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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Homeland Security Experts on the Biggest Threats and Challenges the U.S. Faces in 2021

Homeland Security Today asked top experts in various sectors of the homeland mission to discuss what they see as the greatest threats and challenges facing our country in the year ahead.


Greg Touhill

First Federal Chief Information Security Officer of the United States

As we enter 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic looms large as the most significant threat to national security and prosperity. Despite the encouraging progress in developing vaccines with astounding initial efficacy reports, widespread distribution and application of the vaccine to the American population should be the top priority. In conjunction with the distribution and application of the vaccine(s), the accurate and complete collection of data associated with the application of the vaccine and empirical measurements of the vaccine(s) efficacy are essential. This will present special challenges to policy makers as they address long-deferred issues such as identity and privacy security in the midst of the massive collection of essential data collection as part of the public health initiatives.

​Disinformation remains a huge threat to the United States and is likely to grow in magnitude and impact during 2021. I define disinformation as the knowing and deliberate creation of false information purposely designed to invoke sharp responses and influence target audiences to take actions shaped by the creators of the disinformation. Disinformation always is crafted around nuggets of truth to lure in their intended audience. Misinformation is the unwitting sharing of disinformation, often by those consumers of social media who share the disinformation without checking the source of the disinformation nor the veracity of the reports. Disinformation was used to attack the integrity of the U.S. election system in 2020 as well as key societal institutions. I suspect we will continue to see malicious actors using disinformation campaigns to shatter our societal fabric and undermine confidence in our constitutional government. Policy makers will be challenged to understand the nature of the issue and act wisely to counteract this threat vector without compromising our treasured constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech. The first step to understanding a problem is acknowledging that you have a problem.

Americans have traditionally thought of threats as external to the United States. We typically think of nation-state actors based in foreign capitals as threats. However, as illustrated during the widespread disinformation campaigns over the last five years, we are experiencing a wholly new threat landscape. Disinformation campaigns have encouraged and promoted a sharp polarization of American societal fabric. Pundits have posited that, left unchecked, disinformation campaigns magnified by widespread misinformation attacking the American people and our institutions could rip apart our republic. Some even forecast we are “headed toward a civil war” (which may even be deliberately crafted disinformation designed to incite violence!). Policy makers and leaders at all levels must take action to combat disinformation. We should launch a counter-offensive to disinformation. The counter-offensive campaign can include elements such as:

1) Inform the public they are under attack: Policy makers ought to join together in a bipartisan manner to inform the public that we are under attack by disinformation campaigns targeting the American people and our societal institutions. If this is not addressed in a bipartisan manner, we will fail and the attackers will win.

2) Give the American public the tools to defeat the threat: We already have the tools; we just need to point them out to the American people. Sadly, online platforms deliberately analyze your browsing histories and serve up content they believe you will be interested in. They track where you like to get your information from and prioritize those sources. The result is that many Americans are caught in what some call an information “echo chamber,” where all they see is information curated and tailored to conform with the reader’s preconceived favored opinions. Malicious actors understand this and feed those engines to steer sentiment and opinions to meet their strategic objectives. We can change the public discourse by encouraging the public to “change the channel” and seek out other information sources, including those that don’t espouse opinions or conclusions we’d naturally share. When we only seek out information that conforms to our opinions, we don’t get all the facts and make bad decisions. When that happens, our adversaries win. ​From a policy standpoint, policy makers can work with online platforms and social media companies to retire the algorithms that censor alternate views from the consumers and create the “echo chamber,” thereby restoring a more open and civil public discourse of ideas.

3) Hold those who create disinformation accountable: Where clear evidence can be presented that a person or organization has willingly and deliberately created disinformation for malicious intent, those persons and organizations ought to be held accountable under our rule of laws. This is easier said than done. Preservation of our constitutional rights is paramount and under no circumstances should we abrogate them. However, identification of the root source of information is a powerful method of incentivizing the source to ensure that the information is verified and true.


Sandra L. Stosz

Retired Vice Admiral, U.S. Coast Guard, former Deputy Commandant for Mission Support 

I don’t know about everyone else, but I’ve been coping with the coronavirus constraints and consequences by hoping for a brighter 2021. I’m excited for the new year, because I do believe we have much to be grateful for and much to hope for with vaccines and new treatments coming more quickly than anyone could have expected. Hope for the future will shine through today’s hurts if we focus on the promise and possibilities that await.

