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  6. Secretary Nielsen Remarks on the State of Homeland Security: As Prepared for Delivery

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In an effort to keep DHS.gov current, the archive contains outdated information that may not reflect current policy or programs.

Secretary Nielsen Remarks on the State of Homeland Security: As Prepared for Delivery

Release Date: March 18, 2019


Good morning.

Thank you, General Burgess.  I could not be more grateful to you and to Frank for your leadership and public service.  Would you all join me in thanking them?

I would also like to thank the Auburn Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and George Washington University for hosting me.

Before I begin, let me also extend my appreciation to the many friends, colleagues, and distinguished guests joining us.

In this room are men and women who built the Department of Homeland Security from the ground up…and others who have followed in their footsteps by taking up the call to service…and others who support our missions by executing theirs so well.

Thank you all for being here today.

We are gathered today at a pivotal moment. 

Life is changing faster than at any point in human history.  And as a nation, we face a choice:  shape the world around us, or get shaped by it.

We cannot hide from the future.  If we do, history will judge us harshly.

That is why today it is my duty to report that—although the overall security of our homeland is strong—the threats we face are graver than at any time since 9/11.

The ground beneath our feet has shifted.  Our enemies and adversaries have evolved.  And the arms of government are swinging too slowly to protect the American people.

Let me be clear:  we are more secure than ever against the dangers of the last decade.  But we are less prepared than ever for those that will find us in the next.

That is why under this President and during this Administration, we have made a decision:  to shape the world around us.  To create an environment that is favorable to U.S. interests.  To put American security first.  And to dramatically enhance the way we defend the homeland.

In short, we are going from “highly reactive” to “highly resilient.”  And we are not wasting any time.



In fact, last year, I used this platform to announce a policy of “Relentless Resilience” at DHS.

Today, I am pleased to say we are implementing that agenda at breakneck speed.  In the past 12 months, there has been more change at DHS than almost any single year in its history.

This morning, I will tell you what we have accomplished…where we are going…and why it matters.

I will preview our bold, new strategic plan by walking you through a few of the Department’s overarching goals.


New Wars, Many Battlegrounds

DHS was created to fight one primary, generation-defining struggle:  the war on terror.  But we now find ourselves defending against emerging threats on new battlegrounds.

Not only are we still facing the insidious threat from global jihadists, but we are under siege from transnational criminals…faceless cyber thugs and hackers…and resurgent nation-state rivals.

The battlespace is constantly in flux, flipping from the physical world…to the virtual world…and back again—all in the blink of an eye.

Today, I am more worried about the ability of bad guys to hijack our networks than their ability to hijack our flights.  And I am concerned about them holding our infrastructure hostage…stealing our money and secrets…exploiting children online…and even hacking our democracy.

These aren’t wars that we can fight in slow motion—through meetings, memos, and endless discussions.  If we don’t anticipate, adapt, and respond quickly, we will lose.  Period.

The idea that we can prevail with so-called “Whole of Government” efforts is now an outdated concept.  It’s not enough.

We need a “Whole of Society” approach to overcome today’s threats.  Why?  Because it’s not just U.S. troops and government agents on the frontlines anymore.  It’s U.S. companies.  It’s our schools and gathering places.  It’s ordinary Americans.

Threat actors are mercilessly targeting everyone’s devices and networks.  They are compromising, co-opting, and controlling them.  And they are weaponizing our own innovation against us.

America is not prepared for this.  Your average private citizen or company is no match against a nation-state such as China, Iran, North Korea, or Russia.  It is not a fair fight.  And until now our government has done far too little to back them up

President Trump has made homeland security his number-one priority.  Not number two, or three, or four.  It’s Pillar One of the U.S. national security strategy.

And as Secretary of Homeland Security, I am running with that mandate to obtain the resources, to secure the authorities, and to execute the changes we need to fully transform homeland security and give the American people the protection they deserve.


Combat Terrorism and Homeland Threats

Towards that end, our new DHS strategic plan integrates our mission across agencies and offices to reflect a unified approach.

The first goal is to Combat Terrorism and Homeland Threats.

Our Department was built in response to a complex, coordinated, and catastrophic terrorist plot.  And we continue to do all we can to ensure we know who is traveling to the U.S. and to prevent nefarious actors from carrying out attacks on the homeland.

To thwart terrorist plotting, DHS has recently put in place some of the most sweeping security enhancements in a decade. 

