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Acting Secretary Wolf's Prepared Remarks to the Homeland Security Experts Group on 2020 Homeland Priorities

Release Date: 
January 17, 2020

– As Prepared –

 

Thank you, Secretary Chertoff and Congresswoman Harman, for the kind introduction.

It’s great to be here with the Homeland Security Experts Group, where colleagues, experts, and thought leaders can constructively discuss the most pressing threats to the Homeland.

Some of you have served at the Department, and others continue to serve as mentors and friends to Departmental leadership. 

A few of you have even stood in this role—and I often refer to the examples you have set as DHS heads into a new decade, where the threat landscape is more complex and dynamic than ever.

On behalf of the Department and me personally, thank you—to all of you—for lending your expertise and insights to making our country more secure.

Roadmap: 2020 Scene Setter

As Acting Secretary, my priorities are guided by a determination to ensure the Department is robust, resilient, and forward-leaning—in 2020 and in the years to come.

Today, I want to provide a 360-degree view of the threat landscape, and, in turn, DHS’s priorities this year. 

As I walk you through these threats, you’ll hear some missions that you’re familiar with—

but we’ve also been doing work that you might have missed, and that doesn’t always make the headlines.

One example is earlier this week, we formally rolled out our first-ever Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking, the Importation of Goods Produced with Forced Labor, and Child Sexual Exploitation.  

These horrific crimes don’t just threaten Americans’ personal and public safety—they threaten our physical and virtual borders, our immigration and customs systems, our prosperity, and our national security.  Which is precisely why DHS is at the forefront in combating this evil. 

Our Strategy outlines nearly 40 action items that the Department will work toward implementing.  

Our work formally establishes this mission as a Departmental priority—allowing it to be resourced and addressed accordingly in the months and years to come.

There are a variety of issues – like this one – that may not rise to the highest threats facing the Department, but are nevertheless important and critical to what we do. 

While the media may focus on one or two mission sets, rest assured that the men and women of the Department are determined, focused and heads down everyday doing the work to keep the Homeland secure.

So, let’s jump in and discuss the top threats facing the Homeland.

International Threats

In light of recent international events, I’ll begin with the threats that emanate from nation states—specifically, Iran, China, and Russia.

Each of these countries has a different motivation and end-goal, but all attempt to undermine our interests and international standing.

International Threats: Iran

First, let’s discuss the country that’s dominated news coverage so far this year: Iran.

As I have stated repeatedly, there is no credible, specific threat to the Homeland from Iran.

However, given what we know about Iran, and their capabilities and motivations, the Department continues to operate with an enhanced posture.

The threat from Iran is not new to DHS. 

In fact, in the summer of 2019 the Department began working on and then established an Iran Contingency Plan – a set of actions that the Department could take to address a variety of threats from Iran. 

We’ve been ready—and remain ready—to initiate various protective measures immediately, should the need arise.

Given these events—for the first time in DHS history, we took the step of issuing a National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin driven by a specific event. 

It was the right decision.

The NTAS Bulletin was issued to both inform and reassure the American public, state and local governments, and private sector stakeholders that DHS is actively monitoring and preparing for any specific, credible threat, should one arise.

As the NTAS Bulletin mentions, we remain especially vigilant regarding cyber-enabled attacks from Iran against a range of U.S.-based targets—including our critical infrastructure.

 International Threats: China

Looking to the long-term, however, it is China who remains our most significant and persistent strategic adversary.

Unlike other nation states, China works to threaten the United States’ power and prominence from “within the system” using both overt and covert means. 

It uses the openness of our society and institutions against us—be it our academic and scientific communities, or Silicon Valley—to aggressively expand its ability to shape information and the Chinese narrative abroad. 

Beijing will continue to use overt legal, political, and economic levers of coercion—such as market access—to further pressure and shape the information environment. 

Covertly, it employs a number of tactics to undermine our influence and standing in the world. 

China is our most persistent nation state threat in the cyber realm. 

Through cyber espionage and other activities that impact our economic prosperity and intellectual horsepower, it is pursuing a long-term “whole-of-nation” effort to threaten and undermine the United States.

While we value our partnership with Beijing to promote global prosperity, we are working to hold Chinese bad actors accountable for their malign activities.

Action is being taken across the Executive Branch, including by DHS, to use regulatory tools to appropriately respond to the threat it poses—such as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, and Team Telecom.

At DHS specifically, I’m focused on leveraging DHS’s unique authorities, data, and missions to counter Beijing’s long-term strategic objectives.  

When I stepped into this position, I found that each Component at the Department was addressing the China threat in their own silo, utilizing their individual authorities and in most cases were not coordinating across the Department.

A siloed approach is not sufficient to address this threat.

As a result, we have an effort underway to examine all our mission sets as they relate to China.