As powerful as hope is, it’s a state of mind that must be backed by active leadership to achieve positive results. What our nation needs now, more than ever, is leaders of character who can inspire others to hope, and motivate them to achieve success. We need insightful leaders who understand the balance between hope and reality, and who seek value for their organizations in that murky space.

Leaders of character must understand that the coronavirus pandemic has impacted employees and business partners in different ways. In many cases, leadership and middle management have successfully transitioned to working from home, thanks to enabling technology. At the other end of the spectrum, front-line and service-sector employees may be invisibly struggling to support themselves and their families. There is no better time for leaders to set aside time to personally check in with all echelons of their workforces, and the workforces of the organizations on whom their business depends.

The best long-term antidote to the coronavirus may not be a vaccine, but resilience. Now is the time for leaders to examine their organizations to assess strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. They need to think about where they fell short in meeting the pandemic challenges, and where they can make permanent changes and improvements to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that will arise when our hope becomes the reality of a brighter 2021.

Now is the time for leaders of character to focus on their most important resource: their people. They need to ensure that their employees all have an equal chance to achieve personal and professional resilience so they can share in the organization’s success. As the economy adjusts to the pandemic, as lockdowns are eased, leaders must be prepared to meet unforeseen threats and challenges. They must encourage and reward innovation, challenging people to think differently and not be afraid to “fail with purpose” as they stretch for a goal. Leading with character means trusting one’s employees, and those who do so will build the resilience necessary to weather any storm.


Matthew Albence

Former Acting Director, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

I think one of the major issues for 2021 will be immigration/border security. It has been largely placed on the back burner due to the pandemic, but once things in that regard begin to normalize, the border is going to explode, and the increases we have seen at the end of 2020 are clearly ominous. The incoming administration realizes this, as does the mainstream media, as both have addressed it recently, with the Biden administration already seeking to temper expectations with regard to its campaign promises, and the Washington Post doing some extensive reporting on the challenges and intricacies of canceling both the Title 42 order as well as other Trump administration initiatives/regulations that have significantly curtailed the flow but are expected to be rolled back.

I fully expect that the terrible conditions and humanitarian crisis that we saw in 2019 will reappear in 2021, and there have been no changes to the infrastructure (and now reduced funding in the FY 21 budget in critical areas, such as detention and transportation) that will enable the responsible agencies (CBP/ICE/HHS) to be in a better position to respond and/or manage.


Brian Harrell

Former Assistant Director for Infrastructure Security, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)

When companies think about security, they most often think of securing their networks, infrastructure, and critical assets against cyber and physical attacks. But supply chains, comprising traditional manufacturers or third-party service providers, are also vulnerable to security risks. We have seen this in 2020 with a litany of major data breaches via third parties and 2021 will be no different. Security practitioners should strongly consider diversifying their supply chain. Don’t rely on one source for materials or products as that source may become compromised or unable to ensure confidentiality, integrity, or availability of their products or services. Establish reliable secondary suppliers in different regions to minimize this risk.

From the extreme right to the extreme left, we are also seeing an uptick in extreme political activism, often resulting in violence or harm to infrastructure. The fear and panic that accompanies the current pandemic response environment, intensified by the isolation many are experiencing, is exploited by malicious nation-state and domestic actors that seek to advance their own agendas and undermine political, healthcare, and other response systems and operations. In 2021, we will continue to see this exploitation through active disinformation campaigns from groups such as QAnon, and other right- and left-wing media sites. Remember, disinformation stops with you.


Stephanie Yanta

Supervisory Special Agent, FBI

The FBI’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Center (BAU-1/BTAC) remains concerned about threats and acts of targeted violence. Targeted violence may result from a personal grievance, may be ideologically motivated, or can often be an amalgamation of the two. Acts of targeted violence can be perpetrated by an individual/lone actor or, as we have recently witnessed, groups of individuals sharing the same grievance(s)/ideologies. Importantly, extensive research and operational experience have shown there is no “profile” of an individual intent on engaging in a violent act. Violent offenders cross genders, ages, socio-economic status, ethnicities, etc.

Significantly, acts of targeted violence are rarely impulsive, emotion-driven or spontaneous. People just don’t “snap.” Instead, perpetrators of targeted violence consider, plan and prepare. These behaviors are often observable thereby providing an opportunity for early engagement and disruption prior to a violent act occurring.

Notably, in recent months and as recently as a few weeks ago, groups of individuals have engaged in violence within our communities largely as a result of the tumultuous, fluid and volatile social and political climates facing our nation. Herein, it is important to recognize and differentiate between targeted violence, general criminality and the impact of group think – the idea that otherwise well-intentioned individuals ultimately make poor decisions in order to conform to the group and/or feel they are unable to oppose the group’s actions.

Prevention of acts of targeted violence may be achieved through properly implemented threat assessment and threat management (TATM) principles. Effective threat management relies heavily upon thorough, accurate, and holistic threat assessment. The FBI’s BTAC is a national-level, multi-agency, multi-disciplinary Task Force focused on the prevention targeted violence through the application of behaviorally-based operational support, training and research. TATM assistance from the FBI’s BTAC can be obtained through your local FBI office’s designated BAU Threat Management Coordinator or one of the BAU Coordinators.


Greg Marshall

Former Chief Security Officer, Department of Homeland Security

Internally, I believe the United States faces very real threats from domestic violent extremists who have taken sides on both the left and the right. Many conservatives believe the presidential election was “unfair” and “stolen,” and those government institutions designed to review and remedy citizen grievances (courts and state governors, and state legislatures) largely ignored their pleas of redress and what conservatives believe was “evidence” of election fraud and criminality. These facts, I believe, have caused a rise in political activity and concern among ordinary citizens on the right across America.
Most liberals never accepted the last presidential administration. The Mueller investigation, impeachment, Kavanaugh hearings, and General Flynn conviction, among others, were examples of what most conservatives believe were liberal overreach. These actions, combined with the Nov. 3 election outcome, have exacerbated the divide between the left and right and have emboldened people and organized groups on both sides.
“Defunding the police” efforts continuing in some jurisdictions will cause rises in violent crimes; specifically shootings, aggravated assaults, and murders. We are already seeing these crime spikes in major U.S. cities. This is a threat to our quality of life. Antifa, BLM, and similar groups, I believe, will continue their efforts in some American cities and certainly pose a risk to U.S. citizens in each of those cities.
COVID-19 obviously remains a very serious threat in the U.S. As the virus mutates this winter and spring, and the vaccine rollout continues, the federal government will need to continue their close coordination with all states and territories to meet the threat head-on, and quickly make any adjustments as necessary.
I see the potential for the COVID-19 pandemic to be further exacerbated in the U.S. if entry from Central and South America is relaxed or not enforced on the southwest border. The pandemic is widespread within countries in those regions.
Worldwide debt from emergency COVID-19 spending is erupting. I see a serious risk, potentially, to the U.S. economy. Federal and state leaders will face tough decisions balancing public health concerns and local budgets with regional and national economic stability.
Cyber threats (internally and externally) to the U.S. will likely continue and grow, especially when you consider the internal climate of unrest we face here.
Externally, I see China, Russia, and Iran remaining as our most preeminent adversaries, especially on the cyber front.
I also view Iran to be a larger threat to the U.S. Iran has extensive anger at the U.S. for the killing of Soleimani, and has threatened retaliation against the U.S. Combine this fact with their renewed actions to produce a nuclear weapon, it appears we (and our allies) are headed toward a confrontation down the road.


Steve Karoly

Former TSA Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis

1). Implementation of REAL ID: The REAL ID Act established the mandate of minimum security standards for license issuance and prohibits federal agencies from accepting non-REAL ID compliant forms of identification at federal facilities and boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft. This means that every U.S. air traveler will be required to present a REAL ID-compliant license or another acceptable form of identification, such as a U.S. passport, to board a domestic flight. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the implementation of REAL ID by one year, now planned for October 2021, giving states, through their Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) offices, an additional year to issue these forms of identification. However, in October 2020 it was reported that only 110 million REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses and identification cards have been issued (approximately 40 percent of all driver’s license holders). This means that an additional 165 million REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses and identification cards still need to be issued to have 100 percent compliance by October 2021. Given the normal challenges that accompany any new process change along with challenges of issuing IDs during a pandemic, I think it is fair to say that in October 2021 there will be air travelers who are at the airport who do not have the proper documentation to board their plane. That number of travelers could be in the thousands to hundreds of thousands. TSA needs to be prepared to handle this foreseeable situation from both an operational perspective in terms of developing nationwide doctrine and procedures and a personnel perspective in terms of ensuring the thousands of Transportation Security Officers are trained to execute those operational procedures.

2). Cybersecurity concerns within the contactless experience: Reducing touchpoints within the airport passenger screening process has been a focus area for several years now but the COVID-19 pandemic changed the timeline. The deployment and use of automation and self-service technologies through biometrics, electronic IDs, or mobile applications have accelerated in 2020 with expectations they will continue to accelerate in 2021 (and beyond). Although these new ‘conveniences’ give passengers a more seamless passenger experience, they also provide cyberterrorists additional opportunities to locate and attack system vulnerabilities. Although policies, processes, and technologies are normally put in place by companies to help prevent or limit security incidents and data breaches, we need to be sure their products that are being deployed in airport environments, along with the associated airport’s IT infrastructure, have similar policies, processes, and technologies in place to prevent or limit cyber incidents.

3). Insider threats: With the growing polarization of political views within the United States, the threat of domestic violent extremists becomes even more real from day-to-day and week-to-week. The aviation sector remains a clear target. With the aviation sector being so integrated across the aviation enterprise, mitigating the insider threat challenge has to be through a coordinated effort between the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and other governmental regulators, airport operators, and air carriers — thus the significant challenge facing the aviation sector. In May 2020, TSA released their Insider Threat Roadmap 2020 to guide TSA and the transportation community in mitigating the insider threat. The success in executing the details within the Roadmap depends upon the relationships TSA has with the airport operators and air carriers and their willingness to contribute to this effort. The next step is to mutually develop implementation plans that define the who, what, where, when and how for each insider threat focus area. But more importantly, the TSA/airport operator/air carrier team must agree that without each of their assistance, from a planning to execution perspective, the mitigation of the insider threat will not be accomplished nor will there be raising of the bar in terms of the security baseline.


Tom Essig

Former Chief Procurement Officer, Department of Homeland Security

America continues to be well-positioned to win traditional wars and defend against traditional threats. But the events of the past year have provided tremendous information to nations and groups, both foreign and domestic, that wish to harm the United States or destroy American democracy. And it’s not only with traditional methods or weapons. In fact, some of our greatest threats may be via non-traditional means, in areas where we have not yet developed strong and effective defensive measures. These include:

1. Disinformation: This has definitely been the year for it. Disinformation on social networks, in the news media, and even from elected officials has made it difficult to really know what the truth is. And polarized the nation to the point where many people don’t even seem to recognize or even care what the truth is, since they’re fully committed to their beliefs. It’s also proven to be an effective, while inexpensive and low- risk, weapon in the hands of those who would want to weaken America and/or our democracy.

Centuries ago, Sun Tzu advised in The Art of War to “divide and conquer” an enemy that is much stronger than you. America is probably still the most powerful nation in the world. But we arguably are more of a house divided today than at any other time since our Civil War. And that provides a huge opportunity for adversaries to exploit. Apparently, they have been doing so for some time, but we have yet to come up with an effective countermeasure and the very openness of our society provides a means for exploitation by adversaries. That makes it difficult to come together as a nation and provides great opportunities for our adversaries to divide and conquer.

But why is this disinformation so effective and why do so many people believe and act on it? Some of the reasons are psychological in nature such as:

· Tendencies to see things in a way that fits our preconceptions, or to read and accept as true only those things that we already believe.

· Widespread distrust of science and heavy reliance on anecdotal information – such as “the cold winter we’re having proves that global warming isn’t real.”

· Consequences of the pandemic. This has caused emotional and mental challenges for many of us and limited our ability to obtain reliable information. It has also caused severe economic difficulties for many, which may make them less likely to be receptive to truths that are difficult to accept.

Of particular concern is disinformation that is intended to further polarize the nation into camps that are unable or unwilling to work with each other, thereby dividing America and reducing our ability to act as one nation and significantly weakening our global influence; to erode or even destroy American democracy to the point that it no longer serves as a model for other nations; to inspire and coordinate actions of hate groups; or even just to win some votes. The specific goals of those who spread disinformation may vary, but they all seem to recognize that, for whatever reason, America today seems to be tremendously susceptible to disinformation and, as a result, creates the ability to use disinformation as a weapon – with very little cost or risk to the person, group, or nation using it. And that makes it a threat that must be dealt with.

Fortunately, many social networks have already started efforts to remove disinformation. It’s a step in the right direction but too much disinformation still gets through – at least for long enough to be viewed and spread by significant numbers of people.

Almost all of us use social media and are free to post pretty much whatever we want, within certain limits. For the most part, they’re wonderful fun and help us keep touch with friends and family and allow us to share our lives with them. But they’re also used by some with very different goals. Many of us freely provide extensive information about our background, likes, dislikes, and a lot more personal information. And many of us have also completed numerous surveys and trivia exercises on social networks. They’re fun – but all of that information creates an enormous database that can be used for reasons we might never dream of. In fact, it may be the largest intelligence gathering operation in history – certainly one of the cheapest. In unscrupulous hands, it can and is being used to advance goals that are detrimental to us and our nation. And further polarize us. For a very entertaining example of how this information might be used at the national level, take some time to view the HBO movie Brexit. While it is a fictionalized account of a real-life event, it does show how data in social networks can be used to change the direction of a nation.

2. Biological Attacks: Yes, I know there are international conventions that, at least in part, prohibit this. But our experience with COVID-19 shows how free societies may experience significantly greater health, economic and even military impacts from biological agents than closed societies that easily limit people’s freedoms. Most of us have also heard the debate regarding whether COVID-19 occurred naturally or in a lab, with most scientists concluding it had occurred naturally. But even if it had been created in a lab, it would be difficult to determine whether its release was accidental or intentional.

And, even though there are even stronger international agreements prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, there have been isolated cases where even those have been used. But what might happen if someone could use a banned weapon without anyone being able to determine who attacked them, or even that they had been attacked? No nation goes to war without the expectation of some casualties. But if you could control your casualties much better than your enemy and also have the opportunity for plausible deniability, would that increase the likelihood that such weapons would be used? I believe that the risk is too great to assume that the answer is no.

While there are a number of international agreements that cover bans on biological weapons, there are also a number of holes in them. A good first step then would be the elimination of those holes. This would also make all nations understand that we are aware of the risk and want to work with the rest of the world to eliminate that risk. Beyond that, our planning would be just as helpful against future naturally occurring pandemics. So, while it may have been 100 years since the last great pandemic to hit America, we cannot afford to assume that it will be that long before we need effective plans to counter the next.


Ajit Maan

HSToday Narrative & National Security Columnist, Founder and CEO of the Think-and-Do Tank Narrative Strategies

Hybrid strains of Domestic Radicalization. Some threat-casters might say foreign influence is a major threat. I agree but those threats, wherever they originated, have become domesticated and have taken on regional mutations. These are hybrid strains of domestic extremism and they will be engaged in all domain warfare.

We are seeing in the homeland the same techniques used in conflict zones to manipulate and recruit civilians to engage in terroristic acts.

The steps to radicalization include: convincing the target audience that they are victims and scapegoating groups or individuals as perpetrators of their victimization, pathologizing the targets’ stories, and then encouraging them to take violent action as a way to stop or reverse what has been described as the inevitable existential destruction of their identities. Watch for this pattern. We are seeing it already and it will come to full fruition in the next year.


Paul Cobaugh

Vice President, Narrative Strategies

I would argue that our most serious domestic threat for 2021 revolves around the ineffectiveness of the national security community to operate on the primary modern battlefield: influence. At the heart of this problem is a critically low national level of resilience regarding all types of malign influence via domestic and foreign bad actors. Although there are several serious threats on our plate, we are unable to address any of them successfully without the ability to settle on facts, common sense and truth. There is no limit to what our nation can achieve when unified, focused and observant of knowledge, data and wisdom.


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Homeland Security Today
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.
Homeland Security Today
Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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