Two days before the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said that the department must adapt to a world “where threats are dynamic” and the “need for operational flexibility is paramount.”
“More than 17 years after the department was founded, our resolve to safeguard the homeland has never been stronger,” Wolf said in the annual State of the Homeland address Wednesday. “But the threats have changed. They are more complex. More sophisticated. We were established in 2003. Before iPhones existed that could be used to control drones. Before terrorists used cryptocurrency to fund their evil plots. Before foreign nation states used Twitter to proliferate their disinformation campaigns. Our challenges today are unimaginably different than those of our past. Threats shift. And so must we.”
Former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, former Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke, former Under Secretary of Management and Acting Deputy Secretary Claire Grady, former United States Coast Guard Commandant, TSA Administrator and Deputy Secretary Jim Loy, and former Acting Director of ICE Tom Homan were at DHS headquarters for the address.
Wolf said that “thanks to the support of Congress, the innovation of DHS employees, and the support of the American people, we are better prepared than ever before to meet the dangers of our time, though we still have much to do.”
He criticized “a vocal and ill-informed minority” that “has clamored to paint recent DHS actions as examples of mission drift or politicization” and dismissed that criticism as “baseless sensationalism.”
“I can confidently say, if the department did not exist, every effort, every response and every action to secure our Homeland would have been slower, inefficient and less effective,” he added.
Wolf listed as department successes over the past year the COVID-19 response, “protecting federal buildings and federal law enforcement officers from an emerging threat of violent rioters,” border security, “tightening our immigration system,” addressing threats from China, and “identifying and preventing malign foreign actors and nation states from interfering in our elections and protecting our election infrastructure.” He praised FEMA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the DHS Science & Technology Directorate, ICE Homeland Security Investigations, and Customs and Border Protection for their specific roles in the pandemic response.
“As we look ahead, terrorism, criminal actions threatening public safety, natural disasters and pandemics will remain threats to the homeland. They always will,” he said. “But today we are also seeing nation-states launching new aggressive tactics here in the homeland through cyber and economic means.”
Wolf did not mention international or Islamist terrorism in his address, but focused on violence at protests and “groups, right here at home, seeking to tear down our government institutions and our way of life” along with “all forms of violent extremism, to specifically include threats posed by lone offenders and small cells of individuals.”
“Just this week, we are releasing an implementation plan that outlines dozens of separate actions across the DHS enterprise designed to combat domestic terrorism and soon we will announce our Terrorism Prevention grant recipients,” he said. “Let me be clear – DHS stands in absolute opposition to any form of violent extremism. Whether by white supremacist extremists or anarchist extremists. We will continue our daily efforts to combat all forms of domestic terror.”
He did not expand upon broad cyber threats and cybersecurity challenges, but noted that CISA “is at the forefront guarding against nation-state actors’ cyber-enabled espionage and malicious influence activity aimed at all levels of government and industry.”
“CISA has made extraordinary and rapid strides bolstering the security of this most sacred democratic process. CISA leveraged unique cybersecurity technical services by funding the Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center that deploys and monitors intrusion detection systems on election infrastructure across all 50 states,” Wolf said. “The results were historic – 2018 was the most secure election in the modern era. Not resting on its laurels, CISA has only increased its protection in scope and impact as it pursues the goal of an ever-more secure election in 2020.”
Wolf said that “emerging from the horror of 9/11, the burden of grief and sorrow taught us to prepare for any adversity, not because we fear what trials may come, but because we know who we are as a people —independent and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal.”
“I believe these American values called to the men and women of DHS. It’s why you’re here. You apply yourselves to their defense daily — with integrity, vigilance, and respect,” he said. “You ensure every coming day is more secure than the one before.”
Wolf was nominated by President Trump for the DHS secretary position on Aug. 27, but a Senate hearing has not yet been scheduled to begin considering his nomination. A Government Accountability Office review issued earlier in August found that the acting secretary who appointed them, Kevin McAleenan, was improperly installed in his role per the chain of succession and therefore didn’t have the authority to amend DHS rules to pave the way for Wolf and Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli. DHS has dismissed the finding and the two have continued to serve in their leadership roles, and GAO has referred the matter to the DHS Office of Inspector General.