This includes, but is certainly not limited to, the protection of critical infrastructure, countering weapons of mass destruction, supply chain integrity, immigration security, maritime security, transportation security, countering foreign interference, Cybersecurity and counterintelligence. 

Through this effort, we’ll identify and prioritize threats and match our resources and capabilities accordingly.

We’ll be able to quickly identify any vulnerability gaps and determine where any additional resources or authorities are needed. 

It is precisely this type of planning that goes on behind the scenes in the Department daily …that doesn’t make headlines …but is critically important to ensure we are properly positioned to respond quickly to any threat.

International Threats: Russia

Lastly, let me touch on Russia.

Unlike China, Russia doesn’t seek to weaken our economy and surpass us on the world-stage; rather they focus on actions that disrupt and undermine the American way of life.

As we saw in 2016, we fully expect Russia to attempt to interfere in the 2020 elections to sow public discord and undermine our democratic institutions.

Let me be clear: We are prepared.

And more importantly, the state and local officials who run our elections are prepared.

We are working with our Federal partners to make sure those officials on the frontlines of our elections have the information and the tools they need to combat Russian interference.

We are also working to make sure the American people understand how the Russians seek to undermine confidence in our elections, and the simple steps they can take to avoid amplifying foreign influence campaigns.

We were prepared in 2018, when DHS established classified and unclassified election war rooms. 

These war rooms connected election officials in all 50 states, political parties, social media companies and agencies across the U.S. Government, including DOD, the FBI and the Intelligence Community.

Our efforts helped make the 2018 elections the most secure elections in the modern era. 

In 2020, we’re doing this and more to prevent our adversaries from degrading faith in our democracy and election results.  

Which leads me to my next point.

Election Security

Election security is understandably front of mind for the Nation and a lot of us in the room.

From the White House down—the Department, and U.S. Government more broadly, are laser-focused on this issue. 

Under the leadership of Director Krebs, the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, has been working diligently around-the-clock to ensure our election systems are secure and resilient. 

Thanks to their efforts, we’re working as a government, and with state and local election officials better than ever. 

This is in sharp contrast to 2016, when we were in contact with few to none. And had relationships with few to none.

CISA is providing these partners with information, technical assistance, resources, and tools to secure and promote the resiliency of their systems. 

On election day, it’s state and local election officials who bear the risk to their systems, so we’re doing all we can now to ensure they are secure.

Voters, of course, also play a critical role. 

We’re working hard as a Department to ensure that voters are aware of their rights, which includes their ability to request a provisional ballot if anything goes wrong on Election Day.

We recognize the potential effects of targeted attacks on our elections—both real and claimed.

We’ll continue to educate targeted populations to make them less receptive to misinformation campaigns.

We’ll also continue to work with partners to prepare and practice for potential disruptions.  

As all homeland security operators understand, 100% security is never realistic. 

Instead, we’re focused on building more resilient election systems and processes, as well as encouraging states to audit election results via paper. 

In 2020, over 90% of votes will have a corresponding paper ballot. This is a significant achievement.  

Border Security

Pivoting now, let me talk about border security. 

Our number one duty as a country is to not only know who is coming into our country—but what is coming into our country.

Transnational criminal organizations work on a daily basis to funnel people and illegal contraband, such as drugs, money and weapons, into the United States.

To put it simply—border security is national security, and we are prioritizing it as such.

What we have seen and experienced over the last several years is that our security is closely linked with the security and stability of our partners to the south.

Working with our Central American partners, we have built a historic regional framework and coalition to reduce the reach of transnational criminal organizations and to ensure those seeking protections can do so closer to home.

These agreements not only provide for burden sharing of asylum responsibilities with U.S. support to build their capacity…

They also promote regional safety and security, by sharing personnel and information to combat TCOs together.   

This coalition is founded on the basic premise that—

A secure region is a stable and prosperous region that will attract both public and private investment, and will provide opportunities for the youth – who represent the future of these countries.
 
In 2019, we signed 12 agreements with our Central American partners—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. 
 
These security agreements are the first stage leading to further partnerships for prosperity.  
 
At DHS—we’re working closely with Development Finance Corporation to identify investments that will improve port security and trade facilitation, as well as increase economic opportunity in the region.
 
In addition to promoting economic security, such investment counters influence from our adversaries in the region. 
 
It makes sense—where we have a strong presence, our strategic adversaries will not.
 
And I think we can all agree that we don’t want countries like China or Russia permanently establishing influence in our backyard. 
 
But international engagement is only one component of our strategy to address the ongoing border security crisis.  
 
To cover it briefly—over the last several months we have put together a strategy that is working.  We have essentially ended catch-and-release, eliminating the insidious incentive to exploit children for entry into the United States.
 
We have more tools than ever before to quickly remove, return, and repatriate aliens who illegally cross our borders.
 
