DHS suggests new role for cybersecurity staff — helping with border crisis

DHS suggests new role for cybersecurity staff — helping with border crisis
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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is asking its cybersecurity-focused employees to consider taking on new roles by volunteering to help with the border crisis.

Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan told House lawmakers Wednesday that employees in the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) have been asked to consider relocating to the U.S.-Mexico border, but he insisted he would not support sending “critical” cyber staff to the region.

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“I am aware of the call for volunteers to help address the border crisis, just as we would do in a natural disaster. Our expectation, though, is that CISA would make risk-based decisions on the types of professionals they would free up for this kind of mission and balance against their day jobs and their current focus,” McAleenan said in a response to a question about the volunteer drive from Rep. Jim LangevinJames (Jim) R. LangevinHouse Dems introduce bill to fight social media disinformation Hillicon Valley: Senate passes bill to boost cyber help for agencies, businesses | Watchdog warns Energy Department failing to protect grid | FTC sues Match for allegedly conning users Senate approves bill to boost cyber assistance for federal agencies, private sector MORE (D-R.I.) at a Homeland Security Committee hearing on DHS’ fiscal year 2020 budget request.

McAleenan added that he would “not want the CISA leadership to deploy critical cybersecurity professionals in this role if they have mission support professionals, attorneys or others who could be spared to support this effort. We would welcome that, but that is for their management and leadership to handle.”

Another DHS official told The Hill that each DHS volunteer at the border allows an extra Customs and Border Protection or ICE agent "to perform border security duties.”

McAleenan said that regardless of which DHS agency a volunteer comes from, there will be “training for anyone who is directly engaging with migrants.”

At a separate House hearing on Wednesday, CISA Director Christopher Krebs testified that there are currently 10 CISA employees that have deployed to the border. According to a DHS email asking for CISA volunteers, these deployments will last for between 30 and 45 days. 

Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee criticized McAleenan for allowing CISA volunteers to support operations at the Mexico border.

Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: Democrats seize on whistleblower complaint to push for election security | Google taps GOP Senate aide to lead lobbying | Warren calls for congressional tech office Democrats seize on whistleblower report to push for election security House Homeland Security chairman: 'This is election interference' MORE (D-Miss.) told reporters that he considered the practice “questionable.” He argued that more than 360 vacancies at CISA makes it more difficult to allow CISA employees to volunteer. 

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“They have got 360-odd vacancies in the department already, just about everybody you talk to says it’s a critical mission, and the notion that to even consider deploying a department with such a critical mission,” Thompson said. “I hope the secretary decides that because of that critical mission, they won’t be put in the mix.”

Langevin also cited the job openings at CISA in his criticism.

“Given the importance of the mission -- the size of the threat, the challenge that we face, the large number of vacancies within CISA -- it’s not, it seems to me, a department that can spare critical talent to go do a job other than protecting our critical networks,” Langevin said during the hearing.

A DHS official told The Hill on Wednesday that “the situation at the border has reached a breaking point,” and that agency employees who volunteer are helping to bolster Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“The mission of every DHS component is critical to our national and homeland security. The situation at the border has reached a breaking point and requires the help of individuals willing to temporarily use their expertise to help address the situation,” the official said, adding that there are volunteers from every "operational component of DHS," including its headquarters.

Rep. Kathleen RiceKathleen Maura RiceMarijuana industry donations to lawmakers surge in 2019: analysis Pelosi backers feel vindicated after tumultuous stretch Democrat offers measure to prevent lawmakers from sleeping in their offices MORE (D-N.Y.) told McAleenan that he should “be aware of what your agency is asking people to do, because they have critical functions."

"And you have been given a lot of money by Congress to increase hiring and get people on board so you don’t have to deplete critical agencies with critical functions,” she added.

Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersCivil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill Extremists find new home in online app Telegram China cheats — and we let them MORE (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, told The Hill that McAleenan had assured him that critical CISA personnel would not be allowed to volunteer at the border.

“I have already talked with the secretary about this, and he assured us when he met with me and the chairman yesterday that anybody that volunteers to do this, their manager is not going to let essential personnel be accepted for that duty,” Rogers said.

He added that “we’re going to have to all hands on deck to deal with this crisis until we get some money out of Congress, and they are doing their best to make it work.”

In addition to CISA employees at the border, Thompson criticized the level of CISA funding in the 2020 DHS budget request and said President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE’s focus on building a border wall came at the expense of cybersecurity funding.

Thompson later told reporters that the cyber threat is “going in the opposite direction” of down.

Rogers, however, argued that while he “would always like to have more money” for DHS’ cybersecurity mission, it may not be possible to work into the 2020 budget.

“There is not an infinite number we can get, and I’m satisfied they are doing the best they can given the financial restraints that we’ve got,” Rogers said.

McAleenan will be back on Capitol Hill on Thursday to defend the 2020 budget request during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing.