Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen argued Wednesday that a new “resilience agenda” is needed to confront an evolving threat landscape including borderless terrorism, the “re-rise of the hostile nation-state,” expanding cyberattacks, and emerging threats including drones that “are outpacing our defenses.”
In her address at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, Nielsen described the task of shuffling department priorities and “building resilience into everything we do, preparing our frontline defenders to protect America in a new age, and responding to these evolving threats.”
Noting this upcoming Tuesday’s 17th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Nielsen pointed to “new storm clouds forming on the horizon.”
“Our digital lives are in danger like never before. But it’s more than that. We are witnessing historic changes across the entire threat landscape. We can see the winds blowing and hear the thunder drawing closer once again,” she said. “The balance of power that has characterized the international system for decades has been corroding. America’s unipolar moment is at risk. Power vacuums are springing up across the globe and are quickly filled by hostile nation-states, terrorists, and transnational criminals.”
Nielsen said instilling a culture of resilience is about “bouncing forward” regardless of the attack and “leaning in against today’s threats while zooming out to prepare for those on the horizon, being adaptive to keep pace with our adversaries, identifying and confronting systemic risk, preparing at the citizen level, building redundancy and resilience into literally everything, and raising the baseline of our security across the board—and across the world.”
The resilience agenda needs to meet “five major shifts in our threat landscape.”
“First, and to set the stage—we must recognize that the ‘home game’ and ‘away game’ are no longer distinct. They are one and the same,” she said. “After 9/11, our strategy was to take the fight to enemies ‘over there’ so we didn’t have to fight them ‘over here.’ Unfortunately, that’s no longer the world we live in.”
Second, “terrorism and transnational crime have spread across the globe at fiber-optic speeds.”
“After 9/11, we faced a centrally-directed terror threat. But today the threat is everywhere,” Nielsen said. “The U.S. government has terrorism investigations in every single state. Self-made operatives are popping up across the globe. DHS stops ten known or suspected terrorists a day from traveling to the United States, and those are just the ones we know about.” ISIS and al-Qaeda, with at-home terror management, recruitment and training, “are quite literally turning Twitter followers into terrorist foot soldiers.”
The third concern, the DHS secretary said, is how “nation-state rivals are increasingly asserting themselves in ways that endanger our homeland.”
“In fact, threats to the U.S. from foreign adversaries are at the highest levels since the Cold War. Countries such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia are willing to use all elements of national power—financial, trade, cyber, espionage, information operations, and more—to undermine us and to advance their own interests,” Nielsen added, stressing that malicious influence campaigns are “not a fair fight.”
“Neither private companies nor citizens are equipped to wage a battle against a Goliath. So we must partner together,” she said, calling Russia’s 2016 campaign operation “a brazen, multi-faceted influence campaign to undermine public faith in our democratic process and to distort our presidential election.”
“Election security wasn’t a mission we envisioned for the department when it was created. But it’s now one of my highest priorities.”
Nielsen said she has “directed a shift from a ‘counterterrorism’ posture at DHS to a wider ‘counter-threats’ posture” to account for rising hostile nation-state activities. DHS is also taking a page from the CIA’s structure by reorganizing intelligence units into mission centers.
“Fourth, cyber attacks now exceed the risk of physical attacks,” she continued. “Don’t get me wrong: terrorists, criminals, and foreign adversaries continue to threaten the physical security of our people. But cyberspace is now the most active battlefield, and the attack surface extends into every single American home.”
“We have moved past the ‘epidemic’ stage and are now at a ‘pandemic’ stage—a worldwide outbreak of cyberattacks and cyber vulnerabilities,” the director added. “…The reason countries launch these attacks is simple: they can—and they think they can get away with it. Too often they have. Now more than 30 nation-states have cyber-attack capabilities, and sophisticated digital toolkits are spreading like wildfire.”
Nielsen pointed to this summer’s first-ever National Cybersecurity Summit and the future launch of the DHS National Risk Management Center as preparedness advances.
“But there is a roadblock preventing us from getting where we need to be. DHS wasn’t built for a digital pandemic. Our cybersecurity arm—the National Protection and Programs Directorate—needs to be authorized in law and transformed into a full-fledged operational agency,” she urged. “Today, I ask Congress to pass legislation immediately, and absolutely before the year ends.”
The fifth area of emphasis regarding threats outpacing homeland defenses was another call to Congress to make it easier for law enforcement to “identify, track, or take down dangerous drones.”
“Imagine a drone dropping a small bomb on a busy street. Or in a football stadium. Or releasing chemicals on a crowd at an outdoor concert,” Nielsen warned. On the subject of weapons of mass destruction, she noted how “we are seeing terrorists and nation-states more willing than ever to use chemical and biological weapons to conduct attacks.”
DHS is a portrait of resilience, the secretary said, and can serve as an example to others working at building a culture of resilience.
“We live in turbulent times. Some days it can feel as if there are more ‘critics’ than ‘doers,’ re-posting their rage online and trolling their fellow citizens on social media,” Nielsen said. “But the present discord in our discourse does not and will not define us. The 240,000 men and women of the Department of Homeland Security have found an antidote to this acrimony, and it’s called mission… I can tell you firsthand these patriots have thwarted real plots, real threats, and real danger to our people in just the nine months I’ve been on the job.”