We have instituted tougher vetting and tighter screening in the travel system to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the United States, in addition to instituting the biggest aviation security enhancements in years.  This includes sophisticated measures to detect concealed explosives and insider threats.

This year, our new National Vetting Center (NVC) will become fully operational.  It will fuse law-enforcement data and intelligence from across the government to detect dangerous individuals seeking to reach our territory.

In the same vein, I am pleased to announce today that DHS has worked with the State Department to notify all countries in the world of more stringent information-sharing requirements to crack down on terrorist travel.  Governments who work with us will make the world safer from extremists, while those that fail to comply will face consequences.

But these major improvements are not enough.  Fanatics have innovated.  They have realized terror can be done on the cheap and spread virtually—using simple online instructions and household tools.

With the rise of ISIS, the phenomenon of “do-it-yourself” mass destruction was born.  And homeland security hasn’t been the same ever since.

Two years ago on Halloween, I remember receiving a White House Situation Room report that a truck had driven a mile down a bike path in New York City, mowing down cyclists.

Nearly 20 pedestrians were killed or injured before the carnage ended that afternoon.  The driver claimed inspiration from ISIS and followed the terror group’s instructions to the letter:  if you can’t join us overseas, stay in your homeland and kill—using any means possible.

Despite losing territory, the group’s reach remains global.

Just last week, the FBI arrested a Georgia woman tied to the United Cyber Caliphate—a hacking and propaganda wing of ISIS.  The woman allegedly helped the group promote online “kill lists” featuring U.S. soldiers, government officials, and private citizens.  One posting, which included the personal information of potential targets, offered a simple and chilling instruction:  “Kill them wherever you find them.”

My Department assesses that the primary terrorist threat to the United States continues to be from Islamist militants and those they inspire, but we should not—and CANNOT—ignore the real and serious danger posed by domestic terrorists.

They are using the same do-it-yourself, mass-murder tactics- as we saw with the horrible assault last week in New Zealand against Muslim worshippers.  Attacks on peaceful people in their places of worship are abhorrent.  Our hearts go out to our friends and allies overseas.  And I have offered them DHS’ full support.

We, too, have seen the face of such evil with attacks in places such as Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and Charleston.

And in the wake of the New Zealand tragedy, I want to make one thing very clear:  we will NOT permit such hate in our homeland.

There is no room in this great nation for violent groups who intimidate and coerce Americans because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or creed.

We will counter violent extremists with the full authorities of this Department, and we will work with law enforcement partners to bring domestic terrorists to justice.

At DHS, we’ve launched new terrorism-prevention programs against ALL forms of violent hate.  We are sharing more information with local authorities.  We have worked with social media companies to crack down on terrorist propaganda online.

And we have ramped up soft-target security nationwide, with a particular focus on protecting schools, large events, major gatherings, and places of worship.

As I noted earlier, we need a “Whole of Society” approach to turn the tide, which is why in 2019, DHS will host the first-ever National Summit on Terrorism Prevention.  This two-day event will bring together tech companies, NGOs, community leaders, law enforcement, social service providers, and more in an effort to better “crowd-source” our defenses against terror.

DHS is also focused on amplifying efforts to combat emerging threats.

Last year, with the help of Congress, we stood up a new Office of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction—one of the biggest-ever reorganizations of DHS—to better protect Americans against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear dangers. 

We also fought for—and won—legislative authority to detect and disrupt dangerous drones so they aren’t used in our homeland to spy, to steal, to smuggle, and to cause destruction.

In 2019, we will focus on executing these new authorities.

The full list of our reforms is much longer.  But rest assured:  DHS is more committed than ever to getting one step ahead of those who would dare to do us harm.


Defend U.S. Borders and Sovereignty

At the same time, we cannot lose sight of our most basic obligations to the American people, reflected in the second goal of our strategic plan:  to Defend U.S. Borders and Sovereignty. 

There is no more fundamental responsibility for a nation.  And yet, the American people have been let down by our government again…and again.

I want to cut through the politics to tell you loud and clear:  there is NO  “manufactured” crisis at our Southern Border.  There is a real-life humanitarian and security catastrophe.

Late last year, we were apprehending 50,000 – 60,000 migrants a month.

Last month, we apprehended more than 75,000—the highest in over a decade.

And today I can tell you that we are on track to interdict nearly 100,000 migrants this month.

The situation at our Southern Border has gone from a crisis…to a national emergency…to a near system-wide meltdown.

I say this with the utmost sincerity and urgency:  the system is breaking.  And our communities, our law enforcement personnel, and the migrants themselves are paying the price.

