Portman: DHS Nominees Have a Responsibility to Address Migrant Crisis at Southern Border, Combat Cyberattacks & Domestic Threats, and Ensure Preparedness During Extreme Weather

WASHINGTON, DC – This morning, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, delivered opening remarks at a hearing to consider key Department of Homeland Security (DHS) nominations, including John K. Tien to be Deputy Secretary, Robert P. Silvers to be Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy and Plans, and Jonathan E. Meyer to be General Counsel. Senator Portman highlighted the important responsibilities of these positions in his opening remarks, particularly the need to address the ongoing migrant crisis at our southern border and the influx of deadly synthetic drugs, like fentanyl, into the United States; combating the increasing prevalence of cyberattacks against the public and private sectors; countering acts of domestic terrorism while protecting civil rights and civil liberties; and finally, ensuring the agencies within DHS, like FEMA, are properly prepared to assist during extreme weather. 

A transcript of his opening remarks can be found below, and a video can be found here

 

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I appreciate it. Welcome to Mr. Tien, Mr. Silvers, and Mr. Meyer. Thanks for your willingness to step up and serve, and in all three of your cases, to serve again.

“You have been nominated for positions that impact the direction and priorities of the Department in fundamental ways, and as I’ve told each of you in our conversations prior to this hearing, this is a critical time for the Department. DHS has got as its mission to protect the homeland, and a lot of dedicated personnel have been doing that. But the threat has evolved, significantly, and the Department has got to evolve to meet those threats. In recent months, my view is that DHS has struggled to address those risks and threats in a number of ways.  

“One, we are facing a real crisis at the southern border, obviously. And as the Biden administration, in its first days, unwound the previous administration’s immigration policies, we quickly saw the Department struggle to secure the border in the midst of what really is an unprecedented migrant surge. I recently visited the southern border with Chairman Peters and others where I witnessed firsthand what was happening. Border Patrol facilities overcrowded with unaccompanied kids. Over 108,000 single adults were apprehended at the border last month, that’s up from 96,000 in March and seven times greater than last April. On top of that, the Border Patrol conservatively estimates that 40,000 people who crossed illegally were not apprehended or confronted at all, but just got away, meaning came into the interior. 

“We can’t ignore the need for sound policies to stem this surge. It is unacceptable to shift this burden to frontline personnel and expect them to be able to manage the consequences of bad decision-making here in Washington. Further, the migrant surge has strained the capacity of the Department to fulfill its other missions at the border, and that includes national security, protecting our border, such as intercepting the flow of dangerous drugs into our country. In fact, as our law enforcement personnel have become overwhelmed with the migration surge, drug traffickers have known precisely how to press their advantage and they’ve done it, and we’ve seen it on the border, repeatedly. 

“This leads to genuine risk to our citizens: Reports show that the seizures of fentanyl coming across the border have tripled in 2021 compared to 2020. That doesn’t tell the whole story, as you know, because the vast majority of these drugs are not being apprehended. But what you’ll hear on the border, when you visit, is that these drugs are coming over in record amounts, and it’s happening at a time, during this pandemic, when overdoses are rising in the United States, including overdose deaths at record highs. Over the past year, we have the most recent data now, from September 2019 to September 2020 showing the highest number of overdose deaths in the history of our country. Being able to intercept these drugs helps in terms of reducing the supply, therefore the amount of drugs that are getting into our communities, but also the cost of those drugs. 

“Cyberattacks, secondly, are a huge issue that you’re going to be facing at the Department of Homeland Security, should you be confirmed. The national security secrets that are being taken, the personal information, it has to be addressed more effectively. Attacks like SolarWinds, Microsoft Exchange, and most recently, Colonial Pipeline demonstrate the risks that we face. 

“As the SolarWinds attack unfolded, it became clear that the Department itself – the Department tasked with securing federal networks – was itself compromised. DHS should be an example for federal agencies, but it was hacked and frankly we were not following the proper cyber hygiene to be able to avoid the attacks. It’s clear that our federal cyber defenses are lacking. Cyberattacks can also have real-world implications, as we saw in the Colonial Pipeline attack. They shut down a major U.S. fuel pipeline for several days, leading to these fuel shortages and higher prices. DHS plays an important role in supporting critical infrastructure cybersecurity and it has got to work to better support critical infrastructure owners and operators to improve cybersecurity across the board. And frankly, we need to help here with new legislation, in my view, to provide more authority to do that. 

“Finally, homegrown threats directly put our citizens at risk. As became apparent in the Committee’s investigation into the events of January 6, the Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis fell short in reporting on the growing threat. The attack on the Capitol on January 6 was a sobering reminder of the domestic threats we face. These threats are becoming increasingly complex and DHS must move to quickly evolve, adapt, and address these now so that the nation is not left unprotected. DHS must be clear about its mission and the tools at its disposal to counter these threats, and of course, balance the freedom of expression with our security concerns. There is a growing concern about the increasing number of assaults targeting federal law enforcement and government facilities. Attacks on law enforcement officers are an unacceptable attack on the rule of law and the safety and security of the American people. 

“Of course, in addition to these man-made threats, the predictions for this year’s hurricane season, which starts in a few days, indicate another higher than average number of significant storms headed our way. Those risks are always there, and that’s part of DHS’s role, as well, through FEMA. 

“Each of these issues reflects the very real threats our homeland faces. Having sound policies and strategies, resourcing plans, and effective implementation governance across the Department are essential to addressing them. And having the right people in place is essential. If you are confirmed as part of the core leadership team of our nation’s third-largest department, you will each have a responsibility to ensure that the Department is able to secure our country and meet the demands of today’s complex, evolving, and dynamic threat environment. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.” 

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