Washington, DC - Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen Remarks: Rethinking Homeland Security in an Age of Disruption:

Good morning everyone.  Thank you, Frank, for that kind introduction, and a big thank you to GW for hosting us here today.

I would also like to take a moment to thank the current and former DHS employees joining us today, as well as those who are hard at work across the country, keeping the American people safe.

Let’s give them a round of applause.


Today, I will describe five major changes in the threat landscape that are requiring us to comprehensively rethink homeland security.

I will explain how we are building resilience into everything we do, preparing our frontline defenders to protect America in a new age, and responding to these evolving threats.

A Dark Cloud

Next week will mark an important anniversary:  17 years since the 9/11 attacks.

We are now many years from the pivotal moment that gave us a permanent mission, but we will not let time nor space dull our memories or weaken our resolve.  Nor can we afford to, especially with new storm clouds forming on the horizon.

In the months prior to 9/11, then-CIA Director George Tenet said that the system was “blinking red.”  We heard enough chatter to know that danger was coming.  We just didn’t know when or where.

My colleague Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, recently said the system is “blinking red” once again.  His concern is our nation’s digital infrastructure.

He is right.  Our digital lives are in danger like never before.

But it’s more than that.  We are witnessing historic changes across the entire threat landscape.  We can see the winds blowing and hear the thunder drawing closer once again.

The balance of power that has characterized the international system for decades has been corroding.  America’s unipolar moment is at risk.  Power vacuums are springing up across the globe and are quickly filled by hostile nation-states, terrorists, and transnational criminals.

They all share a common goal:  they want to disrupt our way of life—and many are inciting chaos, instability, and violence.

At the same time, the pace of innovation, our hyperconnectivity, and our digital dependence have opened cracks in our defenses, creating new opportunities and new vectors through which these nefarious actors can strike us.

This is a volatile combination.  The result is a world where threats are more numerous, more widely distributed, highly networked, increasingly adaptive, and incredibly difficult to root out.

The Resilience Agenda

Our policy in the face of growing dangers will not be “strategic patience.”  Instead, we are reasserting U.S. leadership.  And we are building the toughest homeland security enterprise America has ever seen.

Our approach begins and ends with one word:  resilience.

We will never forget that in our darkest hour on 9/11, we saw real heroism…we saw renewed hope…and we saw relentless resilience.

It was a time when our incredulity was replaced by defiance, and our rallying cry was marked by unified determination:  “United We Stand” was written in sidewalk chalk, on bumper stickers, and in the hearts of all Americans who pledged not to be intimidated by evil.

Born from that commitment and that relentless resilience was the Department of Homeland Security.  This year we marked our 15th anniversary.  And we have come a long way.

But years later, we are still not prepared for everything.  We can’t be.  What we can do is instill a “culture of resilience” into our everyday lives.  That culture is not just about bouncing back; it’s about bouncing forward, adapting even when you’re under attack, and coming back stronger to stare down the next challenge more decisively than before.

I am pleased to announce that this month we will release a new DHS strategic plan, a “Resilience Agenda” that will guide our actions in defense of the American people.

Our Resilience Agenda is about…

  • Leaning in against today’s threats while zooming out to prepare for those on the horizon;
  • Being adaptive to keep pace with our adversaries;
  • Identifying and confronting systemic risk;
  • Preparing at the citizen level;
  • Building redundancy and resilience into literally everything;
  • And raising the baseline of our security across the board—and across the world.

Perhaps more important than anything, though, are the partnerships we build.  In today’s world, dangerous actors are crowd-sourcing chaos, and we MUST crowd-source our response.  But that’s only possible through deep public, private, and international cooperation.

Partnerships used to be a “nice to have.”  But now they are the lifeline for America’s survival.

What Has Changed Since 9/11

The world is very different than it was on 9/11.  In Congressional testimony in 2006, Frank referred to “bad weather, bad bugs, and bad guys.”  At DHS, we still confront all three.

But the bugs have expanded to the digital realm, and the bad guys are not only terrorists but nation states and transnational criminal organizations.

Today I will talk about the five major shifts in our threat landscape and how we are bringing our Resilience Agenda to bear against them.

First, and to set the stage—we must recognize that the “home game” and “away game” are no longer distinct.  They are one and the same.

After 9/11, our strategy was to take the fight to enemies “over there” so we didn’t have to fight them “over here.”  Unfortunately, that’s no longer the world we live in.

Our enemies don’t respect borders, and they aren’t constrained by geography.  Today’s threats exist in a borderless world.  So that’s how we need to operate.

Today, DHS actions abroad are just as important as our security operations here at home.

We have thousands of personnel forward-deployed who are taking an end-to-end approach to dismantling threat networks.

This phenomenon—the merging of the home and away game—magnifies all of the others I will talk about today.

