Homeland Security

DHS Secretary cryptic on cyber

John Kelly -DHS official photo 

DHS Secretary John Kelly said cybersecurity threats are "relentless" in an April 18 speech.

Federal government networks and American critical infrastructure systems are under constant cyber bombardment -- on an hourly basis -- said Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly in his first public speech since taking office.

"The threats are relentless," Kelly said in a April 18 talk at the George Washington University.

Nation states, cyber criminals, lone wolves and cyber terrorists are carrying out attacks for a host of different reasons, the secretary said.

"These attackers steal intellectual property, personal data, and health information," said Kelly. "They are thieves, vandals, saboteurs, enemies of democracy and potentially so much more."

While Kelly's remarks were long on the threats posed by cybercriminals, he was short on any new policies or approaches to confront the threats.

"We have a long fight ahead of us to ensure the security of our nation's networks," said Kelly's prepared remarks, though he omitted reading a section titled "A New Approach to Cyber" during his talk.

"We cannot let the plodding pace of bureaucracy slow us down," the prepared text read. "[T]hat's like sending troops to take Fallujah armed with muskets and powdered wigs. We have to be proactive, and we have to think differently."

"We're leading the charge in upgrading outdated systems," the prepared remarks continued. "Part of that is partnering with industry. By integrating their cutting-edge, commercially-available technology with our interagency partners' unique capabilities, we can aggressively defend our federal networks against the endless stream of cyberattacks."

Kelly said the department is working with the private sector to increase resilience in government systems. He is working to strengthen partnerships with the tech sector and recently met with executives at Microsoft. He stressed that the government cannot handle cybersecurity on its own and would not be doing as well as it is without the help of industry.

Without making any statements about possible policy prescriptions, Kelly warned that encryption continues to get stronger, to the point that terrorists are increasingly able to operate undetected.

The speech focused on terrorism, illegal drugs, transnational criminal organizations and cross-border trafficking, rather than cyber. Kelly also used the speech to criticize the media and Congress for what he described as ridiculing and insulting DHS personnel, which has led to DHS having the lowest morale of any federal agency.

"If lawmakers do not like the laws they've passed and we are charged to enforce -- then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws," said Kelly. "Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines."

Returning to cyber topics in a question-and-answer session, Kelly was asked which critical infrastructure sectors he would prioritize, and if there should be any restructuring of the National Protection and Programs Directorate. He declined to address either question.

He did, however, say he would "continue on steroids" the efforts to streamline the department.

When asked when the president's long-awaited cyber executive order might be released, Kelly replied, "I'm standing by with baited breath."

About the Author

Sean Carberry is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence. Prior to joining FCW, he was Kabul Correspondent for NPR, and also served as an international producer for NPR covering the war in Libya and the Arab Spring. He has reported from more than two-dozen countries including Iraq, Yemen, DRC, and South Sudan. In addition to numerous public radio programs, he has reported for Reuters, PBS NewsHour, The Diplomat, and The Atlantic.

Carberry earned a Master of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, and has a B.A. in Urban Studies from Lehigh University.

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