What’s different about the current flow is not just how many people are coming but who is arriving.  Historically, illegal aliens crossing into the United States were predominantly single adult men from Mexico with no legal right to stay.  We could detain and remove them within 48 hours.

But in recent years we have seen the volume of vulnerable populations—children and families—skyrocket.  Over 60 percent of the current flow is now families and unaccompanied children, and 60 percent is non-Mexican.  Our system was not built to handle this type of flow.

Because of outdated laws, misguided court decisions, and a massive backlog of cases, we are usually forced to release these groups into the United States.  And we have virtually no hope of removing them in the future, despite the fact that the vast majority who apply for asylum do not qualify for it.

Smugglers and traffickers have caught on, advertising a “free ticket” into America.  As a result, the flow of families and children has become a flood.  Cases of “fake families” are popping up everywhere.  And children are being used as pawns.

In fact, we have uncovered “child recycling rings,” truly, child re-victimization rings, a process by which innocent children are used multiple times to help aliens gain illegal entry.  As a nation we cannot stand for this. 

The humanitarian situation cannot be ignored.  In one study, more than 30 percent of women reported being sexually assaulted along the way, and 70 percent of all migrants reported experiencing violence.  We give pregnancy tests to girls as young as 10 to ensure we can offer appropriate medical support.

Smugglers and traffickers are forcing people into inhuman conditions, demanding extraordinary sums of money, and putting lives in danger. 

They are NOT humanitarians.  They are swindlers.  And they are making it harder for us to identify those who actually need protection.

And given the brutal journey and travel conditions, children are arriving at the border sicker than ever before.

Make no mistake—this is also a security crisis.  Criminals are using the situation to line their pockets, while gangs are exploiting the loopholes to bring in new recruits. 

And we are seeing the spread of violent crime and drugs—the majority of which come into our country via the Southern Border both at and between ports of entry.

What’s worse, last year we identified tens of thousands of convicted and wanted criminals attempting to cross.  And those are just the ones we know about.

So what are we doing about it?

DHS has built the first border wall to go up in a decade.  We are building more, and have plans for hundreds of new miles to block illicit goods, illegal entry, and help ensure a safe and orderly migrant flow….

We have worked with the Pentagon to deploy thousands of troops to the Southern Border …

We have worked with the Justice Department to prosecute single adults who cross illegally …

We have engaged the Northern Triangle countries to address the challenge at the source…and this month I expect to sign a historic, first-ever “regional compact” with these nations to counter human and drug smuggling, trafficking, and irregular migration …this is something I have been pursuing for years…

We have also stepped up efforts to protect women and children from being abused, kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and exploited on the journey…and to provide support to survivors…

We are doing more to dismantle transnational criminal organizations…

And we have intensified operations to seize illicit drugs—especially opioids.

I am also looking at ways to help at-risk migrants apply for U.S. asylum from within Central America—rather than embarking on the treacherous trek to our border.  We must find ways to help vulnerable populations sooner in their journey north.

But it’s still not enough.

Our laws aren’t keeping up with the migrant flows, and until they are fixed, the situation will only get worse and more heartbreaking.

We need Congress to stop playing politics and do what’s right. 

We need Congress to change the law to allow us to keep families together throughout the immigration process…to ensure the safe and prompt return of unaccompanied children to their home countries…and to reverse the court ruling that directs dangerous criminals to be released into our communities.

This a complex and emotional issue.  But no matter what side of the aisle you are on, we have common cause:  to uphold our sovereign responsibility to secure our borders; to facilitate legal trade and travel; to prevent drugs from poisoning our communities, and to help vulnerable populations - all at the same time.

While we wait for Congress to do its job, I must say that I couldn’t be prouder of the men and women of DHS who continue to do theirs with professionalism and compassion.

Despite the politically charged atmosphere and the dangers of the job, our agents, officers, and enlisted personnel—whether they are from CBP, ICE, USCIS, Coast Guard, or beyond—have done an extraordinary job staying focused on the mission.

They are seizing drugs on the high seas.  They are identifying fraudsters applying for visas.  They are investigating vast criminal networks throughout our country—in the physical world and on the dark web.  They are taking down gun runners, sex slavery rings, and child exploiters.  They are helping us welcome more legal immigrants each year than any other nation on earth.  And so much more.

They all deserve our respect and the thanks of a grateful nation.

I want to briefly tell you about someone who exemplifies these committed efforts:  Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Alicia MacDonald.

