DHS

Homeland Security vows change in face of cyber ‘pandemic’

Kirstjen Nielsen has plans.

The Department of Homeland Security secretary has a new plan for DHS to defend the American people. She envisions an agency, not just focused on preventing terrorist attacks, but one that helps stops a range of threats, such as cyberattacks, from other countries.

Those were just Wednesday’s announcements

Amid a crush of cyberattacks and hacking attempts against the U.S. government, Nielsen announced broad reforms to the Department of Homeland Security at George Washington University Sept. 5. But it is not clear if her plans will come to fruition or the exact mechanics of what will change.

Nielsen announced the reforms while providing an overview of cyberthreats against the United States and proclaiming the “re-rise of the hostile nation-state.”

Russia, Iran, North Korea and China are among the nations that are threatening the U.S. “at the highest levels since the Cold War,” Nielsen said.

“DHS was founded 15 years ago to prevent another 9/11, but I believe an attack of that magnitude is much more likely to reach us online than on an airplane,” Nielsen said.

“We have moved past the ‘epidemic’ stage and are now at a ‘pandemic’ stage — a worldwide outbreak of cyberattacks and cyber vulnerabilities.”

Nielsen’s comments portray this shift as one of the most ambitious in the department’s 15-year history, but details are thin.

She said the agency is overhauling its crisis response teams and advisory boards, but Nielsen did not give more details.

She said the department is reorganizing intelligence units into mission centers that are modeled after the CIA reforms, but Nielsen did not explain what those new centers were.

And she said the agency is shifting from a counterterrorism posture to focus on preventing nation-state interference. But it was not clear what would change.

Spokespeople for the department did not respond to a list of questions.

The plans may have lacked detail, but the cause of Nielsen’s reorientation was clear.

“Adversary nation-states are taking the fight directly to citizens,” Nielsen said, referencing Russian influence operations in the 2016 presidential campaign, as well as North Korean hacking.

Speaking about the new risk management center to reporters Sept. 6, Jeanette Manfra, an assistant secretary at DHS, said the agency has taken existing resources and repurposed them into a new structure.

There are “always additional resources that are useful, but we thought it was important to take what we had now, organize it more efficiently, and have these teams integrated so they are taking advantage of each other’s work,” Manfra said.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said Sept. 6 that DHS is renaming and reorganizing its National Protection and Programs Directorate to focus on cyber and physical security — but nothing broader.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said she supports DHS emphasizing cybersecurity but wanted more information.

“To my knowledge, [Nielsen] has not engaged [with the committee] and I would hesitate to do a major reorganization of the Department of Homeland Security without ongoing briefings with members of Congress,” said Jackson Lee.

“The idea that we are doing a massive reorganization, if I might, pre-midterm elections, in a fractured administration, with a president under investigation, and 427 children still not united with their families — totally assigned to the incompetence of the administration and Department of Homeland Security — I would question moving the chess pieces,” Jackson Lee said.

At George Washington University, Nielsen also laid out how new threats will require more than reorganizing the department, again calling on businesses to partner with the federal government.

“Neither private companies nor citizens are equipped to wage a battle against a Goliath. So we must partner together,” Nielsen said. Partnership is “the lifeline of America’s survival.”

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