Second, terrorism and transnational crime have spread across the globe at fiber-optic speeds.

After 9/11, we faced a centrally-directed terror threat.

But today the threat is everywhere.  The U.S. Government has terrorism investigations in every single state.  Self-made operatives are popping up across the globe.  DHS stops ten known or suspected terrorists a day from traveling to the United States, and those are just the ones we know about.  And even when we destroy jihadist sanctuaries abroad—and we have decimated their so-called caliphate—they are able to hide in virtual safe havens online.

Groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda now direct, finance, and inspire attacks—all from their smartphones.  This allows them to act anytime and anywhere with a network connection.

They are quite literally turning Twitter followers into terrorist foot soldiers.  And in so doing, they are promoting do-it-yourself terror by urging followers to adopt a “Bring Your Own Weapon” policy and to conduct violent acts wherever and whenever is convenient.

I can assure you that DHS is not sitting on the sidelines while this happens.

In fact, under this Administration we have made the most sweeping counterterrorism enhancements at the Department since its creation.

We have put in place historic measures to keep terrorists from infiltrating the United States, to stop them from radicalizing and recruiting in our communities, and to prevent them from carrying out attacks.

For instance, last year we announced the first-ever “global information-sharing baseline”—a requirement that every nation in the world share information with us about terrorists and take action to make it harder for them to travel undetected.

The handful of countries that failed to comply now face travel restrictions or other sanctions.  And I can say with confidence that this baseline has made America safer.

This month, I will make recommendations to the President on additional ways we can press foreign governments to step up their sharing and efforts to prevent terrorist travel.

We have also implemented the toughest screening and vetting measures ever to help us weed out violent extremists.

We are conducting deeper background checks on foreign travelers, screening applicants against more intelligence information, using biometrics to confirm identities, and conducting more thorough departure and arrival screening.  And before the year ends, we will open a groundbreaking National Vetting Center to bring at all together.

Despite their success with do-it-yourself terror, groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda are still focused on executing major attacks, especially against the aviation sector.

In just the past year, we’ve seen some of the most disturbing aviation plotting we have ever tracked.

But we’ve met that threat by putting in place the most significant upgrades to aviation security in a decade.

In response to threat intelligence, we required every airport in the world with flights to the United States to implement new “seen and unseen” measures to detect concealed explosives, guard against chemical weapons, identify insider threats, and identify suspicious passengers.

International flights are now more secure than they have ever been.

There is not nearly enough time to fill you in on the other counterterrorism steps that we have taken, but they include extensive engagement with the tech sector to make it harder for terrorists to weaponize the web with their propaganda...new efforts to protect soft targets nationwide against attack...an overhaul of our “terrorism prevention” programs focused on helping communities spot signs of terror sooner…and more.

Very soon the White House will be releasing a bold new counterterrorism strategy that will put our enemies on notice and lay out a path to victory against them.

Criminals are exploiting the same environment as the terrorists in order to build cartel superpowers with sprawling networks.

Indeed, a decade ago, transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs, were much like the terrorists of the 9/11 era:  confined to certain geographic areas with centralized command-and-control and a more limited focus.

Today they are spreading rapidly, outsourcing their work, diversifying their activities,  and cooperating with ever-wider cabals of identity forgers, smugglers, traffickers, drug-runners, fixers, and killers.  They are not only imbedding their enterprises further in the physical world, they are also selling their illicit wares in the virtual world.

So today I am pleased to let you know that DHS—along with our interagency partners—is launching a new effort to crush TCOs.

In the coming months, we will help stand up a pilot “fusion cell” that will bring multiple agencies together under one roof to map out a truly global and comprehensive approach to defeating these threats and dismantling their networks for good.

TCOs should be worried.  The President has set his sights on their downfall, and we are stepping up to take action…regardless of where they hide or operate.

Third, we are witnessing the re-rise of the hostile nation state.

DHS has spent many years since 9/11 focused—rightfully—on non-state threats.

But our nation-state rivals are increasingly asserting themselves in ways that endanger our homeland.

In fact, threats to the U.S. from foreign adversaries are at the highest levels since the Cold War.

Countries such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia are willing to use all elements of national power—financial, trade, cyber, espionage, information operations, and more—to undermine us and to advance their own interests.

Even in peacetime, adversary nation states are now taking the fight directly to citizens— attacking their devices, compromising essential functions like we saw in Ukraine, attacking them directly as we saw in the recent UK poisonings, or seeking to destabilize the heart of the democracy they depend on through malicious influence campaigns.  And they are encouraging us to turn on each other—so we tear ourselves apart from the inside.  We have never seen anything quite like it. 

It is not a fair fight.  Neither private companies nor citizens are equipped to wage a battle against a Goliath.  So we must partner together.

Top of mind for most Americans is the egregious Russian interference in our 2016 elections.

