Election security dominates hearing for Trump Homeland Security nominee

Election security dominates hearing for Trump Homeland Security nominee
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate US sending 20,000 troops to Europe for largest exercises since Cold War Barr criticizes FBI, says it's possible agents acted in 'bad faith' in Trump probe MORE’s choice to serve in a top role at the Department of Homeland Security faced numerous questions about election security on Wednesday, earning praise from Republicans and Democrats on a key Senate panel considering his nomination. 

Trump has tapped Christopher Krebs to serve at the helm of the Homeland Security office responsible for guarding federal networks and critical infrastructure from cyber and physical threats.

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The office, known as the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), has spearheaded efforts to help states guard against foreign efforts to penetrate their election systems following Russian interference in the 2016 vote.

Krebs pledged to make election security his “top priority” if confirmed to lead NPPD. “Election security is a national security issue,” he told members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee Wednesday.

While acknowledging his qualifications for the role, Democrats peppered Krebs with questions about Homeland Security’s engagement with state election officials, pressing him to move more quickly to conduct cyber tests in states that request them and add more personnel to the mission. 

“It’s the end of April, and the election is quickly approaching,” Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillGinsburg health scare raises prospect of election year Supreme Court battle MSNBC's McCaskill: Trump used 'his fat thumbs' to try to intimidate Yovanovitch GOP senator rips into Pelosi at Trump rally: 'It must suck to be that dumb' MORE (D-Mo.), the ranking member, said.

Trump tapped Krebs to serve as an assistant secretary at NPPD last year, and Krebs has been performing the role of undersecretary in an acting capacity while the administration searched for a permanent occupant. Trump formally nominated Krebs to the post in February. 

Before that, Krebs worked on Microsoft’s government affairs team and, earlier in his career, served in a homeland security role during the George W. Bush administration. 

Krebs on Wednesday gave lawmakers an update on NPPD’s election security efforts. He said the department has completed what are called risk and vulnerability assessments — the most rigorous cyber assessment available — for nine of the 17 states and eight local jurisdictions that have asked for them. The remainder will be completed by the end of May, he said.

When Krebs told lawmakers that Homeland Security has between 10 and 15 people assigned to election security full time, McCaskill described that as “woefully inadequate.”

The hearing, which lasted just over an hour, also delved into Homeland Security’s role in cyber with respect to other agencies. Currently, cyber responsibilities are spread across the federal government, spanning the DHS, the Justice Department, the Pentagon and the broader intelligence community.

Several senators suggested there had been “turf wars” over cyber in Congress and the federal government.

“We expect you to throw some sharp elbows,” said Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampPro-trade group launches media buy as Trump and Democrats near deal on new NAFTA The Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Trump wins 60 percent approval in rural areas of key states MORE (D-N.D.). “There’s been a lot of turf on this, and there shouldn’t be.”

Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSenate braces for brawl on Trump impeachment rules Trump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe Here are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump MORE (R-Wis.) suggested that a provision that would have renamed and reorganized NPPD’s mission — legislation that Homeland Security has called for — didn’t make it into a massive funding bill passed last month because of disagreements over which committee has jurisdiction over cyber.

“There’s a reason we didn’t get the name change in the omnibus,” Johnson said. “There is conflict here.”

Krebs addressed questions about the department’s decision to bar agencies from using software produced by Russian-origin Kaspersky Lab, as well as the ongoing effort to deliver security clearances to owners of critical infrastructure to share sensitive threat information — often a source of criticism of Homeland Security. 

Krebs insisted that the department is working to “streamline” its approach to issuing security clearances and prioritize those that are more urgent. 

His answers seemed to appease lawmakers from both parties, who signaled support for his nomination. 

“The committee has a fair amount of confidence in your ability,” Johnson said. 

Johnson told reporters following the hearing that he expects to vote on the nomination “as quickly as possible.”

“Unfortunately, we’re going to be on recess next week,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we will move this as quickly as possible. I don’t see any problems; it should be a very bipartisan confirmation.”

If the committee signs off, his nomination will need to be approved by the full Senate.