Just last April, Agent MacDonald and her colleagues executed high-risk arrest warrants against gang members tied to the Mexican mafia.  They apprehended individuals linked to at least seven homicides.

Because of her meticulous police work, these violent criminals are off the streets.

Epitomizing the dedication of DHS employees, Agent MacDonald was eight-months pregnant when she led a multi-location, search-and-arrest mission as part of this investigation.

And during her three months of maternity leave, she continued to work from home…on her own time…and on her own volition…to ensure these gang members were brought to justice in the courts. 

Special Agent MacDonald is here with us today.  Alicia, could you please stand?

You represent the best of DHS.


Secure Cyberspace and Critical Infrastructure

On the top of my list of threats—the word CYBER is circled, highlighted, and underlined.  The cyber domain is a target, a weapon, and a threat vector—all at the same time.

That is why another goal in our strategic plan is Secure Cyberspace and Critical Infrastructure.

Nation states, criminal syndicates, hacktivists, terrorists—they are all building capacity to infiltrate and undermine our networks.  They are weaponizing the web.

For instance, in the past two years, we witnessed North Korea’s WannaCry ransomware spread to more than 150 countries, holding healthcare systems hostage and bringing factories to a halt.

And we saw Russia probing our energy grid, compromising thousands of routers around the world, and unleashing NotPetya malware, which wreaked havoc as one of the costliest cyber incidents in history.

I could go on for hours.

What worries me, though, is not what these threat actors have done, but what they have the capability to do.  Stealing our most sensitive secrets…deceiving us about our own data… distracting us during a crisis…launching physical attacks on infrastructure with a few keystrokes…or planting false flags to embroil us in conflict with other nations.

The possibilities are limitless.  But the time we have to prepare is not.

To get ahead of our adversaries, we released the first DHS Cybersecurity Strategy last May.  This was Step One.

Step Two was partnership.

I’ve said it many times, but it bears repeating:  In our hyper-connected world, if we prepare individually, we will fail collectively.

So DHS held a first-of-its-kind National Cybersecurity Summit in New York City.  We brought together CEOs from some of the largest companies in America, hundreds of senior risk and security officers, multiple Cabinet officials, and Vice President Pence to take a clear-eyed look at America’s cybersecurity posture.

The gathering produced real results.  Participants took action to deepen partnerships, break down barriers, and better integrate collective risk-management efforts.

We announced the formation of the National Risk Management Center (NRMC), a premier forum for government and industry to collaborate against evolving digital dangers.

And in the months that followed, we took an even bigger leap.

We consolidated and strengthened federal efforts to protect our nation’s digital networks.  And with Congressional authorization, we established the landmark Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency—CISA—at DHS.

CISA was long overdue—and will be at the “front of the fight” in cyberspace for years to come.

But strategies, partnerships, and organizational change will still only get us partway.  So we have ramped up operations to keep intruders out of our networks.

First and foremost, we have driven a change in U.S. policy to replace complacency with consequences.  We have made clear we will no longer accept malicious cyber interference.

We are fighting back in both “seen and unseen” ways, including publicly attributing cyber attacks to the perpetrators, levying sanctions, and delivering other consequences.

This has sent a powerful message to online adversaries, especially nation-states:  America has had enough, and WE WILL NOT hesitate to punish you for compromising our networks.

We have also instituted a next generation risk management approach to identify and assess critical functions—not only specific assets and systems.

We are wielding DHS authorities to get dangerous software, such as Kaspersky-branded products, out of federal systems…and taking swift action to patch newly discovered vulnerabilities.

Alarmingly, our adversaries are using state-owned companies as a “forward-deployed” force to attack us from within our supply chain.  So we are working with industry partners to identify and delete these bugs and defects from our systems. 

But of all the digital threats, the ones we must take most seriously are those aimed at the very heart of our democracy.

In 2016, at the direction of Vladimir Putin, Russia launched a concerted effort to undermine our elections and our democratic process using cyber-enabled means.

Their meddling didn’t stop there.  They have continued to interfere in our public affairs and have attempted to sow division online among Americans on hot-button issues.

Unfortunately, other nation-state rivals appear to be following suit and are—in various ways—working to virtually influence U.S. policy and discourse.

So let me just send one last message to our cyber adversaries:  you cannot hide behind your keyboards and computer screens…we are watching you…and no matter what malware you develop, I promise you, the engines of our democracy are far stronger and far more resilient than any code you can write.

Last year we applied our “lessons learned” from 2016 to prevent hacking in the 2018 elections.

