(DHS photo)

CISA’s Brian Harrell Focuses on Building Culture of Resiliency, One Threat at a Time

On the heels of a “bomb cyclone” that slammed the Missouri River Basin with catastrophic flooding and more than a billion dollars in damage, Brian Harrell heads for Nebraska. The mission of the assistant secretary for infrastructure protection is to visit various critical sectors – from public and private electric utility plants to chemical plants – and to discuss with federal and state emergency management leaders the devastation of the recent severe flooding, address security at a chemical facility, and meet with the Nebraska State Police.

“Today I was able to witness the flooding devastation in Nebraska firsthand,” Harrell told Homeland Security Today on Thursday, adding that his department, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), “is dedicated to providing assistance, expertise, and assessments to our dams, utilities, chemical plants, and infrastructure owners and operators in Nebraska.”

Flooding in Nebraska, March 2019 (DHS photo)

Marshaling CISA resources includes being in the field from Day One, coordinating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on aid, and dispatching protective security advisors to work with impacted critical infrastructure companies on the ground in Omaha and Lincoln.

“I viewed the destruction on the Platte and Missouri rivers, met with first responders and emergency managers at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and engaged the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) as they worked hard to restore transmission and distribution lines in their 13-county service territory,” Harrell said. “Resilient infrastructure, across all critical life-line sectors, is what will help us quickly respond and recover from events such as the historic flooding that we witnessed in Nebraska.”

“As the floodwaters recede, we must be mindful that the Missouri and Mississippi rivers pose the greatest threat for moderate to major flooding throughout the spring, which will likely impact essential services,” he added.

All in a few days’ work. And there’s so much more to do.

After the March 15 mosque attacks in New Zealand, CISA issued warnings to U.S. religious institutions “that we face an uncertain threat environment that reaches even into the most holy of places.” DHS liaisons are on high alert as recent attacks against houses of worship have hit both those of the Jewish faith in the U.S. and the Muslim faith in Christchurch.

Yet the threats – in addition to the successful attacks – are mounting and CISA can’t be everywhere.

So Harrell – now four months on the job – and the others in the infrastructure protection office work steadily to implement and execute Presidential Policy Directive 21 (PPD-21): Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience, which was released in 2013 and identifies the nation’s 16 critical infrastructure sectors along with plans to protect them. Each segment of critical infrastructure is headed by a “coordinating council” run by the complementary agency in the federal government.

Harrell, appointed by President Trump in December, assumed the job of being responsible for the nation’s infrastructure at a perilous time in history: the number and severity of natural disasters is increasing along with threats posed by man.

Flooding in Nebraska, March 2019 (DHS photo)

His job is incredibly difficult – not only because of the vastness of the nation’s critical infrastructure and the variety of threats against it, but because the government controls virtually none of it. Owners and operators of critical infrastructure are for the most part private-sector companies who are responsible for the security and delivery of the nation’s power, water, chemicals and more.

Fortunately, Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs) have been formed in many sectors to share threat information to prevent and mitigate an attack. Public-private partnerships have sprung up all around the country to help government and industry work together to prevent, protect, and respond to any type of disaster. After the Christchurch mosque shooting, CISA worked with the Faith-Based Information Sharing and Analysis Organization (FB-ISAO) to disseminate information on how domestic religious institutions should assess security.

Harrell approaches this responsibility with fresh zeal and transparency. “I believe it will take our entire community to protect the nation and its assets. We all need to understand the threats and how we can protect ourselves and our community from tragedy,” he said in an exclusive interview with Homeland Security Today.

This spirit of outreach is core to the Department of Homeland Security’s effort to drive a “whole of society” approach to combating threats, as described by Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in this month’s State of Homeland Security Address.

When it was the National Protection and Programs Directorate, CISA launched National Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Month to raise awareness every November about the joint responsibilities to protect the nation’s assets.

But DHS’ efforts to protect the nation have increasingly focused on resilience. Like FEMA’s focus on resilience and preparedness, so too has CISA focused attention on how we all must work as a whole community to protect ourselves, our families and others.

The department has recognized that the protection of our homeland is a job for everyone. The “first responders” are in our communities – they are our neighbors; they are us. You could save dozens of lives by reporting that suspicious bag. You could stop an attack on a facility by recognizing something odd. You could stop an insider threat breach by recognizing out-of-the-ordinary behavior.

DHS has recognized that, to truly protect the nation, every single citizen must understand their part in the security chain.

Kristina Tanasichuk is CEO of the Government Technology & Services Coalition and Executive Editor of Homeland Security Today. She founded GTSC to advance communication and collaboration between the public and private sector in defense of our homeland.  A leader in homeland security public private partnership, critical infrastructure protection, cyber security, STEM, innovation, commercialization and much more, she brings to HST decades of experience and expertise in the intersection of the public and private sectors in support of our homeland's security. Tanasichuk worked for Chairman Tom Bliley on electric utility restructuring for the House Commerce Committee, then for municipal electric utilities sorting out deregulation. She also worked for the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.; ran the largest homeland conference and trade show in the country; and represented public works departments In homeland security immediately after 9/11. Tanasichuk brings a new vision and in-depth knowledge of the federal homeland and national security apparatus to the media platform.  She is also the president and founder of Women in Homeland Security. She has attended the FBI and DEA Citizens Academies and the Marine Corps Executive Leadership Program and holds her undergraduate degree from St. Olaf College and an MPA from George Mason University.

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