A comprehensive review of the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity posture is in order given challenges the department has had in managing its information technology (IT) systems in the area of security, William Valdez, the Biden administration’s nominee to lead the DHS Management Directorate, said on Thursday.
“If confirmed, I would commit to doing a top-to-bottom review of the current state of cyber preparedness at DHS,” Valdez said during his nomination hearing hosted by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
He pointed out that the Under Secretary for Management is responsible for DHS’s IT systems and works with the department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which helps federal civilian agencies with the security of their networks.
Valdez said as the management chief he would assess what the directorate has already done then brief Congress on “possible remedies.”
Valdez was answering questions posed by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), who cited a March 2021 Government Accountability Office report on high-risk issues at federal agencies that pointed to IT management challenges and the lack of timely security patches and updates on some DHS IT networks.
Valdez is a former Department of Energy executive and is currently the president of the Alliance for Latinx Leadership and Policy, working to develop a leadership pipeline for Latinx professionals seeking a career in public service. He also consults for multinational corporations.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) highlighted ongoing IT modernization and security challenges throughout the federal government. Valdez said his government he worked on IT modernization and combined with his consulting experience has given him an understanding of the “challenges and the complexities” of replacing legacy IT systems with modern capabilities.
“If confirmed, I would be very much involved with that effort,” he said.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), ranking member on the committee, raised concerns about China’s economic espionage efforts in the U.S. He asked Kenneth Wainstein, the nominee to be DHS under secretary for intelligence and analysis (I&A), about his role as a private lawyer in a Chinese state-owned company asking China’s intelligence services for information on U.S. oil and gas companies.
Wainstein, who reported on his work on the issue in his questionnaire for the committee, said in 2018 he was asked by a colleague at his law firm that does trade work to write a memo on whether criminal laws may have been “implicated” in the work for China’s National Offshore Oil Corp. Wainstein said he had an associate write up a memo, which he reviewed, and then passed it along to his colleague.
Wainstein said he never spoke with, or advocated on behalf of, the client.
He also said he is keenly aware of the aggressive economic and “economic geopolitical-military” espionage being conducted by the Chinese Communist Party to compete with the U.S.
“They are seeking supremacy over the United States in every way and they’re using whatever means are available, many of those means being completely inappropriate,” Wainstein said. “I understand that state-owned enterprises are often being used as vehicles for those means and that people like myself need to take a hard look at those entities before doing any work for them.”
Wainstein was an assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s National Security Division during the administration of President George W. Bush and later served as the president’s homeland security adviser.
During his time at DoJ, Wainstein said he “was banging the drum about how China was eating our lunch in terms of stealing our technology and that’s an area I’ve been quite vocal about both in government and outside of government and I commit to you if I go to I&A I’m going to keep an intense focus on that because, if anything, the approach by the Chinese Communist Party in competition with us has become more sharp edged, not less sharp edged over the year and the danger is even greater than before.”
Wainstein said that I&A is already focused on China’s espionage activities, adding that “I expect to maintain that, if not accelerate it.”
Portman also asked Dimitri Kusnezov, the nominee to run the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, about securing grants against Chinese espionage.
Kusnezov, who manages a DoE effort on international partnerships for artificial intelligence, said he’s aware of China’s efforts in stealing data and intellectual property from the U.S. Kusnezov said he has worked on these issues at DoE.
If confirmed, Kusnezov said this would be “an important problem to look into” at DHS. He added that he would “take a broader approach” to this problem that involves other government agencies that fund science and technology efforts.