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Senator Lankford Questions Acting DHS Secretary in Homeland Security Committee Hearing

CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s Q&A.

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today participated in a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing entitled, “Resources Needed to Protect and Secure the Homeland,” at which he questioned Acting Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Kevin McAleenan about DHS efforts to secure the southern border and prevent drug trafficking, to determine DHS preparedness to help after the natural disasters in Oklahoma and the Midwest, and to assess ongoing DHS cyber security efforts regarding election security.

Last week, Lankford helped introduce the Voting System Cybersecurity Act of 2019, which would ensure that a cybersecurity expert from DHS is involved in crafting the voluntary voting system guidelines voting system manufacturers use when creating their products.

Lankford and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) recently sent a letter to McAleenan urging him to ensure that election security continues to be a Departmental priority following former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s departure. Recent reports have indicated that cybersecurity experts and government officials are concerned that election security will be de-prioritized or neglected under new leadership.


On securing the southern border

Lankford: Mr. Chairman, thank you so much. We have a lot to cover as you’ve seen, and we’ve gone through quite a bit. Let me go back to a couple of issues that we’ve already started to address a little bit. One is on the drug interdiction issues, and what I want to do is be able to walk through drug interdiction and what we’re seeing coming from Mexico versus coming from China. One is obviously coming by mail more, and sometimes Chinese are sending it to Mexico then Mexico is actually bringing it north from there. So help us understand what you see is the difference between the amount of drugs coming into the United States from Mexico and the amount of drugs coming in through China? 

Mr. McAleenan: Thank You Senator. The two main vectors frankly for synthetics—especially synthetic opioids, fentanyl, car fentanyl, and analogues—so in this massive flood of e-commerce, this tremendous growth of mail shipments coming from China, express consignment coming from China, we are seeing hard narcotics, vials of fentanyl—25 grams—that we’re trying to detect in this flood of packages, and it’s a very potent. The drug seizures we’re making in the mail environment are 90 percent pure on average so a very small amount could actually be pressed into pills at a very high level in terms of making profit and producing doses in the US. On the Mexican side we’re seeing—you know prepackaged fentanyl doses often in pill presses—that it’s more at the ten percent purity level, so it’s a much lower level, but it’s produced ready to use as opposed to needing further processing in the US. I think the bulk of our volume seizures are still on the southwest border for all drugs but including our synthetic opioids. We do see precursors coming from China and other countries being synthesized by cartels in Mexico and then smuggled across our border in increasing amounts as well. They tend to seek to seize the market share on any new opportunity to smuggle drugs into the US. So that’s what we’ve seen it with fentanyl as well. 

Lankford: So what is it cooperation like right now with the Mexican government since the bulk of the drugs coming in the United States are coming across our southwest border. 

McAleenan: So we’ve established connections with the new leaders of our counterpart agencies from PGR, that does the investigations, to the Federal Police, which is transitioning into a National Guard status. Right now they just had a very overwhelming vote in support of transitioning to a National Guard. That’s going to be a five-year process. We know what it’s like to merge and change as a department; we did that in 2003 extensively. That’s a distraction, so that’s something that we want to work with our partners to make sure we remain focused on the threats. We’ve got good relationships with their head of security, Secretary Durazo, and we’re gonna stay focused on this issue and try to maintain our efforts. We have seen targeted takeouts of meth labs based on intelligence and information sharing from US law enforcement so I think that’s a positive sign. 

Lankford: That is a positive sign. Tell me about the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of new fencing. You’ve replaced some of the fencing in San Diego in some of that area. You’ve had enough time to be able to evaluate it, how’s it working compared to old fencing?

McAleenan: Yeah a complete difference. And I’m glad you asked that question because there’s been a lot of reporting that suggests this isn’t a new capability, this is just replacement, this isn’t helpful, this this wasn’t important, border wall. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Those were our top requirements. We had this dilapidated wall. This was the first wall built because it was needed the most in San Diego and in El Centro sector for instance. Now having a 30-foot wall in El Centro sector where there’s a mall within 40 yards of the border has completely changed that dynamic. The traffic has dropped off the table in that area, and we’re able to deploy and use our agents more efficiently in other parts of the site.

Lankford: Do you have a good idea of side-by-side what the movement of individuals or drugs used to be through that same area or what it is now with the new fencing?

McAleenan: We do. I can get you that data. The percentage drop has been dramatic.

Lankford: That’d be great. So we’d like to be able to see that because obviously there has been a lot of push back to say, ‘This is just replacement,’ so it makes no difference. The numbers that I’ve seen on a preliminary basis show a pretty significant difference between that new fencing in between the older fencing that wasn’t very effective at all.

On DHS ability to support Oklahoma and others suffering recent severe weather damage

Lankford: Let me shift gears a little bit. My state has been like several states. We have had a tremendous amount of water come on us. The flooding in my state has been pretty dramatic and continues to increase, and we have storms predicted the next four days in a row again. So this is an area that I’m tracking very, very closely working with the Corps of Engineers and with others that are there. FEMA has been on the ground, we appreciate FEMA’s engagement there, and we’ll continue to be able to work with you on that. What do you need at this point that you do not have already for disaster relief whether that be in my state in Oklahoma, whether it be in Missouri, where there was a tornado last night in Jefferson City, or whether that be in Florida, or Puerto Rico, or in California.

McAleenan: So I think we have the resources and the support we need to support Oklahoma in this recovery. I talked to the governor a lot two weeks ago about the flooding, the potential for increased flooding as rains continue and the river stays very high. We’re very worried about it, and what I heard was the partnership between the state and locals and FEMA has been tremendous on this, that they’re getting what they need at the state level, but I absolutely want to continue the communication, would love to hear from your office if there are opportunities to improve that.

Lankford: Thank you we’ll continue to get to walk through that. FEMA’s cooperation has been excellent, and we appreciate that continuing engagement there.

On Coast Guard drug interdiction and election cybersecurity

Lankford: I need to ask you just a couple other quick things. One is on the Coast Guard process you and I have talked briefly before that as far as interdiction on the water, the Coast Guard process for interdictions and Customs and Border Patrol have two different structures to do interdiction. The Coast Guard process is much longer than Customs and Border Patrol, and I’ve always wondered within DHS why we have two entities both on the water. One has one process, one has another. And the Coast Guard process is a much, much longer process, and I’d like for us just to be able to take a look again and to be able to help our Coast Guard folks able to do a faster interdiction as the Customs and Border Patrol does currently as well. There’s also some non-lethal resources that Customs and Border Patrol have when they’re on the water that Coast Guard does not have access to and to be helpful to be able to help both those entities on the water to be able to get that level of engagement interdiction faster. 

Lankford: Let me shift a little bit to cyber security. What DHS did in the 2018 election was pretty remarkable in your engagement and lean-in. A lot of threats, a lot of lessons learned from 2016. Very different DHS engagement in 2018. I know you’re staying engaged, but I need to ask you about that. How is the engagement for election security and knowing that every federal agency looks to you to be able to help them with cyber security for that entity, how is that going as far as a resource wise?

McAleenan: Yeah so this is something I’ve been working on multiple times a week in my six weeks as acting, but it’s also an area where I have high confidence in Chris Krebs and the leadership of our sister team. I think they have a great strategy to capitalize on the successes and momentum from ‘18 for the 2020 election, ‘Protect 2020’ we’re calling it. They want to get to all 80,800 jurisdictions in the country. Not just all 50 states, but all the jurisdictions that are overseeing elections and make sure that they have the right systems in place, that if they want scanning or penetration testing, we can do that in advance and help them prepare. And really I think the relationships and the communication is robust—we built a lot of trust from ‘16 to ‘18 in our partnerships with state and locals. So I feel very good about the election security strategy. In terms of the interagency on the federal networks side, we do have good buy-in on our protections at the edge of the gateways, an Einstein system and others. We do need to continue to work on that. You know, talking with the sister team that their top-three priorities are getting better at what they already do, federal networks, election security, and soft targets, and then of course working supply chain issues where we see components being brought in supply chains that could have vulnerabilities and obviously industrial control systems. That’s a huge challenge for cyber, could have the biggest impact, everything from power to pipelines. So we’re gonna stay on top of it across those areas. 

Lankford: Please do. Kevin, thanks for all your work on this.