It was a full court press.

We worked to support all 50 states in a variety of ways, including technical assistance, security assessments, planning, exercises, sharing of threat data, and incident response.

On Election Day, more than 90 percent of American voters lived in an area covered by our network sensors—vastly more than in 2016.

And it worked.

Thanks to DHS cyber defenders and many partners nationwide—I can say with confidence that the 2018 election was the most secure in the modern era.

Some of the people who made that happen are with us today.  Matt Masterson and Geoff Hale were road warriors.  They spent weeks and months across the country, away from their families, building partnerships and most importantly, establishing trust.

By election day, the team had convinced fifty states and 1,400+ local jurisdictions to join our election security efforts.

Matt, Geoff, can you stand?  The American people are grateful for your extraordinary work.

Now we have our eyes on the next election and are launching “Protect 2020,” a new initiative designed to get all States to a baseline level of election infrastructure cybersecurity well before the next vote.

More broadly, DHS is in the process of bolstering its approach to countering foreign influence to ensure we are prepared to “zoom out” and see the full scope of adversary attempts to undermine our networks, our nation’s critical infrastructure, and our homeland security.


Responding to Disasters

But it’s not just bad guys we are focused on.  Mother Nature has been extremely active, too.  And when disaster strikes—when a family loses everything—DHS and FEMA are often among the first to lend a helping hand.

Our hearts still break for those who’ve lost loved ones and livelihoods, whether in Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico…the Camp Fire in California…other catastrophic disasters that have affected almost every state.

To any citizen affected by these crises, I want to provide assurances that DHS is there for the long haul.  We have your backs.  And you will…not…be…forgotten.

We have delivered record-breaking levels of disaster assistance to Americans in the past two years, including putting $7 billion in the hands of disaster survivors—more than the previous decade.  And in response to recent catastrophes, we are implementing a new vision focused on making America better prepared for the worst. 

FEMA is investing substantial resources to build more resilient communities …we are forward-deploying federal personnel nationwide so they are working side-by-side with state and local officials well before disaster strikes.... and we are expanding alert systems so that we can warn citizens faster.


A New DHS for a New Age

I have covered only a few areas of our forthcoming strategic plan.  But I can assure you in ways large and small, we are undertaking transformations to build a new DHS for a new age. 

So whether it’s the work we do to stop unfair trade practices, to prevent thieves from compromising our financial systems, to protect our nation’s leaders, or to defend our waterways against criminals and foreign powers, DHS is casting aside stagnation for adaptation… convention for nimbleness.

We are maturing the DHS enterprise to expand “unity of effort”…through joint planning…joint analysis…and joint operations to facilitate everything from hunting down elusive cartel leaders to rescuing wayward migrants, lost in remote parts of the desert.

And we are overhauling our support components so that our frontline defenders get what they need more quickly, including timely intelligence to cutting-edge technology.



I want to close today by announcing a major milestone.

For many years—since our founding—DHS agencies have operated in temporary spaces and in offices scattered throughout D.C. and the surrounding area—a relic of our early days, when nearly two-dozen organizations were merged.

This has made it difficult for 240,000 employees to operate as “one” Department.

You may have noticed, however, a large construction project across the river—one of the largest government construction projects, in fact, since the Pentagon.  This is the St. Elizabeth campus.

And I am pleased to announce this morning that, in less than a month, it will serve as the base of operations for a more focused, more unified, more effective and consolidated Department of Homeland Security.

When we move next month, we will take stock of all that has changed in the sixteen years since DHS was created.

And we will take a moment to remember those brave souls whose loss on 9/11 ultimately gave life to a Department charged with protecting the American people.

You see, the Department of Homeland Security was born from bravery. 

Our forefathers and mothers are firefighters who rushed into burning buildings…they are first responders who carried victims out of skyscrapers that crumbled around them…and they are airline passengers who rushed a cockpit to save the lives of strangers they would never know.

These are the people who truly founded DHS.  And I am proud to say that the men and women I lead are worthy of this heritage. 

Many of the successes I discussed this morning—and our plans for the future—are due to the first-class leadership team in our Department.

But I think they would agree with me that the real credit belongs to each of the men and women—and their families—who, with honor and integrity, stand watch and defend our homeland at the tip of the spear.

To all of our employees, I want to say “thank you.”  Like your DHS forbearers, you are brave, you are patriots, and you are an inspiration.

Thank you again for being here today.

May God bless each of you.  And may God bless the United States of America.

Last Updated: 02/05/2021
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