At Vladimir Putin’s direction, Moscow launched a brazen, multi-faceted influence campaign to undermine public faith in our democratic process and to distort our presidential election.

Although NO actual ballots were altered by this campaign, make no mistake:  this was a direct attack on our democracy.

We should not…cannot…and will not tolerate it—or let it happen again.

Election security wasn’t a mission we envisioned for the Department when it was created.  But it’s now one of my highest priorities.  And in the past two years, we have worked hand-in-hand with state and local officials to make our election infrastructure more secure than ever.

We are sharing intelligence nationwide with election officials.  We are forward-deploying cyber experts to help states scan and secure their systems.  And by the midterm elections this year, more than 90 percent of registered voters will live in an area where our network security sensors are deployed on their election infrastructure.

This is unprecedented.  But we won’t stop there.  On Election Day, our folks will be out in full force and hosting a virtual, nationwide “situation room” to monitor activity.

Today, I am calling on every state in the Union to ensure that by the 2020 election, they have redundant, auditable election systems.  The best way to do that is with a physical paper trail and effective audits so that Americans can be confident that—no matter what—their vote is counted and counted correctly.

DHS is also undertaking new efforts—in partnership with the FBI, intelligence community, and others—to counter foreign influence through close industry engagement and foreign partnerships.

Last week, I secured a commitment from our “Five Eyes” partners—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom—to collaborate more closely and block meddling in our democracies.

More broadly, I have directed a shift from a “counterterrorism” posture at DHS to a wider “counter-threats” posture to make sure we are doing everything possible to guard against nation-state interference.

We are overhauling our crisis response teams and advisory boards.

We are reorganizing our intelligence units into new “mission centers”—similar to what the CIA has done—to help us guard against foreign threats.

And we are taking steps to prevent adversaries from infiltrating U.S. companies and critical industries.

Fourth, cyber attacks now exceed the risk of physical attacks.

Don’t get me wrong:  terrorists, criminals, and foreign adversaries continue to threaten the physical security of our people.  But cyberspace is now the most active battlefield, and the attack surface extends into every single American home.

Some estimate that by 2021, cybercrime damage is estimated to hit $6 trillion annually.  To put that in perspective, that’s almost 10 percent of the world economy.

But it is not just cybercrime we are worried about – although we combat that too.  In a matter of keystrokes, an adversary can wipe out bank accounts, knock out critical services, take down vital networks and lock down or alter data—calling into question its availability and integrity.

Such attacks can spread well beyond their intended targets and have unforeseeable, cascading consequences.

This is the viral spread of volatile malware.  Indeed we have moved past the “epidemic” stage and are now at a “pandemic” stage—a worldwide outbreak of cyberattacks and cyber vulnerabilities.

We saw it last year when both Russia and North Korea unleashed destructive code that spread across the world, causing untold billions in damage.

The reason countries launch these attacks is simple:  they can—and they think they can get away with it.  Too often they have.

Now more than 30 nation-states have cyber-attack capabilities, and sophisticated digital toolkits are spreading like wildfire.

DHS was founded fifteen years ago to prevent another 9/11.  I believe an attack of that magnitude is now more likely to reach us online than on an airplane.

As we speak, the bad guys are in our networks checking for open windows or doors.  And everyoneand everything is a target:  individuals …industries …infrastructure …institutions …and our international interests.

In response, earlier this year, DHS released a new cyber strategy that outlines how we are changing the way we do business.  Above all, it highlights how we will identify and confront systemic risk – moving away from a focus on the protection of specific assets or systems.

You see, the more interconnected we are, the moreyour risk becomes my risk, and vice versa.  Anyone or anything to which you are connected can be the weakest link that makes you susceptible to attack.

In July, DHS hosted the first-ever National Cybersecurity Summit, where we brought together top CEOs and cyber minds to discuss these issues.

We agreed that we can’t afford to defend ourselves in silos.  If we prepare individually, we will fail collectively.  We must move from endemic vulnerabilities to system-wide endemic resilience.

To support this strategy, I announced the launch of the DHS National Risk Management Center, which will serve as a central hub for government and private sector partners to share information and better secure the digital ecosystem.

Together we will identify single points of failure, concentrated dependencies, and cross-cutting underlying functions that make us vulnerable.

We are also driving forward ambitious supply chain security efforts to identify upstream weaknesses before they have downstream consequence.

And we are working with our partners throughout the Administration to hold cyber attackers accountable.

We will no longer naively assume that a nation state with cyber capabilities won’t use them.  We will no longer tolerate the theft of our data.  We will no longer stand idly by as our networks are penetrated, exploited, or held hostage.

We will respond.  And we will respond decisively.

The United States has a full spectrum of options—some seen, others unseen—and we are already using them to call out cyber adversaries, to punish them, and to deter future digital hostility.

