The Homeland Security chief called on Congress to operationalize its cyber arm and give the agency the authority to defend critical infrastructure against drones.
DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, shown here at her Nov. 8, 2017, confirmation hearing. (Photo courtesy DHS)
The Homeland Security secretary called on Congress to immediately take up legislation that would fuel her agency's abilities to go after fast-moving and troublesome advances in cybersecurity and drone aircraft technologies.
DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen urged Congress to eliminate two barriers that hamper her agency's cyber and critical infrastructure duties.
Speaking at George Washington University on Sept. 5, Nielsen said that lawmakers should pass a bill that renames and operationalizes the agency's National Protection and Programs Directorate critical infrastructure and cybersecurity component. She also appealed to Congress to pass another bipartisan bill that would give DHS proper authorities to defend critical infrastructure from drone attack.
The DHS reauthorization bill, currently waiting on a Senate floor vote, would change NPPD to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
The change may sound small, said Nielsen, but it will make a big difference in the agency's ability to cope with emerging cyber threats, including those looming against state election systems.
"NPPD needs to be authorized in law and transformed into a full-fledged operational agency," she said.
The changes would help identify the component as the place infrastructure providers, including election systems, can turn to for cybersecurity concerns, she said.
Nielsen also called for states to make sure they have "redundant, auditable election systems by 2020." She advised that those systems have "physical paper trails and effective audits" to ensure votes can be counted directly.
The DHS chief also wants Congress to address the emerging threat presented by increasingly common small unmanned, radio-controlled aircraft.
"We desperately need Congress to change outdated laws that prevent us from setting up the defenses we need to protect big events, federal facilities and other potential targets from an airborne menace," she said.
The technology, she said, is being used by an increasing diversity of bad actors from terrorists on international battlefields to drug smugglers on the U.S. border. There is growing concern the aircraft could be modified to drop small bombs, release chemicals at public events, or steal data in the U.S.
"DHS doesn't have clear legal authority to identify, track or take down dangerous drones," she said. "We can't even test defensive measures in civilian environments."
DHS currently can't track a drone that might pose a threat because it would require a court warrant, she said. Laws drawn up over 50 years ago can prevent interrupting radio control transmissions between operator and aircraft. Other laws aimed at preventing hijacking also limit interactions with drones. Only the Secret Service has limited ability to defend against drone aircraft, she said.
The Senate and House, she said, are currently considering bipartisan legislation that would grant those authorities. For instance, a bill introduced by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) would give DHS the power to detect, identify, monitor, track, seize control of or destroy threatening drone aircraft operating in the U.S. A companion bill was introduced by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) in the House.