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  4. 2023 State of Homeland Security Remarks: Tackling an Evolving Threat Landscape – Homeland Security in 2023

2023 State of Homeland Security Remarks: Tackling an Evolving Threat Landscape – Homeland Security in 2023

Release Date: April 21, 2023

Today, Secretary Mayorkas delivered the State of Homeland Security address at the Council on Foreign Relations:

Good morning, everybody. Margaret, thank you for the introduction and for the discussion we are going to have in just a few minutes. My thanks to the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting us and thanks to all of you for being here. I would like to recognize two individuals, if I may, who have special meaning to our department. Our second Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. And former United States Congresswoman Jane Harman. 

Reflecting on the state of our homeland security in 2023, it seemed fitting to pose a fundamental question to a generative AI model: “in one sentence, describe how the homeland security threat environment has evolved over the past 20 years.”

We are, after all, confronting a dramatically changed environment compared to the one we faced in March 2003. One that could change even more dramatically, as AI grips our imaginations and accelerates into our lives in uncharted and basically unmanaged fashion. 

Deeply fascinated by generative AI’s promise of new advances and discoveries, greatly concerned for its capacity for error and its impact on our humanity, and keenly alert to its potential for harm in the hands of an adversary, I waited only seconds for the AI model’s answer: 

“The homeland security threat environment has evolved from a primarily focused counterterrorism posture to a complex and diverse landscape of challenges that include cyberattacks, domestic extremism, and the COVID-19 pandemic, among others.”

A straightforward answer to an important question that addresses the evolved threat landscape that our Department of Homeland Security must now confront. Its evolution is about to accelerate. 

Only about six months ago, engaging with an AI chatbot was reserved for a few in Silicon Valley and universities. Today about 100 million users per month are asking an AI chatbot just about anything, from recipe recommendations to requests for scientific analyses. 

The exponential growth of internet technology and the change it has driven has been extraordinary. As we reflect on the state of our homeland security today, that explosive growth compels the question: what will this growth mean for our safety and security over the next 20 years? 

We stand at the outset of what President Biden has aptly described as a “decisive decade” for our world. It is the same for our homeland security. Revolutionizing technological innovations, growing political and economic instability, widening wealth inequality, a rapidly changing climate, increasingly aggressive nation states, emerging infectious diseases, and other forces are transforming the global landscape, challenging and sometimes rendering moot a nation’s borders, and bringing national and international threats to any community’s doorstep.

Our Department was founded to protect us in the wake of the tragedy and devastation inflicted by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, bringing together 22 agencies from across the Federal Government charged with the mission of securing our homeland.

Back then, our country was focused on the threat of foreign terrorists who sought to enter the United States and do us harm. Over the next ten years emerged the threat of the homegrown violent extremist, the individual already resident here who was radicalized to violence by a foreign terrorist ideology. While those threats certainly persist, today lone offenders and small cells of individuals motivated by a wide range of grievances and violent extremist ideologies – from white supremacy and anti-Semitism to anti-government attitudes – pose the most persistent and lethal terrorism-related threat in the United States.

The effects of climate change have intensified. Wildfire season is no longer confined to the summer months but is now year-round. Tornadoes and named hurricanes in the United States are more frequent and more destructive. Just a few weeks ago in Mississippi, I surveyed the devastation wrought by a tornado that, in 20 seconds and at speeds up to 200 miles per hour, ripped through a small town, destroying multiple communities and taking the lives of more than 20 people. 

Not for a century have we confronted the calamity of an infectious disease as we have over the past three years. COVID-19 took more than one million lives here in the United States, impacted every aspect of our daily life, and forced on us a new understanding of the threat pandemic diseases can pose as they spread through paths of international trade and travel.

Globally, the impacts of disasters coupled with the rise of authoritarianism, corruption, conflict, violence, and persecution have resulted in an historic displacement and migration of people around the world and a consequent strain on immigration systems ill-equipped to address it. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the end of 2021, 89.3 million people worldwide had fled their homes due to conflict, violence, fear of persecution and human rights violations. This is the most since World War II and more than double the number of people who remained forcibly displaced a decade ago. 

