Trump’s Homeland Security Purge Worries Cybersecurity Experts

There are more than a few top-level vacancies at DHS. According to The Washington Post’s tracker, only 39 percent of key Homeland Security positions are filled. Even before the past week’s purge, FEMA, which is under the umbrella of DHS, had no Senate-confirmed leader. Neither does the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans, the Science and Technology Directorate, nor the Office of the Inspector General.

“DHS’ voice is vital around the Situation Room table,” says Edelman. “Looking ahead, as we consider issues like national security controls over AI, or limits to foreign investment, DHS is going to be more crucial than ever—and that absence of leadership could lead to some very skewed outcomes.”

Outcomes like squabbling, misunderstandings, and deadlock—or even increased national security risk, if the department begins focusing only on immigration rather than its broader mandate. “DHS is once again focused on one risk at the exclusion of the others. Any nation that puts its entire weight behind just one security challenge (and steers dollars from other security needs, such as the military) is letting other vulnerabilities go unaddressed and ignored,” Juliette Kayyem, former assistant secretary of DHS in the Obama administration, wrote in an op-ed in the Post.

Consider the role DHS plays in something like attributing cyber threats against physical targets, for instance: The department helps negotiate between parts of the government with competing mandates—law enforcement may want to preserve evidence while other parts of the government just want to get machines and power turned back on. Without DHS empowered to moderate, who decides? It’s not immediately clear, according to Daniel.

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“This just continues to contribute to the turmoil that has become a hallmark of this administration,” he says.

Edelman warns that some of the unintended consequences of a blunted DHS might not make the administration happy—like greater influence from the intelligence community on matters of national security. “The competition for cybersecurity resources and authorities is fierce, and when it comes to the operational gray zone—between domestic and international, public and private sector networks—a vacuum at DHS might be filled by overeager defense or intelligence agencies,” says Edelman.

Most crucially, it leads to policy paralysis. And that will hit even issues the administration is bullish on, like the development and implementation of secure biometrics. “Persistent vacancies in science and technology offices may well delay that process, slowing down the sort of long-lead-time, high-tech work we need for smarter border security, critical biodefense, and even WMD detection applications,” says Edelman.

The good news is that there are still Senate-confirmed leaders in charge of DHS subagencies like the Transportation Security Administration, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. And the career federal workers who actually implement DHS policy are still there doing their jobs. They will be able to keep current policies going and respond to active emergencies.

But their jobs might get harder. “The career people can keep the trains running,” says Daniel. “The bigger issue is the long-term policy paralysis and the policy turmoil that this lack of permanence and long-term thinking will inevitably exact.”

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