Homeland Security

Border wall isn't enough, intel on Russian hacking accurate, DHS nominee says

Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly (Ret.) 

Ret. Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly was quizzed by a Senate panel about his plans to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

A wall alone isn't sufficient to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and federal agency intelligence on malicious Russian cyber activity ahead of the election was accurate, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security told a Senate panel on Jan. 10.

"A physical barrier -- [speaking] as a military person -- won't do the job" of preventing illegal immigration, Gen. John Kelly told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in a Jan. 10 confirmation hearing.

The barrier, which was a cornerstone of Trump's presidential campaign, must be backed with technology, Kelly said. Aerostat aerial observation platforms, sensors, surveillance towers, unmanned airborne drones and simple human patrols can form "a layered approach" to border security, he explained.

Additionally, Kelly said, tighter relationships with countries where drugs and migrants originate, such as Peru and Mexico, should be a substantial part of border security strategy.

In questioning from committee ranking member Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Kelly also fully embraced the intelligence community's 'report on Russian hacking of the U.S. election. Kelly said he accepted with "high confidence" the intelligence on the hacking that found Russian agencies and its surrogates meddled with U.S. election interests.

While senators peppered Kelly with questions about DHS components' mission work, including border security, antiterrorism, immigration and drug interdiction, they were also interested in the headquarter agency's overall management.

Sen. Carper (D-Del.), for instance, asked whether Kelly would consider the reorganization or renaming of the National Protection and Programs Directorate, which has been a running effort by the agency that remains unresolved. "I saw that block on the org chart and wondered, 'What does that do?'" said Kelly.

"A name change could be important in this case," he said, adding that the current name didn't designate the importance of the operations. "We'll take a look at it," he said. "Several people outside DHS have brought it up."

Kelly also stressed his experience running vast bureaucracies. "I have held senior command positions in Iraq, served as the combatant commander of the U.S. Southern Command, and as the senior military assistant to two Secretaries of Defense," he said in his prepared statement. "These assignments -- while varied -- shared the common characteristics of working within and leading large, complex, and diverse mission-focused organizations, while under great pressure to produce results."

In remarks during the hearing, Kelly said he would continue to work to unify DHS using efforts much like current Secretary Jeh Johnson's "Unity of Effort" program. He also pointed to the Defense Department's better coordination under the Goldwater Nichols Act that made sweeping changes to that agency's management structure in the 1980's.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) brought up DHS' rocky history of troubled acquisitions, and asked Kelly what he would do about it.

"I have my work cut out for me," he responded. "We have some great people. I hope to retain some" and recruit others to help, he said. The department has to develop and "acquisition workforce" on a par with the Defense Department's, he said.

On cybersecurity, Kelly assured Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) he would work to get closer relationships with commercial companies to develop more innovative capabilities. "[Defense Secretary] Ash Carter reached out to the commercial world" for ideas, he said, suggesting he would build on those efforts.

Kelly told Sen. Lankford that greater cooperation between the various intelligence agencies and other agencies on cyber issues would be key. "Stovepiping" and closed agency operation "ricebowls" are the enemy of innovative cybersecurity, he said, and breaking those stovepipe down is imperative.

"Now is the time to act," Kelly said. "I believe we could suffer a catastrophic cyber event because we didn't do our job as government."

In a prepared questionnaire ahead of the hearing, Kelly said he endorsed President-elect Trump's call for an immediate review of all U.S. cyber defenses and address vulnerabilities, including critical infrastructure. He said as DHS secretary he would continue to support improvement of cyber technologies, the federal cybersecurity workforce, protections against insider threats and strengthening of federal civilian cyber hygiene practices.

The tone of the panel's questioning of Kelly was relatively friendly, although he faced some pointed questions from Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) about surveillance of mosques and Muslim registries. Kelly told Peters that he wouldn't bring back the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System program.

That now-defunct program was rumored to be a starting point for such a registry. In December, DHS canceled out the lingering regulatory structure that underpinned NSEERS, which it stopped using in 2011 because it was deemed outdated.

At the beginning of the hearing, McCaskill and other senators complimented Kelly on his ability to "speak truth to power." That ability, said McCaskill, "is music to my ears. Given your experience, I expect you to be up to that challenge"

McCaskill also warned Kelly that she would also be watching the agency's nitty-gritty operations. "You've got to be prepared to answer tough questions" about "contracting, cost benefit analysis" and other operations when budget request time rolls around, she said.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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