On November 8th, 2017, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee held its confirmation hearing of Kirstjen Nielsen for Secretary of DHS. Cost-benefit analysis and the allocation of finite DHS resources were prevalent themes throughout the hearing. The Committee questioned Nielsen on her and the Trump Administration’s priorities in the areas of border security, deportations, natural disaster preparedness and response, counter-terrorism, and cybersecurity. Recognizing the broad DHS mission space and that trade-offs must be made based on risk to the country, Nielsen cited the need for accurate metrics, modeling, and cost-benefit analyses in deciding how resources should be allocated. The need to work with state and local authorities in these various mission spaces was also a common sentiment expressed by Nielsen.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the nominee, both highlighting her two decades of experience in resiliency planning, risk management, and preparedness and response, as well as her previous roles within DHS. Endorsements of Ms. Nielsen were read into the record from White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, and former DHS Secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff. If confirmed, Ms. Nielsen will be the first Secretary of Homeland Security to have previously served in DHS.
Committee Chairman, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) opened the hearing by discussing the increasingly difficult threat landscape facing the incoming Secretary. He noted the increasing national debt, the resurgent threat of Iran and Russia, the increasing number of Islamist inspired attacks on U.S. territory, recent domestic mass-killing incidents, persistence of illegal drugs crossing the U.S. border, and an evolving cyber landscape resulting in new threats through mediums such as social media. Additionally, Chairman Johnson mentioned the concern he has with a reduced DHS and FEMA budget, and its impact on DHS’ ability to respond to natural disasters.
In her opening statement, Ms. Nielsen referenced her experience in various roles, including as an operator within the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), as interdepartmental coordination lead for disaster response and resiliency at the White House under the George W. Bush Administration, and recently as Chief of Staff at DHS under former Secretary John Kelly. Nielsen acknowledged the importance of interagency and international partnerships in combatting current threats.
Throughout the confirmation hearing, Kirstjen Nielsen responded to several questions on her enforcement priorities, domestic terrorism, and how best coordinate the largest law enforcement agency in the U.S., Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Border security was a priority issue throughout the confirmation hearing with multiple Senators raising questions to Ms. Nielsen about her enforcement priorities and resource allocation strategy.
Ranking Democrat, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), questioned the Administration’s budgeting priorities for border security. She critiqued the President’s emphasis on expending resources for infrastructure (a border wall) and personnel (Border Patrol Agents) between the ports of entry, while not paying due attention to the threat of narcotics moving undetected through the ports of entry. Ms. Nielsen committed to reviewing the appropriate resource allocation for advance screening technology, personnel, and infrastructure to be deployed both at and between U.S. ports of entry.
Senator Portman, similarly concerned with drug flows into the U.S., wanted Ms. Nielsen to commit to supporting the STOP Act, which would require advanced electronic data on international mail shipments entering the U.S. to be shared with CBP by the United States Postal Service (USPS). He cited the uptick in fentanyl and other synthetic opioids moving into the U.S. by mail and stated better data was needed from the USPS for CBP to enhance screening of international mail. Private mail carriers are currently required to submit significantly more data than the USPS. Ms. Nielsen committed to supporting the STOP Act and providing technical assistance to USPS to improve mail screening.
Senator McCaskill questioned Ms. Nielsen on her priorities for building a border wall. Like her predecessor, Secretary Kelly, Ms. Nielsen stated that she would not build a wall from “sea to shining sea”, but would instead consult with the operators on the ground and ensure that the appropriate technology, staffing, and infrastructure is deployed where needed.
Law Enforcement Grants
Senator Tester (D-MT) questioned Ms. Nielsen on the President’s budget cuts for multiple law enforcement grants that help local and state law enforcement agencies better secure their airports. In response, Ms. Nielsen committed to providing available DHS resources, whether that be in training or in some approved grant program.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
Senator Hoeven (R-ND) asked Ms. Nielsen if she supported the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) along the border. Ms. Nielsen stated that UAVs are a “force multiplier” allowing CBP to monitor vulnerabilities along the border in a cost-effective manner. In response to Sen. Hoeven’s concerns about privacy issues that may result from the use of these technologies, Ms. Nielsen pledged to investigate and analyze the cost-benefit of these technologies.
