DHS nominee faces Senate

Kirstjen Nielsen told a Senate committee that a planned border wall won't span the entire southern border and that cyberattacks have entered a more potent phase in their evolution.

Kirstjen Nielsen 2015 world economic forum davos creative commons credit Valeriano DiDomenico
 

Kirstjen Nielsen is President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

Kirstjen Nielsen, the nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, told a Senate committee on Nov. 8 that a planned border wall won't span the entire southern border and that cyberattacks have entered a more potent phase in their evolution.

In a two-and-a-half hour hearing in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Nielsen fielded questions on cybersecurity, the border wall, counterterrorism and natural disaster response

For the most part Nielsen adhered to her predecessor John Kelly's tack on key issues, including the controversial border wall. Like Kelly, she told the panel that technology would play a very important role in defending the southern border. She said the proposed physical barrier would not extend from "sea to shining sea" and assured the committee she would rely on on-the-ground border agents for advice on how best to blend physical and tech elements for better security.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del) took issue with Nielsen's lack of chief executive experience, as she prepares to lead an agency with 240,000 employees.

"I think you're smart," said Carper, but he called Nielsen's lack of experience leading a big organization "concerning."

Nielsen responded by saying that the management skills she honed in the Bush administration and at federal and commercial management jobs would "translate" to DHS top job.

Combatting increasingly potent cyberattacks will be a priority if she gets the job, she told senators. That includes insuring that states have the help and resources from DHS to secure their election systems.

"The scope and pace of cyberattacks against our federal networks and the control systems that run our critical infrastructure are continually increasing, with attacks growing evermore complex and each more sophisticated than the last," said Nielsen in her opening statement. "Cyber criminals and nation states are continually looking for ways to exploit our hyperconnectivity and reliance on IT systems."

Nielsen also backed an existing plan to rename and rebrand the National Protection and Programs Directorate.

"The name is confusing," she said, adding that it doesn't adequately make clear the role in protecting critical infrastructure. Efforts to change its name to Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection Agency, as well elevate it to an operationally focused component agency, have been in the works since 2015.

"Cyber has to be part of the operational mission" of agencies, Nielsen said. Agencies should be able to "find the best way to balance personnel at headquarters and those in the field."

Nielsen's a background is in national security policy, cybersecurity, critical infrastructure resiliency and emergency preparedness and response. She also worked as administrator of the Transportation Security Administration's Office of Legislative Policy and Government Affairs.

Most recently, she served as Kelly's chief of staff during his brief tenure at DHS, and followed her then-boss to the White House when Kelly was named chief of staff in July.

Cybersecurity came up in questioning about port security and the post office's efforts to stop the influx via the mail of the opioid Fentanyl. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) asked if Nielsen would support legislation that would mandate the Post Office implement package-tracking technology that other providers such as FedEx and DHL have implemented.

Nielsen said she would not only support such legislation, but also might have DHS provide technical assistance.

Election security also was on the senators' minds. Nielsen was asked about DHS preparations to help state election officials insure their systems' cybersecurity in the run up to the 2018 election.

Nielsen said the issue is front and center for her.

"When I went to vote this week in the Virginia election, I was quite concerned with the scanning machine and started asking a variety of questions on what the security was on the scanning machine for the ballot," Nielsen said. "I think we all have to be very aware and work with the state and locals."

Nielsen committed to getting state election officials security clearances to see DHS' threat information and protect their systems.

She also offered some ideas on how states could secure their systems.

"I also would offer, redundancy is very important on the back end with the audits," she said. "Whether it's paper ballots or physically moving the ballots, as they do in California as chaperoned by the highway patrol, we need to ensure the integrity of our electoral system."

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the committee's ranking member, told Nielsen she valued former DHS Secretary Kelly's ability to answer questions from the committee's majority and minority "frankly." She told Nielsen that "Americans crave leadership that brings us together."

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