Criminal organizations have capitalized on this surge. The reach and growing ruthlessness of smuggling organizations have changed how people migrate. Drug trafficking organizations have grown in sophistication and power, creating new means of manufacturing and selling death and destruction. From late 1989 through early 2001, I prosecuted federal drug trafficking crimes, from the trafficking of cocaine to methamphetamine to black tar heroin and more. Nothing I saw then matches the scourge of fentanyl that we have confronted for over the past five years. 46,802 overdose deaths in 2018; 57,834 in 2020, and 71,238 in 2021.

Over that same time, those seeking to exploit the most vulnerable have taken their depravity to an unimaginable level. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the nation’s clearinghouse for child sexual abuse material, received over 32 million cyber tips in 2022, corresponding to more than 88 million images and videos of child sexual abuse, a roughly 75 percent increase in the last five years.

88 million images and videos of child sexual abuse.

As threats of the past have changed in form, complexity, and magnitude, so too have new threats emerged. This is perhaps nowhere more acute than in cyberspace.

Some estimate that roughly 14.4 billion devices are connected as part of the Internet of Things, everything from our home thermostats and doorbells to our electric grid and fuel pipelines. This has brought significant advances in capabilities and conveniences, but it also has exponentially increased the ways our interconnected, digital world can be exploited to do us harm.

Today, malicious cyber actors are capable of disrupting gasoline supplies across an entire region of the country, preventing hospitals from delivering critical care, and causing disruption in some of the school systems around our country.

Nation states like the People’s Republic of China and Russia upend our rules-based international order and threaten our security at home, whether through cyberattacks, abuse of our trade and travel systems, or through disinformation campaigns that seek to undermine our democratic institutions. Our homeland security has converged with our broader national security.

The profound evolution in the homeland security threat environment, changing at a pace faster than ever before, has required our Department of Homeland Security to evolve along with it.

We have built new institutions, modernized our approach and processes, developed new capabilities, and are harnessing innovation as we deliver critical services that are more in demand than ever before. 

Our overarching strategy is one of partnership. Homeland security cannot be accomplished by government alone; it requires collective action.

  • To meet the threat of domestic violent extremism, we created the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships to share with local communities the best practice models of identification and intervention when an individual is exhibiting signs of moving towards violence.

  • Through our grant programs we are helping communities build threat prevention capabilities where previously they did not exist, responding to the reality that major metropolitan areas are no longer our adversaries’ only targets.

  • Across the Federal Government, we are working with communities impacted by unprecedented extreme weather events to strengthen their long-term recovery.

  • We have developed for the first time Department-wide incident management teams to lead all-of-government responses to emergent challenges, from vaccinating millions of Americans against COVID-19 and resettling Afghan nationals in Operation Allies Welcome, to providing protection for fleeing Ukrainians in Uniting for Ukraine.

  • We are coordinating and sharing intelligence with our partner nations and executing whole of government disruption and dismantlement campaigns to attack cartels.

  • In collaboration with diaspora communities here in the United States, we are building lawful pathways, so that migrants fleeing persecution can access safe and orderly avenues to obtain the humanitarian relief that our laws provide.

  • We are working collaboratively with our partners across government, at home and abroad, and with industry and academia, to manage and reduce risk to the cyber and physical infrastructure Americans rely on every day. 

  • We are partnering across the U.S. government to protect the most vulnerable from exploitation, whether they are migrants being trafficked by unscrupulous employers or children who are being abused online. Exploitation of the vulnerable.  

In fact, yesterday we released the Third Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, our new vision for securing the homeland, and in it we included this work of combatting crimes of exploitation – such as human trafficking, child exploitation, and labor exploitation – as a dedicated homeland security mission alongside our work countering terrorism, securing our borders, administering our immigration system, securing cyberspace and critical infrastructure, and building resilience and responding to disasters. This reflects the overriding importance of supporting victims and stopping the perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes. 

But, what of the threats as they could materialize tomorrow? I want to highlight new initiatives in two key areas that cut across all the Department’s missions. 

The People’s Republic of China poses an especially grave threat to the homeland, one that indeed does touch all of our Department’s missions.

