DHS nominee Kelly mixes message on department’s cyber role

Should DHS consolidate its cyber role or give it up to the military? Homeland Security Secretary Nominee retired Gen. John Kelly didn't seem too sure.
John Kelly, 66, was a four-star Marine general before his retirement in 2016. (Wikicommons)

There was some mixed messaging Tuesday from the man set to be the next Homeland Security secretary about the troubled department’s role as the lead defender of American cybersecurity.

Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly answered supportive questions from members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee for less than three hours. And following suggestions from the Trump camp that the Pentagon might take the lead role on cybersecurity, observers were listening closely for any comment on the issue in a hearing overwhelmingly dominated by talk of DHS’s counterterrorism and border security missions.

Kelly told senators a long-slated reorganization and renaming of DHS’s National Protection and Programs Directorate to improve the department’s cyber capabilities would be a “top priority.”

But he added later that if DHS had to give up interagency turf to another Cabinet department to achieve a better policy outcome, under his leadership, it would.


“I have no rice bowl,” he said — meaning no institutional interest in the outcome of an interagency policy fight.

NPPD is currently a DHS headquarters element housing the department’s critical infrastructure protection and resilience-building efforts. During the last Congress, 2015-16, the Obama administration pushed a plan to reorganize NPPD into a much more operationally focused Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection Agency — a role derided by some critics as “cyber cops.”

Veteran committee Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware asked Kelly about NPPD’s role and name. “There’s a lot of confusion and not much understanding,” the lawmaker said.

“When I looked at the [DHS] org chart, maybe one of the first questions I had was, what does that block do?” replied Kelly. “So I agree I think a name change is not always important, I think it might be in the this case.”

Other people had raised that issue with him as well, Kelly told Carper. “We’ll take a look at that upfront,” he said.


In prepared answers to a pre-hearing questionnaire, Kelly wrote that if confirmed, “I will make addressing proposals for [reorganizing] the National Protection and Program Directorate a top priority.”

Because DHS was established by legislation, its organization and structure can only be changed by Congress. Because oversight of DHS is spread among so many different committees in both chambers, legislation to make those changes is often hard to get to the floor, even in the House.

“I look forward to engaging with the Congress on this issue,” wrote Kelly.

Elsewhere in the questionnaire, Kelly notes that DHS “plays an important role in leading the national effort … to enhance the security and resilience of the nation’s critical infrastructure against all hazard events, including cyberattacks. [DHS] also plays a leadership role in the protection of non-defense federal cyber systems.”

His intent if confirmed, he concluded, would be “to strengthen the department’s capability and capacity to perform both roles.”


But later in the hearing, Kelly told Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Lankford that he had “no rice bowl” — and he promised to eschew turf protection and other interagency games.

President-elect Donald Trump has said he plans an immediate review of national cyber roles and capabilities, and has hinted that he wants a broader role for the nation’s military.

“If I have to give something up, or go across town to someone else’s meeting, I’ll do that to improve whatever it is we’re trying to improve,” Kelly said.

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