Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and her two predecessors took the stage in Gaston Hall on Tuesday morning to discuss the evolution of their department and the current state of national security.

Presided over by NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell, the talk focused on commercial aviation, relations with the Middle East, homegrown terrorism and cyber threats.

“I think it’s very interesting to have the three of us on stage because this is an ongoing product,” said Tom Ridge, a former homeland security secretary who was featured in the talk along with Napolitano and Michael Chertoff, his successor.

“All along the way … every secretary regardless of party has tried to improve upon and build.”

The Department of Homeland Security was created in the wake of 9/11 and has continuously grown since to boast a more layered and intricate approach to national defense. Sponsored by The Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Program and the School of Foreign Service, the panel was held in celebration of the eight-year anniversary of the department’s founding, which became official on March 1, 2003, when it absorbed the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“This event gives us an opportunity to reflect on the changes in our world since Sept. 11, 2001, and the ways in which the United States government has responded to these changes,” University President John J. DeGioia said in his introductory remarks.

While the three secretaries all praised the evolution of the department, there was some controversy. The department’s spending flexibility priorities were a particularly polemic point.

“This is about risk management, not risk elimination,” Chertoff said. “A judgment is made about how you look at the money. I know it’s not fashionable to look at that distinction in numbers, but as a policymaker you have to make that difference.”

Napolitano emphasized the value of research, particularly that of university students interested in cyber defense or commercial aviation studies.

“The problem with cyber security is that it is really a fast moving field, and quite frankly, probably none of us on this stage are as good as understanding it [as] someone who is 20 years old. It’s where we’re really trying to hire people.”

She also lamented the reduction of research and development throughout the government.

Foreign relations, particularly those with the Arab world, were another hot-button topic. Ridge named multiple terrorist groups in the Middle East, but stated that he believes that Iran is the greatest source of terrorism.

Western influence in the region has significantly diminished due to failed negotiations and sanctions, according to Ridge.

“There is a vacuum of power,” he said. “Some of these vacuums will be filled by repressive leadership. Iran is a major, major problem for the U.S.”

Shifting focus to domestic security, Napolitano stressed the newfound importance on civilian support. She highlighted the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign announced in December, which hopes to encourage civilians to report any suspicious activity they may witness.

“It is so important to have a security architecture that is recognized where everybody has a role,” Napolitano said.

Students at the talk said that they were thrilled by the chance to hear from the policymakers. Andrew Indorf (SFS ’11) is preparing for a role-play project in former Secretary of State and Mortara Distinguished Professor of Diplomacy Madeline Albright’s American Foreign Policy Toolbox course, in which he will be portraying Napolitano. For the class, he is required to provide a strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and create a plan to guide a peaceful transition of the two societies into autonomous entities after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“It was truly an amazing opportunity to hear Secretary Napolitano speak, especially as I prepare to play the Secretary of Homeland Security,” Indorf said. “While I wasn’t surprised by the objectives she stated for America’s Af-Pak strategy, the discussion today highlighted the multiplicity of issues that concern the Department of Homeland Security. As the secretary put it, the departments responsibility is to ‘manage risk.'”

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