Beijing has the capability and the intent to undermine our interests at home and abroad and is leveraging every instrument of its national power to do so, from its increasingly aggressive presence in the South China Sea to the overseas police stations used to harass and intimidate dissenters. A PRC invasion of Taiwan would have profound reverberations in the homeland, putting our civilian critical infrastructure at risk of a disruptive cyberattack. We must ensure we are poised to guard against this threat today and into the future.

I have directed a 90-day Department-wide sprint to assess how the threats posed by the PRC will evolve and how we can be best positioned to guard against future manifestations of this threat:

  • One critical area we will assess, for example, involves the defense of our critical infrastructure against PRC or PRC-sponsored attacks designed to disrupt or degrade provision of national critical functions, sow discord and panic, and prevent mobilization of U.S. military capabilities.

  • Another area of assessment will involve how we can bolster our screening and vetting to identify illicit travelers from the PRC who exploit our lawful immigration and travel systems to collect intelligence, steal intellectual property, and harass dissidents, while still we must facilitate lawful travel.

Informed by engagements with subject matter experts and our stakeholders, we will take immediate action to drive down risk, lay the foundation for ongoing public-private collaboration, and work with Congress to ensure we continue to invest in these vital capabilities. 

Next, and returning to where I began, we must address the many ways in which artificial intelligence will drastically alter the threat landscape and augment the arsenal of tools we possess to succeed in the face of these threats.

Our Department will lead in the responsible use of AI to secure the homeland and in defending against the malicious use of this transformational technology. As we do this, we will ensure that our use of AI is rigorously tested to avoid bias and disparate impact, and is clearly explainable to the people we serve.

I recently asked our Homeland Security Advisory Council, co-chair Jamie Gorelick is here, to study the intersection of AI and homeland security and deliver findings that will help guide our use of it and defense against it. The rapid pace of technological change – the pivotal moment we are now in – requires that we also act today. 

To that end, I am directing the creation of our Department’s first Artificial Intelligence Task Force that will drive specific applications of AI to advance our critical homeland security missions. The Task Force will, for example:

  • Integrate AI into our efforts to enhance the integrity of our supply chains and the broader trade environment. We will seek to deploy AI to more ably screen cargo, identify the importation of goods produced with forced labor, and manage risk.

  • The Task Force will also, among other charged, leverage AI to counter the flow of fentanyl into the United States. We will explore using this technology to better detect fentanyl shipments, identify and interdict the flow of precursor chemicals around the world, and target for disruption key nodes in the criminal networks.

Countering the multi-faceted threat posed by the PRC, learning from major cyber incidents, and harnessing the power of AI to advance our security will draw on the entirety of the capabilities and expertise the 260,000 personnel of DHS bring to bear every single day. It will require continued investment in our operational cohesion, our ability to work together in ways our founders never imagined.

We must never allow ourselves to be susceptible to ‘failures of imagination,’ which, as the 9/11 Commission concluded nearly 20 years ago, held us back from connecting the dots and preparing for the destruction that was being planned on that tragic day. We must instead look to the future and imagine the otherwise unimaginable, to ensure that whatever threats we face, our Department – our country – will be positioned to meet the moment. 

It is an especially challenging imperative to fulfill at a time not only of rapid change, but also of acute political divisiveness; when issues of homeland security that traditionally were unifying no longer are so, and when our adversaries continue to exploit innovations designed to bring us closer together, like social media, to push us apart. 

We must imagine a world where even more potent and lethal synthetic opioids or infectious diseases plague our communities. Where an earthquake or catastrophic storm intensifies already historic levels of migration in our hemisphere. Where criminals 3D print weapons or modify consumer technologies like drones to evade law enforcement. Where cyber criminals are emboldened to the point of holding for ransom the critical services of an entire city. 

At the Department of Homeland Security, we have the tools and talent to meet the moment today. We are taking the actions and making the investments to ensure we will continue to adapt and meet the moment into the future. We are more fit for purpose than at any time in our 20-year history.

This is a collective effort: we must all come together in the service of our homeland security. We must call upon our collective imagination, our commitment to a better future, and our fundamental love of country that binds us together, to protect our homeland.

Thank you. 


Last Updated: 04/21/2023
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