Northern Border Security
Concerns regarding the security of the U.S.-Canadian border were raised by many of the Senators on the committee representing Northern Border states. Senator Heitkamp (D-ND) asked Ms. Nielsen to commit to making the Northern Border a priority and to implement a Northern Border strategy. Heitkamp mentioned that there are large gaps in the Northern Border where there is no technology or personnel. Ms. Nielsen agreed that the Northern Border must be appropriately prioritized.
Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA)
Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) questioned Ms. Nielsen on her position regarding the Administration’s decision to end the DACA program. Ms. Nielsen stated that she wants to work with Congress and other officials to find a permanent solution to the issue. When asked if future former DACA recipients would be an enforcement priority for DHS under Ms. Nielsen, she stated that enforcement and removal actions should prioritize individuals who represent a security threat or have committed crimes above and beyond illegal entry into the U.S. Ms. Nielsen added that information on individuals in the DACA program, unless for very specific and limited national security reasons, would not be shared for enforcement purposes.
Customs and Border Protection Hiring
Senator Lankford (R-OK) asked Ms. Nielsen what she intends to do about the hiring delays present at U.S Customs and Border Protection (CBP), where it takes an average of 450 days to process and on-board one new Officer or Agent. Senator Lankford mentioned that Congress appropriated $165 million to address this issue, but there has been little headway. Ms. Nielsen said she would take a holistic approach and consider ways that CBP is advertising its employments opportunities, ensure that websites where candidates can submit applications are properly functioning, and look at factors that result in high attrition rates.
Cyber Security and Election Integrity
Multiple Senators questioned Ms. Nielsen about what DHS could do to ensure the security of critical cyber infrastructure, including state and local election systems. Ms. Nielsen, who has experience in this field, asserted the need to work with state and local officials to determine vulnerabilities. She said that DHS should review how it deploys cybersecurity resources between a headquarters level in Washington DC and in the field. She vowed to defend against efforts by Russia to meddle in U.S. elections and stated election security must be a priority for this Administration. She also stated the need to address any rise in threats from quantum computing.
Countering Violent Extremism
Senator Heitkamp questioned the Administration’s cuts to DHS’ Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, which performs community outreach and prevention efforts with populations vulnerable to radicalization. Senator Peters (D-MI) noted an uptick in hate crimes in his state of Michigan and stated the Administration was not doing enough to address the issue of white supremacy and Islamophobia. Ms. Nielsen stated that DHS should conduct outreach with local authorities to address these issues and that cost-benefit analysis was needed to determine the proper allocation of resources in different programs. In response to a question about stopping the ‘terrorism diaspora’, Ms. Nielsen stated the need to coordinate the with Intelligence Community and leverage joint taskforce models.
Natural Disaster Preparedness and Response
Multiple Democrat Senators questioned Nielsen about her beliefs as to whether human activity was responsible for the climate change that had caused recent devastating natural disasters. While Ms. Nielsen agreed that climate change played a significant role in recent natural disasters, she stated she could not draw any conclusions about the role of human activity. Concerning lessons learned from her role in preparedness planning in the White House during Hurricane Katrina, Nielsen cited the need to have federal contracts for supplies and personnel in place ahead of a natural disaster, rather than scrambling for them in the aftermath. She also cited the crucial need to work with state and local authorities on the ground to ensure the right preparedness and response plans were in place as well as scalable to incidences of varying sizes.
Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) questioned Ms. Nielsen on her previous leadership experience, noting that she, if confirmed, will lead the 3rd largest department in the United States. He was concerned that Ms. Nielsen, despite her technical knowledge across many of DHS’ mission spaces, lacks the leadership experience needed to lead such a large agency. Ms. Nielsen contended the skills she has developed in leadership roles are entirely scalable. She stated that as Secretary she will be clear about mission, roles and responsibilities, ensure the appropriate tools are in place, remain transparent, lead with her principles, hold people accountable, and ensure that operator input is incorporated into policymaking.