We have cracked down on asylum fraud across the board—working tirelessly to restore enforcement of federal statutes enacted by Congress.
 
Lastly, but critically important, we have expedited and continued construction of the Border Wall System.
 
When we ask our agents on the ground what it would take to fully secure our border, there’s no ambiguity in their answer.
 
Number one on their list is a Border Wall System.  
 
Last week, I visited the border to announce the completion of 100 miles of new border wall.  We have another 130 plus miles under construction and over 200 miles in the pre-construction phase. 
 
Today, we remain on track to complete construction of over 400 miles of border wall system by the end of 2020.
 
Again, all of these actions culminate in a Strategy that is working. 
 
We have decreased illegal crossings seven months in a row for the first time since 2008, and will continue to take action against transnational criminal organizations that threaten American safety.
 
But let me be clear – while we have achieved great success over the past several months, we remain in a crisis with over 40,000 aliens apprehended every month crossing the border illegally. 
 
This is not sustainable …and we must do more.

Counterterrorism 

Lastly, I want to speak to the mission that’s been virtually synonymous with our Department since its inception: counterterrorism.

Since 9/11, we have achieved significant successes in mitigating the ability of foreign terrorist organizations, or FTOs, to attack the homeland.  
 
We have done this in a number of ways, including by raising the global baseline of security.
 
In 2017, facing an aviation threat emanating overseas, DHS worked with its international partners to raise the security baseline around the world.
 
Today, commercial aviation is more secure because of the actions we took.
 
Much like we did then, today, DHS is working to raise the global baseline for security.
 
We’re establishing criteria that all foreign governments must satisfy to assist DHS in vetting foreign nationals seeking to enter our country.
 

We are transparent and upfront with every country on the criteria and information we require.
 
There are no surprises.  
 
For a small number of countries that lack either the will or the capability to adhere to these criteria, travel restrictions may become necessary to mitigate threats.  
 
 
But let me be clear: travel restrictions are NOT based on the faith of the citizenry or the region of the world these countries reside. 
 
Instead, they are imposed because a country does an inadequate job of sharing information, or otherwise poses an elevated public safety or national security risk. 
 
When the safety and security of the American people is at stake, we don’t leave any room for error.

As we continue to address the threat from foreign terrorist organizations, we also are seeing an increasing threat from domestic actors, who adopt FTO techniques to inspire individuals to violence.

The recent trend of Americans driven by violent extremist ideologies or personal grievances to commit acts of terrorism and targeted violence with little apparent warning creates a unique challenge to traditional law enforcement and investigation methods.

This threat is real and, at times, unpredictable, and has serious ramifications on Americans’ perception of safety.

The Department’s Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence, that we released last fall positions DHS to confront this evolving threat.

The framework explains how we’ll leverage the tools and expertise that have protected the country from FTOs, to address the evolving challenges today.

I want to specifically call out the framework’s focus on enhancing prevention and resilience. 

The framework calls a “whole-of-society” approach to identifying individuals on a path to violence, and builds off-ramps and intervention points for them.  

Importantly, the Framework explicitly recognizes the need to support and protect our most vulnerable populations, particularly our youth.

On this point, I’d like thank Congress for recognizing the importance of this threat and our work in this area.  We’re glad to have been provided additional funding in FY 20 to advance our work in this area.

Implementing this framework to end these abhorrent attacks will continue to be one of DHS’s top priorities under my leadership.

We’re working aggressively to develop the implementation plan, which will be ready in the coming weeks.

The plan will serve as a roughly 2 year action document—running from FY 2020 to 2022—that lays out steps and milestones for DHS along the way. 

Lastly, I want to mention the urgency of this threat to our faith-based communities and houses of worship. We are responding.  

Specifically, we are actioning the recommendations of the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Subcommittee on the Prevention of Violence Against Faith-Based Communities.

I want to again thank the Subcommittee for their work on this important issue.

Conclusion

As each one of these threats show—DHS professionals are operating in a more complex and dynamic environment than ever before.

And throughout all the work we do, we continue to emphasize the importance of transparency, the protections of civil rights and civil liberties, and the protection of data in a digital age.

It’s an honor and privilege to lead DHS in our mission to protect the American people—but as is true and has been true for years, no one agency can tackle these issues alone.

Robust partnerships are critical to our success across the homeland security enterprise—from state and local law enforcement, to airlines, to cyber security companies, to disaster response organizations, and a variety of others.

Our private sector partners are ultimately why we are successful at securing the Homeland.   

Thank you again to members of the HSEG for your ongoing contributions to our homeland security. 

Our nation is fortunate to have so many bright minds applying their expertise to the most pressing issues we face.   

And thank you again for the opportunity to outline the tremendous work of the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security.

 

Last Published Date: January 21, 2020
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