Arab-American to become first Massachusetts homeland security
BOSTON --More than five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some people still feel nervous when they sit down on plane next to a person from the Middle East. The wildly popular terrorism-themed TV show, "24," portrays Arabs as evil. Some radio talk show hosts casually use ethnic slurs to describe Arabs.
Massachusetts' new homeland security chief hopes her Lebanese heritage coupled with her background as a high-level counter-terrorism expert will help chip away at negative perceptions some Americans hold when it comes to Arabs and terrorism.
"I watch "24" like everyone else. There is no Arab on that show who is not a terrorist or ex-terrorist," said Juliette Kayyem, who officially becomes undersecretary of homeland security on Monday. "I hope the American public can separate fiction from fact, but I worry that the only representations of Arabs on TV are as terrorists."
In an interview with The Associated Press, the 37-year-old Kayyem said her being chosen by Gov. Deval Patrick to head the homeland security office is an example of Arab-Americans rising to influential positions throughout American society. At the same time, she said her heritage is incidental to her ability to perform her new job.
"I hope I would have been chosen whether I was Arab-American or not. Arab-Americans are reaching the highest levels of their professions, and that is great," Kayyem said. "And I think it says something that in national security, that hasn't been true. I think the national security community has not been that receptive to people of a variety of descents."
Massachusetts has never had a homeland security chief before, so Kayyem has no predecessor to brief her.
Kayyem said her first priority is to assess the state's preparedness. The federal government lists Massachusetts -- where two of the planes involved in the 9-11 attacks were launched from Logan International Airport -- among the five states most likely to be involved in attacks.
While nuclear threats have been assessed exhaustively, Kayyem sees a need to review the state's vulnerability for attacks involving liquefied natural gas. In addition, she cites a desire to review the potential threat from bird flu.
Kayyem isn't a latecomer to involvement with anti-terrorism efforts.
Two years before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she was one of 10 people appointed to the National Commission on Terrorism. Congress created the commission to evaluate the growing threat against the United States and to evaluate the nation's laws and policies pertaining to terrorism. The commission was chaired by Ambassador Paul Bremer and members included former CIA Director James Woolsey, retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing and presidential intelligence adviser Maurice Sonnenberg.
"These were heavy hitters. These were serious people," said Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser at the Rand Corp., a national security and foreign policy research organization.
Jenkins also advised the so-called Bremer commission and was present when Kayyem and the other members discussed national security and intelligence gathering.
"Juliette played a key role in that debate, and that was an extraordinarily thoughtful debate," he said. "Juliette had a knowledge of the details of the law and procedures, but put those into the context of a much broader discussion of politics, philosophy and American values."
Kayyem, who began her career as a civil rights trial lawyer, said she believes in balancing security with individual freedoms. Electronic surveillance -- such as monitoring phone calls -- is far less effective than human intelligence obtained through more traditional police work, she said. Instead, electronic surveillance is more effective as a "support mechanism" for human intelligence.
She does not consider racial or ethnic profiling is a highly effective defense against terrorism.
"The terrorists will alter their profile if we say we're profiling," she said. "And you have to weigh it (profiling) against the impact you're going to have against a community you're going to need cooperation from."
Patrick first hired Kayyem in 1995, when she was fresh out of law school and he headed the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division. She quickly became a policy adviser to Attorney General Janet Reno on homeland security issues.
After her stint with the National Commission on Terrorism, Kayyem became a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where she continued to work until her state appointment.
Kayyem is married to Harvard Law School professor David Barron. The couple have three children and live in Cambridge.
Arab-Americans are looking forward to Kayyem being another example of someone from that ethnic background breaking stereotypes stirred by the terrorist attacks.
Nidal Ibrahim, president of the Washington-based Arab-American Institute, said Kayyem's appointment will help raise the profile of Arab-Americans in key government positions. He cites as an example Army Gen. John Abizaid, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and five members of Congress: Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, and Reps. Darrell Issa of California, Charles Boustany of Louisiana, Nick Rahall of West Virginia and Ray Lahood of Illinois.
"We vote, volunteer and donate to political campaigns," Ibrahim said. "You're seeing quite a bit of activism, making sure our voices are being heard at all levels of national and local government."