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It Was My Choice To Leave Homeland Security, Selim Says


Our next guest worked in counterterrorism, serving three different presidents, including President Trump. George Selim's mission remained the same, to engage Muslim American communities. Selim worked in the Department of Homeland Security until last week. He recently resigned, saying the environment became too polarized, so much so, he could no longer be effective. George Selim joins us in our studios. Good morning.

GEORGE SELIM: Good morning.

GREENE: So why'd you resign?

SELIM: So a couple of things - first, I want to point out that when I left the Department of Homeland Security - my last day was last Friday - I left on my own terms. It was my choice to leave and my choice...

GREENE: You were not fired. You were not pushed away, you're saying.

SELIM: No, in fact, it was completely the opposite. Second, you know, the policies and programs that I work on, in fact, started underneath the Bush administration. They didn't start in the Obama administration, as has been often misreported. And third, you know, a combination of the hyper-partisanship here in Washington, budget cuts that we're facing in the presidential's budget request for fiscal year 18 and really, the role that I played in understanding how both the private sector and the federal government can work together on homeland and national security-related issues really helped me make the decision that it was time to leave government and try to be a vocal advocate for these issues from the outside.

GREENE: But this has been your mission for more than a decade. You've been in three different administrations now. I mean, why not stay in the fight, even if the work in government has gotten delicate?

SELIM: I think part of the way to answer that question is really understanding the role and function of the federal government in this space. Part of the great work that I got to do is build and establish a team of people, a grant program, a network of NGOs and civil society leaders, who could work on these issues, both at home and abroad. And understanding that that team had been built and was in place, I viewed my role as now needing to step out and potentially be more of an asset from the outside.

GREENE: But if your mission in the government was to build bridges and relationships with Muslim communities in the United States as a way to try and counter terrorism, does your leaving suggest that the federal government just can't do that effectively? It doesn't work. It's not the government's role.

SELIM: I don't see my leaving as being a sign of that, per se. But I do think that there's an important notion here, which is civil servants, like I was, you know, play a really pivotal role in building bridges and relationships, not just with Muslim, Arab or other communities but with all communities and with the American people.

You know, civil servants are often the gateway or conduit for Americans to interact with their government. And I'm just one person. And I think those relationships and those bridges will continue to be built and hopefully, much more so than when I was there.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about the position you were in because it seemed like you were just attacked from all different directions. And I want to work through that with you. I mean, there were some right-wing media who suggested that you and your office were just too close to extremists, to dangerous people. Is that fair? Did you - were there times when you gave dangerous groups a seat at the table?

SELIM: Absolutely not. And, in fact, you know, that goes back to the first set of questions you asked, which is why I left. I mean, the false and slanderous reporting that's come out around both me and my office has really fed this, again, what I refer to as a really hyper-partisan environment in Washington and around these issues.

I mean, when I think about the reasons that I came into government, to work on national security and homeland security issues, it wasn't to be a Republican or a Democrat or have any kind of formal kind of political position in government, but it was really to contribute to the national security of our country in a serious way. And I think that that type of reporting that's come out is not only false and misleading; I think it's actually detrimental to our homeland security.

GREENE: But did you - was there ever a time, even one meeting, among the many, many meetings that you have, where you left with a pit in your stomach, saying I might have just met with someone dangerous? I don't know.

SELIM: I mean, so first of all, as a Homeland Security or national security professional, you know, you meet with all types of people. And you want either a Homeland Security, a Department of Justice or an FBI person engaging with someone if they may or may not be, you know, someone of interest.

So, you know, part of our job - part of my job was to engage with a whole spectrum of people. And if there's something that reached the level of, you know, suspicion or something in that - to that regard, it's my duty to bring that to law enforcement. But I can assure you that in no way, shape or form was there an enabling of some type of nefarious action.

GREENE: There were Muslim communities that felt like they were being targeted. This is looking at another criticism, like it was - working with Muslim communities, per se, presumed a threat that didn't exist.

SELIM: Yeah, that - that's another misnomer that's often been discussed. And the truth is, all the programs we did underneath my tenure at DHS, at the Justice Department and in my time that I spent in the National Security Council, all the work that we did in engaging with communities was voluntary. The federal government was acting in response to requests for engagement, in requests for programming, in requests to help demonstrate or clearly communicate what the threat of radicalization and recruitment is in the homeland. And I think we fulfilled that role.

GREENE: How do you see the Trump administration carrying out the work you were doing?

SELIM: You know, I think history's going to be a real judge of that. How many people are going to be working on initiatives to counter violent extremism? What's the budget going to look like? Is it going to increase? I mean, in the past, you know, dozen years, the Countering Violent Extremism program has really been in evolution, from the Bush to the Obama administrations. If there's a marked shift in the number of people or the amount of dollars that work on these initiatives in the downward trend, I think that's going to be a significant tell of what these programs will ultimately become in the years ahead.

GREENE: OK, speaking with George Selim, who worked in the Department of Homeland Security on programs to counter violent extremism. He recently resigned and was speaking through that decision with us. Thanks so much for joining us this morning. We appreciate it.

SELIM: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.