Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said today that “obviously the campaign in Iraq and Syria is working” against ISIS, but that doesn’t dampen the threat posed by a would-be terrorist “sitting behind a computer doing whatever it is they do… looking at this content and getting inspired.”
Wolf, who was appointed to the role in mid-November, also told the Homeland Security Experts Group at the Wilson Center that he doesn’t want Department of Homeland Security election security efforts to give the impression that the agency is getting political, stressing that “government has to be very careful about validating one group over the other or seen as picking sides.”
“How do we educate the electorate, if we’re talking about elections… I don’t think the average American is sitting around thinking about this,” he said. “…We see the intelligence, we know their tactics and techniques, we know what they’re targeting — how do we push that out?”
In remarks at the outset of the event hosted by the HSEG co-chairs — former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) — Wolf addressed an “increasing threat from domestic actors, who adopt FTO [foreign terrorist organization] techniques to inspire individuals to violence.”
“The recent trend of Americans driven by violent extremist ideologies or personal grievances to commit acts of terrorism and targeted violence with little apparent warning creates a unique challenge to traditional law enforcement and investigation methods,” he said. “This threat is real and, at times, unpredictable, and has serious ramifications on Americans’ perception of safety.”
Wolf said DHS is “actioning the recommendations” put forth in a recent report of the Homeland Security Advisory Committee’s Subcommittee for the Prevention of Targeted Violence Against Faith-Based Organizations to implement better security to protect vulnerable faith-based institutions.
Calling the threat landscape “more complex and dynamic than ever,” the acting secretary said his “priorities are guided by a determination to ensure the department is robust, resilient, and forward-leaning — in 2020 and in the years to come.”
Iran, China, and Russia each “has a different motivation and end goal, but all attempt to undermine our interests and international standing,” he said, adding that though “there is no credible, specific threat to the homeland from Iran” issuing a National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin driven by a specific event for the first time in DHS history “was the right decision… to both inform and reassure the American public, state and local governments, and private sector stakeholders that DHS is actively monitoring and preparing for any specific, credible threat, should one arise.”
China “remains our most significant and persistent strategic adversary,” he said, employing “a number of tactics to undermine our influence and standing in the world.”
“While we value our partnership with Beijing to promote global prosperity, we are working to hold Chinese bad actors accountable for their malign activities,” he said. “When I stepped into this position, I found that each component at the department was addressing the China threat in their own silo, utilizing their individual authorities and in most cases were not coordinating across the department. A siloed approach is not sufficient to address this threat.”
“As a result, we have an effort underway to examine all our mission sets as they relate to China. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, the protection of critical infrastructure, countering weapons of mass destruction, supply chain integrity, immigration security, maritime security, transportation security, countering foreign interference, cybersecurity and counterintelligence. Through this effort, we’ll identify and prioritize threats and match our resources and capabilities accordingly.”
Wolf said that Russia “doesn’t seek to weaken our economy and surpass us on the world stage” but just wants to “disrupt and undermine the American way of life.”
“As we saw in 2016, we fully expect Russia to attempt to interfere in the 2020 elections to sow public discord and undermine our democratic institutions,” he said. “Let me be clear: We are prepared.”
That includes DHS “working to make sure the American people understand how the Russians seek to undermine confidence in our elections, and the simple steps they can take to avoid amplifying foreign influence campaigns.”
On border security, Wolf said that “our No. 1 duty as a country is to not only know who is coming into our country, but what is coming into our country,” citing drugs, money and weapons funneled by transnational criminal organizations and the need to work with southern partners to build a more secure region. “I think we can all agree that we don’t want countries like China or Russia permanently establishing influence in our backyard.”
The administration is on track to complete more than 400 miles of new border fencing — 100 miles already completed, 130 miles under construction and 200 miles in pre-construction — by the end of this year, he said.
“But let me be clear – while we have achieved great success over the past several months, we remain in a crisis with over 40,000 aliens apprehended every month crossing the border illegally,” Wolf continued. “This is not sustainable and we must do more.”
He warned that “travel restrictions may become necessary to mitigate threats” from “a small number of countries that lack either the will or the capability to adhere” to criteria on vetting foreign nationals.
“But let me be clear: travel restrictions are not based on the faith of the citizenry or the region of the world these countries reside. Instead, they are imposed because a country does an inadequate job of sharing information, or otherwise poses an elevated public safety or national security risk,” Wolf said. “When the safety and security of the American people is at stake, we don’t leave any room for error.”
The acting secretary stressed that “robust partnerships are critical to our success across the homeland security enterprise — from state and local law enforcement, to airlines, to cybersecurity companies, to disaster response organizations, and a variety of others.”
“Our private-sector partners are ultimately why we are successful at securing the homeland,” Wolf said.
Responding to questions, Wolf said of low DHS morale that “the workforce is resilient — they continue to meet the mission with success every day.”
“The political environment we have does not help,” he said, citing “attacks on CBP, ICE workforce just doing their job.”
DHS is just enforcing the laws, he added, and “if you don’t like the laws, go to Congress and have them change the laws.”
Wolf emphasized that DHS will roll with the changes in threats posed by adversaries and is looking 3 to 5 years ahead to be prepared. “When I leave the department, there will be a new set of threats,” he said.
Asked if he’s concerned that DHS is neglecting other mission sets to focus on border security, Wolf replied, “I can understand it may look like we only do border and immigration … men and women inside the department don’t feel that way.”