time in US politics and predicted that we could be hearing more from Mattis in October, closer to the election.

Heidi D. Jacobson ’24, who attended the event, said she was inspired by the perspective Kayyem shared during the discussion.

“I really liked the way that she seemed to go after her goals,” Jacobson said. “I’ve never really talked to someone who's in this field, or actually even gotten any sense of what it would be like and I think that just seeing her was kind of inspirational for me.”

This event is the second in a speaker series hosted by HUFPI centered around discussing foreign policy and international events.