Cybersecurity

Will DHS leadership upheaval affect CISA?

Image: Casimiro PT / Shutterstock 

As the Department of Homeland Security scrambles following the abrupt departures of Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and number of top officials, the newly formed Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency could get caught up in the chaos.

But so far, the mission of CISA remains stable, said CISA Assistant Director Jeanette Manfra.

"The professionals will keep doing their jobs regardless of the politics," she said at an April 10 event hosted by the Atlantic.

Following the event, Manfra expanded, saying while "it's unfortunate to lose Kirstjen Nielsen and [acting DHS deputy secretary] Claire Grady" because of their cybersecurity focus, "we are fully empowered to execute the priorities of CISA."

While the change in leadership certainly presents a disruption for the top personnel of the agency, "it really has no impact on our mission," she said.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), co-chair of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, said that so far the rapid changes aren't affecting the cybersecurity mission.

"There is quite a bit of upheaval at DHS, but so far it hasn't impacted their cybersecurity people, yet," Langevin said.

Langevin added while he was confident in the leadership of Manfra and Christopher Krebs, the director of CISA, he said he hoped the leadership tumult at DHS "doesn't reach down to their levels."

Moving forward, however, Langevin said he was "very concerned whoever's going to replace [Nielsen] doesn't see cyber as a big a priority as she did."

One of the areas CISA is ramping up is its focus in 2019 is election security. It's an open question as to whether the next DHS secretary will make cybersecurity a major agency priority.

Langevin said because Nielsen was ousted over disagreements about implementing stricter and immigration policy, there is the possibility the next nominee won't have a similar cybersecurity background or focus as Nielsen did.

President Donald Trump's pick to serve as interim agency head is Kevin McAleenan, the current commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

Manfra said the two tasks forces set up to coordinate DHS' response to electoral influence from foreign actors had been "merged into one" and that the department was "more institutionalizing" the role of the task forces.

In the meantime, combatting foreign influence and augmenting election security "remains one of our top five priorities for CISA," she said.

"We still have a group of people that are 100% dedicated to it," she said. "And as we build up to the 2020 elections … we will continue to expand that, and Congress has given us some additional money."

As far as the specific policy directions and what the change in relation might entail for her office, Manfra said "it's early to know," but added she has spoken with McAleenan, and his background with tech at CBP, while not the same as Nielsen's, is encouraging.

"I don't see any kind of change to our approach or our ability to do our job," she said.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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