Former DHS secretaries to propose major reforms streamlining resources for cybersecurity, coronavirus threats

(Department of Homeland Security / Flickr)

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A bipartisan group including former Department of Homeland Security secretaries plans to recommend major reforms in July to improve the department’s response to emerging threats, including cyberthreats.

When President Trump ordered incoming flights from Europe to be screened for COVID-19 starting March 14, DHS couldn’t access the doctors, supplies or facilities needed to do that efficiently, Tom Warrick, the department’s first deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy, told FedScoop.

The result was seven-hour delays at major airports, even though DHS “knows precisely how many people are coming into the country each day through advanced passenger information data technology,” Warrick said.

Now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council‘s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Warrick will co-lead six study groups aimed, in part, at aligning resources with federal policies DHS must enforce.

Dubbed the Future of DHS Project, national security experts will tackle not only the coronavirus pandemic but “threats to democracy” — cyber-related issues ranging from election security to social media disinformation campaigns to the sabotage of critical infrastructure — intended to divide Americans.

“In the tech area, we’ve seen some great work being done by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, but it’s equally clear that a lot of what [Director] Chris Krebs is doing there isn’t getting anywhere near the attention or the support that it needs,” Warrick said. “And one of the things that we’re going to look at is the fact that DHS has added missions over the years, but the level of resources given to the department has not kept up.”

Ransomware plaguing cities like Atlanta, sowing chaos while Iranian hackers raise money, is another threat that needs greater attention, Warrick said.

Increased support for DHS must further trickle down to states, localities and individual businesses in the form of intelligence currently deemed too sensitive to share, he added.

The Trump administration issued a “very good” 5G wireless strategy, but there’s no money in the pipeline to implement it, Warrick said.

“A part of this is the fractured nature of the way congressional oversight works,” Warrick said. “There are more than 90 committees and subcommittees in Congress that have some role and responsibility for overseeing parts of DHS.”

At least 11 major think tanks have recommended streamlining the process, but none of them boasted a senior advisory board that includes former Homeland Security secretaries Michael Chertoff, Jeh Johnson and Janet Napolitano like the Future of DHS Project.

Delivering recommendations by the end of July ensures both political parties’ presidential transition teams and congressional leadership will have time to consider the reforms before the 2020 election.

Former White House officials, congressional staffers, industry stakeholders and think tank members will meet as part of six study groups beginning in a couple of weeks and running through mid-June, before a final report is issued in July. While the groups may eventually meet in person, for now, their meetings will be held virtually due to coronavirus concerns.

The first group will focus on what DHS’s mission should be and adjusting agency responsibilities where there’s overlap. Events at the southwest border in 2019 highlighted the problems that can arise when the public fails to support DHS’s mission, Warrick said.

“This is particularly true because we’ve started to see these organized efforts by foreign adversaries to target American democracy through how we handle elections, through social media, through disinformation campaigns,” he said. “And there needs to be somebody in the federal government that everyone looks to to say, ‘Defending us from this kind of threat is your job.'”

The second group will consider how DHS handles public-private partnerships, a model that hasn’t kept up with advances in technology over the past decade, Warrick said.

Group No. 3 will address how DHS aligns policymaking, a top-down interagency process led by the White House, with resources generally allocated from the bottom up, components to headquarters.

The fourth group will explore how DHS strengthens the capabilities of foreign partners, currently a “dual-key system” between that department and the State Department that can create confusion, Warrick said.

DHS employees strongly support their department’s mission but have the lowest morale of the 17 large Cabinet departments, according to the 2019 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. For that reason, the fifth group will handle workforce issues and employee morale.

The sixth and final group will meet on streamlining legislative oversight.

Scowcroft launched the project in partnership with tech company SAIC and consulting firm Accenture.

“DHS sits at the center of national events, whether it is a pandemic, a natural disaster, or an attack on critical infrastructure. They are indispensable in preventing, preparing for, and responding to these threats,” said Amy Rall, vice president of homeland and justice programs at SAIC, in the announcement. “It is essential that they have the right policies, technologies, and key talent — government and industry partners — to succeed.”

The Future of DHS Project draws its name from the Future of Iraq project Warrick headed up while at the State Department in 2002, which grew into a $5 million, two-year postwar planning effort.

Not since 2004, when the Center for Security and International Studies and the Heritage Foundation evaluated DHS, has a think tank seriously done so. One of the results was DHS’s creation of the Office of Policy.

“Since then, there really haven’t been any serious efforts to try to understand the department,” Warrick said.

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Atlantic Council, coronavirus, Critical Infrastructure, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, Future of DHS Project, Janet Napolitano, Jeh Johnson, Michael Chertoff, Tom Warrick
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