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SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 18 years after the deadly 9/11 attacks on the United States, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney wants to know what the Department of Homeland Security can be doing to better defend the nation against cyberattacks.
The Republican raised the question during a hearing Monday in New York City of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, held at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in the dramatic Foundation Hall.
“China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, they continue to launch hundreds, thousands of attacks on technical databases, government databases, corporations and so forth. Is there some way we can do a better job of deterring that,” he asked a panel of former leaders of the agency formed in response to the to Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“How do we up our game in cyber beyond where we are today?”
Janet Napolitano, the former Arizona governor who served as Homeland Security secretary under President Barack Obama, said cybersecurity is “an inordinately complicated topic” involving technology that changes faster than laws and policy can keep up with, requiring more attention.
“We need a whole of government, a whole of nation approach to this area. We need to recognize it is among the top three risks we face as a nation,” Napolitano said.
Former @DHSgov Secretary Jeh Johnson: "I view today's DHS with despair and dismay. The department appears to be under constant siege and constant crisis."— CSPAN (@cspan) September 9, 2019
Full video here: https://t.co/a2mHBJBQMVpic.twitter.com/rXB9bqtpWY
Earlier in her testimony, she identified mass casualty shootings and the effect of climate change as the other top threats.
She noted a key critique of the intelligence community in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center as well as other targets was that leaders suffered from “a failure of imagination” in interpreting red flags raised before terrorists used hijacked passenger jets as weapons.
When it comes to cybersecurity, there are already red flags, Napolitano said, warning that the country ”should not entertain such a failure of imagination” again.
“Perhaps it is time for the country to have a 9/11 commission for cyber before we have, for example, massive ransomware attacks simultaneously conducted around the country or where we suffer once again a direct attack on our democracy as we saw in the 2016 election,” she said, referring to Russian interference.
Jeh Johnson, who led the department during Obama’s second term, said the answer comes down to a basic equation, that such attacks are only “deterred if the behavior is made cost-prohibitive, if the nation-state recognizes it’s just not worth the cost in terms of the reaction of the target.”
Johnson said while a certain amount of surveillance goes on between governments, the theft of intellectual property and what he termed the “weaponizing of things for political purposes that are hacked or stolen” is at a new level. He called for the government to encourage more participation in prevention by the private sector.
Former @dhsgov Secretary Napolitano: "The border itself is not the number one threat to the safety and security of the American people…"— CSPAN (@cspan) September 9, 2019
Full video here: https://t.co/a2mHBJBQMVpic.twitter.com/rG4KqbM6M3
So did Michael Chertoff, President George W. Bush’s second Homeland Security secretary.
Chertoff said much of the technological infrastructure is in private hands and even government cybersecurity is often distributed among various levels of government, so “often the basics do not get done.” He said investment should be encouraged in critical technology so the U.S. and its allies keep pace with countries like China.
But Chertoff also said there needs to be a closer look taken at how the nation responds to cyberattacks by foreign adversaries.
“We have to be candid. The structure in terms of how we escalate is still very undefined,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is accidentally trigger a war because we overreact to something. So I think there needs to be some serious thought and perhaps some hearings on the question of what is the appropriate scale.”
Romney began his questioning by thanking the organizers of the field hearing, held “in a place where we can remember and mourn and honor those who stepped heroically in to save others and we can mourn” not just those killed in the 9/11 attacks but also the first responders and others “devastated by their heroism.”
The former Homeland Security secretaries brought up other concerns about the nation’s safety, with Johnson saying he views the agency today with “despair and dismay. The department appears to be under constant siege and constant crisis” as a result of management issues and “ill-conceived” immigration polices.
This week marks 18 years since the horrific terror attacks on 9/11. I’m in New York City with my @HSGAC colleagues for a hearing at the @Sept11Memorial to discuss how @DHSgov has evolved to address the ever-changing threat landscape. You can watch here: https://t.co/2YnvJOtL6F— Senator Mitt Romney (@SenatorRomney) September 9, 2019
Johnson said Homeland Security appears to be overwhelmed by a “politically contentious and emotional immigration mission” focused on the U.S. border with Mexico under President Donald Trump. “It should not have to be that way,” he said.
Napolitano spelled out that she does not believe immigration issues at the border are a threat to the United States.
“What we do not need and does not make sense is a wall,” she said, calling for an end to the “debate about the costly and needless border wall,” a key campaign promise made by Trump in the 2016 election. “It is a red herring,” Napolitano said.
The response to mass casualty shootings, she said, should be a ban on both high capacity ammunition magazines and assault weapons as well as universal background checks for gun buyers. Napolitano said, too, that the changing climate can lead to the radicalization of those losing their jobs as crops are lost.
Chertoff said he believes Homeland Security has largely succeeded in its mission because the nation has avoided another 9/11-style attack. But, he cautioned, the agency must continue to adapt to new threats, including from domestic terrorists fueled by social media.