Senate Homeland Leader Proposes Panel to Fix DHS Oversight

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The panel, which is tied to reauthorizing the department, would pare back overlapping committee jurisdictions.

Any deal to reauthorize the Homeland Security Department should include cleaning up how the Senate oversees the sprawling, patchwork agency, Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., said Wednesday.

Within the Senate, portions of Homeland Security oversight are shared by the Homeland Security, Armed Services, Intelligence and Commerce Science and Transportation committees among others.

Johnson’s plan is to form a high-level commission to investigate ways to consolidate jurisdictional authorities in both the Senate and House, he said.

“We are literally putting our nation’s security at risk by having DHS so scattered,” he said.

Johnson’s concerns were broadly echoed by committee Republicans and Democrats during a roundtable discussion about reauthorizing the department for the first time in its 15-year existence.

Johnson’s concerns echo complaints from House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who passed a reauthorization bill through his committee and then on the House floor in July.

The Homeland Security Department was constructed out of a hodgepodge of existing agencies in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and its mission has only expanded since then, making congressional oversight especially complex and convoluted.

McCaul had to negotiate with other committee chair and Speaker Paul Ryan’s office in order to get his reauthorization bill passed without sending it through a slew of committees.

The bill itself, however, didn’t address congressional jurisdiction, which Johnson called a “glaring omission.”

“Maybe it’s too controversial, but I think it’s something the department really needs,” Johnson said, before rattling off figures about the hundreds of committee hearings Homeland Security officials had testified at during previous congresses and the thousands of less formal briefings.

McCaul’s agreement with other House chairs also eased House passage of a bill that would elevate Homeland Security’s cyber and infrastructure protection division, which is in the midst of helping state and local governments harden their election systems’ cyber protections in advance of the 2018 midterms.

Senate committee members broadly praised that bill during Wednesday’s meetings but some, including Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., worried it didn’t go far enough to raise the profile of the department’s cybersecurity mission.

Election Security Update

The department’s top cyber and infrastructure protection official Chris Krebs also updated senators during Wednesday’s roundtable about efforts to secure state election systems.

As of Wednesday, the department has fully vetted election systems in five states and plans to vet 11 more by mid-April, he said.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., pressed Krebs for a breakdown of when those reviews are scheduled compared with when states hold primary elections in March and April, which he promised to provide.

The department has provided one final security clearance at the “secret” level and 17 interim security clearances to state election officials, Krebs said. The department’s goal is to have top election officials cleared in all 50 states.

In the meantime, Homeland Security is frequently providing one-day clearances to those officials, Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke said.

Lawmakers pilloried Homeland Security in the wake of the 2016 election because the department was unable to share information for several months with top state election officials whose systems were targeted by Russian hackers.