Our adversaries have been warned:  the days of cyber surrender are over.  And this Administration is replacing complacency with consequences…replacing nations’ deniability with accountability.

But there is a roadblock preventing us from getting where we need to be.  DHS wasn’t built for a digital pandemic.  Our cybersecurity arm—the National Protection and Programs Directorate—needs to be authorized in law and transformed into a full-fledged operational agency.

Today, I ask Congress to pass legislation immediately, and absolutely before the year ends.

Fifth and finally, emerging threats are outpacing our defenses.

This IS what keeps me up at night.  Drones are a prime example.

Ten years ago, a drone was something the military used overseas.  A few years ago, it was the hot toy on wish lists.  But today, it’s a major national security concern.

Terrorists are using drones on the battlefield to surveil and to destroy.  Drug smugglers are using them to monitor border patrol officers so they can slip into America undetected.  And criminals are using them to spy on sensitive facilities.  Drones can also be used to disrupt communications and or to steal data on nearby wifi.

Imagine a drone dropping a small bomb on a busy street.  Or in a football stadium.  Or releasing chemicals on a crowd at an outdoor concert.

This isn’t sci-fi anymore.  The threat is real.

I will continue to sound the alarm because we desperately need Congress to act.  Outdated laws prevent us from setting up the sophisticated defenses we need to protect big events, federal facilities, and other potential targets from an airborne menace.  DHS does not have the clear legal authority to identify, track, or take down dangerous drones.  We can’t even test defensive measures in civilian environments.

So once again, I call on Congress to get moving and pass the bipartisan legislation supported by the Senate and House Homeland Security Committees.  We need these authorities now—before it’s too late.

I also want to quickly mention weapons of mass destruction.  We are seeing terrorists and nation-states more willing than ever to use chemical and biological weapons to conduct attacks.

Just in the past year, Russia poisoned civilians in the UK using a deadly nerve agent, the brutal Syrian regime used chlorine and sarin gas to attack their own people, ISIS deployed chemical weapons on the battlefield, and authorities disrupted a terrorist plot to use toxic gases on an international passenger flight.

DHS is taking these threats seriously.  Last December, I formed the DHS Office of Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, or CWMD.  It was the largest DHS reorganization in years, and has already helped us better protect the American people.

But although DHS has broad authorities to guard against radiological and nuclear dangers, we don’t have everything we need to do the same against chemical and biological threats. 

However, thanks to the leadership of the House Homeland Security Committee, there is a bill to strengthen our CWMD office by empowering it with the authorities it needs.

I’m hoping we can get this done soon.

There is a theme here—and it’s that we really need Congress to act to give DHS authorities keep up with these dangers.


I want to close today with a bit more about resilience.

I am a great admirer of Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” speech.  My folks know it.  I’ve cited it in meetings and town halls many times.  And I suspect many of you know it as well.

But Roosevelt’s timeless words bear repeating nonetheless.  As he said:

“It is not the critic who counts.  Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually strives to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows—in the end—the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst—if he fails—at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

We live in turbulent times.  Some days it can feel as if there are more “critics” than “doers,” re-posting their rage online and trolling their fellow citizens on social media.

But the present discord in our discourse does not and will not define us. 

The 240,000 men and women of the Department of Homeland Security have found an antidote to this acrimony, and it’s called mission.

Every day, they roll up their sleeves and go to work to build a better and safer America.  They enforce the laws passed by Congress.  They believe in accountability.  And they do not let unfair criticism defeat them.

They are in the arena.  They are resilient.  And I urge you not only to learn from their example, but to support them.

Whether it is a FEMA employee responding to fires and floods …or an ICE agent taking a murderer off the streets…or a Coast Guard lieutenant seizing drugs off our shores…or a CBP officer stopping a terrorist trying to enter the country…or a TSA agent working to keep explosives off of airplanes…or a USCIS officer helping a family of refugees find a safer life in our country…or a Secret Service agent taking down a fraud scheme...or a cyber analyst sharing threat indicators to stop a digital heist …or the many, many other employees who work to protect our homeland…they all deserve our respect and gratitude.   As do their families—for when one serves at DHS, his or her family serves too.

I can tell you firsthand these patriots have thwarted real plots, real threats, and real danger to our people in just the nine months I’ve been on the job.

They have your backs.  So we should have theirs.  Although I am often asked what keeps me up at night I am rarely asked what gets me up in the morning.  I will tell you that what gets me up in the morning is not only the solemn honor and duty to protect the homeland but to support the men and women of DHS.  I am proud of their resilience, perseverance, and service to our great nation.

DHS is a Department of heroes.  And as long as I am Secretary, I will do everything I can to support them so that, with honor and integrity, they can continue to safeguard the American people, our homeland, and our values.

Thank you.