Officials applaud confirmation of Mayorkas as DHS secretary over cybersecurity concerns
Key cyber-focused members of Congress and other officials on Tuesday applauded the Senate confirmation of Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), citing the need for his leadership following the hack of IT group SolarWinds.
The Senate confirmed Mayorkas by a 56-43 vote Tuesday after significant Republican pushback over immigration concerns, but he garnered significant bipartisan praise for his background in cybersecurity, including experience from serving as DHS deputy secretary during the Obama administration.
“Mr. Mayorkas is a seasoned DHS veteran with bipartisan support who has the experience and background we need right now,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a statement following the Senate vote. “His extensive work on immigration, cybersecurity, and counterterrorism issues make him uniquely qualified to ensure the country remains resilient and secure.”
One key issue Mayorkas will immediately face is grappling with the fallout from the hack of SolarWinds software by Russian agents, with much of the federal government, including DHS, compromised along with up to 18,000 domestic and international groups.
The hack, first discovered in December, was ongoing for more than a year and has been cited as the one of the largest cyber incidents in U.S. history. The attack may be even worse than already feared, with Reuters reporting Tuesday that Chinese hackers separately added malicious code to SolarWinds software, with at least one component of the Department of Agriculture compromised.
House Homeland Security Committee ranking member John Katko (R-N.Y.) highlighted the SolarWinds breach in congratulating Mayorkas on his confirmation Tuesday.
“Our homeland security, economic security, and way of life continue to be threatened in unprecedented ways by highly sophisticated adversaries,” Katko said in a statement. “On the heels of one of the most dangerous cyber-attacks our nation has seen, I would urge Secretary Mayorkas to work with Congress, across party lines, to close the troubling gaps in our nation’s cybersecurity posture.”
In the Senate, key leaders involved in Mayorkas’s nomination hearing also cited the need to respond to the breach in praising Mayorkas’s confirmation.
“Mr. Mayorkas is a proven leader and has the experience to protect the American people from harm,” Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday, citing threats such as “cyberattacks from foreign adversaries” as among the issues Mayorkas would face in office.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Homeland Security panel, emphasized the need for Senate-confirmed leadership at an agency responsible for “keeping our country safe, secure, and free.”
“Between foreign and domestic terrorist threats and the SolarWinds cybersecurity breach, it is crucial that we have someone leading the Department with the expertise and resolve to tackle these challenges and more,” Hassan said in a statement. “Secretary Mayorkas’ past leadership experience and depth of understanding on a range of national security threats will serve him well in this position.”
Mayorkas himself has committed to making cybersecurity a key priority as secretary. DHS includes the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the key federal agency responsible for securing critical infrastructure, including elections.
President Biden has not yet formally announced his pick to lead CISA, which has been without Senate-confirmed leadership since former President Trump fired then-CISA Director Christopher Krebs in November.
“I can assure you that the cybersecurity of our nation will be one of my highest priorities because I concur with you that the threat is real and the threat is every day and we have to do a better job than we are doing now,” Mayorkas said during his nomination hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last month.
Mayorkas also has the backing of cybersecurity officials, with Politico reporting in December that more than three dozen bipartisan former federal cyber leaders had signed on to a letter urging the Senate Homeland Security panel to quickly confirm Mayorkas.
“Well-known and well-respected across the cyber community, Mr. Mayorkas possesses the intelligence, integrity, and skills to assume leadership and protect our homeland assets-physical and cyber in nature-on day one,” the leaders wrote, with the group including former CISA Deputy Director Matthew Travis and Gen. Keith Alexander, the former head of both the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command.
Suzanne Spaulding, the former director of the predecessor agency to CISA, also signed on to the letter and told The Hill last week that she hoped Mayorkas would be quickly confirmed to give DHS leadership that it needs to address cybersecurity issues.
“I really … urge the Senate to move quickly on confirming Alejandro Mayorkas, with whom I worked closely when I was at DHS and who will be a terrific secretary…that is critically important,” Spaulding said. “The men and women at DHS are going to continue to do what they can do, but there are limits to what they can do without Senate-confirmed leadership.”