WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC), secured a commitment from Jonathan Meyer, the nominee to be General Counsel at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that he would provide complete and timely materials requested by the Committee for oversight purposes. As the Senate committee responsible for oversight of DHS, it is crucial that requested documents and materials are provided in full, so the Committee can fulfill its Constitutional duty.
In addition, John Tien, the nominee to be Deputy Secretary at DHS agreed with Senator Portman on the importance of developing public and private sector relationships through the Department to ensure effective cybersecurity and secure critical infrastructure especially in the wake of the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack.
A transcript of the questioning can be found below and a video can be found here.
Portman: “Thank you Mr. Chairman. Again, I thank the witnesses for their testimony today and their willingness to step up and serve again, in each case. This Committee is the chief oversight committee for the Congress. And in our Constitution, the legislative branch has a fundamental responsibility to provide oversight. Probably the primary purpose of this Committee is oversight over the executive branch. To do that well, we’ve got to have the agencies provide us the information we need to do effective oversight. Mr. Meyer, during our phone call yesterday we talked a lot about that. We discussed my concern that in your prior role at DHS, you made congressional oversight of DHS difficult. The former chairman of PSI, who many of you knew, Senator Carl Levin, complained about that. He said specifically in his report that DHS initially withheld documents and repeatedly resisted the Committee’s requests, which unnecessarily prolonged the Committee investigation. That’s pretty strong words. I’ve never seen that in any other PSI report that I did as Chairman of that committee or others have done. And I ask unanimous consent to enter those relevant pages of the report into the record, Mr. Chairman.
“So, the question is, how can Senator Peters and me, and how can Senator Ossoff and Senator Johnson be assured that we won’t get that kind of treatment should you be confirmed in this new, important role at DHS as General Counsel?”
Jonathan E. Meyer, Nominee to be General Counsel at DHS: “Thank you, Senator, for giving me an opportunity to respond to that. I enjoyed our conversation yesterday and I appreciate the opportunity to address this publically. First of all, I would like to respectfully disagree with one of your comments, which is that what I did when I was at DHS in the past was make oversight more difficult.”
Portman: “I was quoting Senator Levin on that. The Democrat from Michigan who was Chairman of PSI at the time.”
Mr. Meyer: “I do not recall Senator Levin ever saying anything specifically about me, but if I may, as I recall, the investigation you’re speaking about and the report you’re speaking about occurred in 2011, 2012. I arrived in 2011, that was the very beginning of my time at DHS. And I would absolutely agree with you that that particular investigation involving fusion centers was very difficult and was not the Department’s best moment in responding to oversight. But I would like to point out that by the time I left DHS in 2016 and had been running oversight response for five years, we had improved our responsiveness by 120 percent. We had reduced our response time by 60 percent at the same time that the volume of incoming requests had doubled. There’s no question that there was a process involved there. As I recall, I believe you mentioned yesterday that one of the issues the Subcommittee had concerns with was the fact that DHS was unable to produce emails for technological reasons, yet the National Archives subsequently was able to do so. And honestly, my response to that was, unfortunately, not surprise. I don’t recall it, but I’m not surprised because what I do recall is huge technological challenges that we had at DHS in oversight response. And that was a large part of what I addressed and if I am confirmed, would focus on addressing again.
“I said in my opening statement that I would make Congressional oversight my highest priority if I were confirmed. I am a big believer in Congressional oversight. As you know, I’ve spent time both on the Hill, and at DHS, and in the executive branch. I actually spent more time conducting oversight in the Senate than I have at DHS.”
Portman: “I appreciated your commitment and your testimony this morning and I heard it. I will also enter into the record, because you mentioned it, I wasn’t going to, the back-and-forth, the letters regarding the PSI requests for emails for specific DHS officials. PSI was told, and again you were the one who had the lead on this, that those emails were not available and later we found out that they were. And so I’ll just enter that into the record since you mentioned it. And again, I appreciate your general commitment to being more responsive to Congress.
“Let me ask you some specific questions. If confirmed, do you commit to responding in a timely manner to requests from the Committee? Just yes or no.”
Mr. Meyer: “Absolutely, sir.”
Portman: “If confirmed do you commit to providing all documents requested by this Committee without redaction unless it is agreed to beforehand? Yes or no.”
Mr. Meyer: “I will make every effort to do so, Senator. Obviously, I, even as General Counsel, do not have control over that.”
Portman: “You would have the most control over it, as I understand it. What would you redact? What would you feel you had the right to redact, unless you had again, worked something out with us in advance? And I think there are situations like that.”
Mr. Meyer: “I believe the executive branch will traditionally redact information, for example, that is subject to executive privilege.”
Portman: “Yeah, just so you know, this Committee does not recognize any assertions of that sort or any on national security because, you know, we are the oversight Committee. Unless, again, we have the opportunity to discuss that in advance.”
Mr. Meyer: “Well Senator, let me be clear, I would absolutely discuss it in advance. The Constitution requires us, and the Courts have made it clear that the oversight process must be an accommodation process. So I’m sorry if I misunderstood or misspoke. I would welcome every opportunity to communicate with you, with your staff, and anybody else on the Hill about these issues. Oversight is about communication and accommodation.”
Portman: “If confirmed, do you agree to provide any fact witnesses requested by this Committee to be interviewed?”
Mr. Meyer: “Yes sir.”
Portman: “How about the IG’s office? DHS Office of the Inspector General also has some concerns, as you know, sometimes about not being able to get information. Would you provide witnesses or documents requested by the IG?”
Mr. Meyer: “Absolutely. I think OIG oversight is quite important.”
Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Meyer. I appreciate that. So, Mr. Tien, your distinguished military service is extraordinary and the leadership you demonstrated in uniform has been talked about today. Could you also talk about how your private sector background qualifies you to be the next Deputy Secretary? In particular, how you think the private sector could be brought in as a partner more effectively.”
John K. Tien, Nominee to be Deputy Secretary at DHS: “Ranking Member Portman, thank you very much for that question, and I appreciate your acknowledgment of my military service, and by acknowledging my military service you’re really acknowledging the military service of all the great Americans who have come before me and who are currently serving, so thank you, sir. In terms of my private sector experience, I look at, and there many different ways that the Department of Homeland Security is already, can, and should be partnering with the private sector. In particular, I think about the most recent, this is just an example, obviously, of the most recent example around the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline. The Colonial Pipeline organization did not have to acknowledge or report to CISA that they had undergone a ransomware attack. Now, I understand, just being as a private citizen today, that President Biden says in the future we’ll require that. It is this kind of partnership that I believe the private sector must have with the public sector, must have with the federal government, in particular DHS, obviously, and reverse. For the public sector, for the federal government, and for CISA – in particular at DHS – to have, it’s a two-way street in terms of that communication.
“The private sector serves, and we know this, they have constituents too. They’re called customers, they’re called clients, and at least in the United States of America, those clients, those constituents, and those customers are the same constituents for us. And so, in the service of the American people, and in particular in the protection of all of the critical infrastructure, not just the pipeline, but all of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors, I believe that the private sector can and should, and I believe that the public sector can and should be strong partners.”
Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”