Former Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told senators Tuesday that, if confirmed to lead the department, cybersecurity will be at the top of his priority list.
President-elect Biden announced his intention to nominate Mayorkas as the first Latino and the first immigrant secretary of Homeland Security in mid-November. Mayorkas served as deputy secretary at DHS from December 2013 to October 2016, and before that served as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2009 to 2013.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) blocked quick congressional consideration of Mayorkas’ nomination after the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, saying in a statement that Mayorkas “has not adequately explained how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border given President-elect Biden’s promise to roll back major enforcement and security measures.”
Though Mayorkas is likely to be confirmed by the Senate after the delay, Transportation Security Administration Administrator David Pekoske will take over acting secretary duties from FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor in the beginning of the Biden administration.
Mayorkas told lawmakers that “to enhance our cybersecurity, the department depends upon and must strengthen its cooperation with the private sector,” stressing that “the Department of Homeland Security is fundamentally a department of partnerships.”
“We are woefully unprepared from a cybersecurity standpoint in this nation and in our government and hope that as you look at this agency and your new responsibilities, assuming you are confirmed, that you will focus on bringing a whole different level of expertise both in defensive actions with regard to cybersecurity and offensive actions,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told the nominee. “And protect our government and our economy from those who would attack us in this new, most powerful way.”
Mayorkas said he was “incredibly proud” to serve as the deputy to Secretary Jeh Johnson, who “prioritized a very evolving cybersecurity threat, and we made tremendous advances in the department under his ultimate leadership.”
“The threat has only evolved and only grown since there and I can assure you that the cybersecurity of our nation will be one of my highest priorities, because I concur with you that the threat is real and the threat is every day and we have to do a much better job than we are doing now,” he added.
Mayorkas said he looks forward “to studying the SolarWinds attack” with the full intelligence at his disposal as DHS secretary. “What other defenses need we develop in the federal government to best protect our very valuable equities and resources?” he said.
Asked by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) whether he would support a standalone federal cybersecurity grant program “that would help state and local entities afford to take the steps that they need to strengthen their information technology systems,” Mayorkas said he looked forward “to considering a grant proposal” to “provide assets to those communities that don’t have them adequately to deal with a very sophisticated threat.”
“Senator, you raise a very, very important point because in the cybersecurity world we often say that we are only as strong as our weakest link. And we have to recognize that there are local communities that don’t have the financial or other wherewithal to really safeguard their cyber assets and thus protect against the threats that they confront,” he said.
“And there are a number of different solutions that we need to consider, whether it is improving our information sharing so that the best practices of one geography are shared with other geographies and we raise the bar across the board.”
Mayorkas gave the committee “tremendous praise” for standing up the young Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency “as the critical agency in the Department of Homeland Security that really owns the cybersecurity mission on behalf of the department.”
“CISA must improve the cyber hygiene of the federal government, of the many departments and agencies throughout it,” he said. “It must strengthen the public-private partnership not only for the benefit, of course, of the federal government but for the benefit of the private sector itself. I take stock of the fact that the Solarium Commission’s recommendation for a national cybersecurity director was passed. I think this is going to require an all-of-government approach and there is a great amount that will rest on the shoulders of CISA — and I hope I have the privilege to lead the department and support CISA in meeting those obligations.”