Chairman, Committee Hear From Top Officials on National Security Threats

WASHINGTON — ISIS has two messages, FBI Director James Comey told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Thursday during a hearing focused on security threats facing America: “First, come to the caliphate and participate in the final battle between good and evil on God’s side and find meaning in your life. Second, if you can’t travel, kill where you are. Kill anyone.”

Comey’s message defining a “new reality” of terrorism echoed messages delivered by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Nicholas Rasmussen, also testifying before the committee. Rasmussen stated, “Unlike al-Qaeda, who was often running their enterprise as a clandestine movement with a very, very rigorous vetting process before allowing individuals inside the fold, ISIL is issuing an open invitation on social media for people to come to the caliphate and join.”

Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said the hearing was part of an annual check-in with top homeland security, law enforcement, and counterterrorism officials to oversee what executive branch agencies are doing to keep America safe and to learn what they need to carry out that mission.

Chairman Johnson cited the mission statement that he and Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.) wrote for the committee: “It’s simply to enhance the economic and national security of America.” The hearing, he said, was to oversee agencies’ performance in the five basic priorities growing out of that mission: border security, cybersecurity, protecting America’s critical infrastructure, countering violent extremists and terrorism, and helping the Department of Homeland Security keep America safe.

Regarding the international terrorism threat, Rasmussen spoke of ISIS’ extensive resources, areas of control and pool of individuals in Western countries. Rasmussen said, “The part of the caliphate that gives me the greatest concern is that physical space in Iraq and Syria” because “it gives them the time and space to pursue more aggressive, ambitious, external operations.” Rasmussen also agreed with Chairman Johnson’s assessment that “if you’re going to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS, you’ve got to deny them that territory.”

Secretary Johnson spoke to what is needed to address the threat, saying we need a louder, global message to counter the message being broadcast by ISIS. Comey agreed, testifying that ISIS “has broken the core al-Qaeda paradigm by using social media to broadcast a twin-pronged call to thousands and thousands of followers around the world, including many, many people in the United States.” 

“The challenge we face,” Comey told committee members, “is finding those needles in a nationwide haystack and assessing where are they on that spectrum between consuming poison to acting on poison and disrupting them before they act.”

Regarding border security, Chairman Johnson pointed out that the committee has held eight border security hearings over the past several months and has compiled a majority report reflecting its findings that will be released in the coming weeks. “We started with, ‘You need information to solve a problem,’” he said, adding that the committee hopes to pass its Border Security Metrics bill in the upcoming week. “But then what are the next steps, and what is your [border security] strategy?” he asked Secretary Johnson. “I am completely committed to work very closely with you and your department to codify this in a step-by-step approach.”

When the chairman asked Secretary Johnson what resources the DHS needed, Secretary Johnson replied, “More technology and more surveillance to pursue a risk-based strategy so that we go after the threats where we know they exist.”

Regarding cybersecurity needs and the pending cybersecurity bill, Secretary Johnson told committee members that DHS needs “explicit congressional authorization” to monitor, identify and block unwanted intrusions in federal agencies’ computer systems and “greater incentives through law” for private companies to share information with the federal government about cyber threats. “We believe that encouraging voluntary cooperation with the private sector is the way to go,” he said.

“We are moving in the right direction. That’s good news,” Chairman Johnson said.

Chairman Johnson’s opening statement can be found here.
The full committee hearing can be watched here.