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The Department of Homeland Security’s preoccupation with immigration and border enforcement may have left the U.S. vulnerable to a potential Iran-sponsored revenge attack, security specialists and lawmakers warn.
Some also said they’re worried the department had to scramble to respond to threats against the U.S. after failures from the White House to loop in key leadership earlier on its move to kill top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. A growing list of leadership vacancies at DHS, the exit of Middle East experts in recent months, as well as a drop off in counterterrorism coordination has also stoked concerns about readiness, they said.
“I don’t believe DHS was in on any of the decisions,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in an interview Wednesday of his concerns about DHS not being consulted before the strike. “We put too much emphasis on the border and not enough on cyber and counterterrorism,” he said, adding his continued concern at the number of acting leaders at the department. “I think they’ve put a lot of time and energy on immigration as red meat for constituencies.”
Thompson scheduled a hearing on Iran’s threat implications on homeland security for Jan. 15.
Top Iranian leaders pledged vengeance on the U.S. following Soleimani’s death Jan. 2. Iran hit back Tuesday pummeling military bases hosting American troops in Iraq, but no U.S. casualties were reported.
Law enforcement and former department officials have raised concerns in recent years that the DHS has placed its original counterterrorism mission on the back burner to focus on Trump’s political priority of a border wall. The department was launched in 2003 by melding together a string of agencies—including the Secret Service and Border Patrol—to try and protect against the siloing of intelligence that left America vulnerable to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The focus on immigration to me has meant the senior leadership could not possibly have as much of an in-depth feel for the terrorism and counterterrorism set of issues,” Nicholas Rasmussen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center who worked on the issue under the last three administrations, said in an interview. “When you get into crisis mode, you can’t just acquire that experience.”
Rasmussen and some former DHS officials and security specialists applauded aspects of the department’s response, however, pointing to a cyber threat warning released by its Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA. The department also released a threat bulletin Jan. 4 stating there was no specific, credible threat to the homeland at that time.
A spokeswoman from the department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Acting Secretary Chad Wolf tweeted Tuesday that he had met with lawmakers to inform them of the department’s “full range of protective measures and enhanced posture.”
Vacancies ‘Not Good’
Still, the top two leaders at the department—including Wolf—are serving in an interim capacity. Neither Wolf nor DHS’ No. 2 Ken Cuccinelli, who has been valued by the administration for his hard-line immigration views, has experience leading an organization as large as the 240,000 employee department.
Furthermore, more than 25 of the department’s leadership roles are either vacant, being filled in an interim capacity, or filled by individuals covering multiple positions, according to DHS data.
Those vacancies have a harmful effect on security, former DHS secretary Jeh Johnson, who served during the Obama administration, said in an interview Monday with NPR.
“Having so many vacancies in presidential appointments—in Senate-confirmed presidential appointments in a Cabinet-level department so vital to our safety at a time like this is not good,” Johnson said days after the air strike.
Johnson and former department and intelligence officials have also previously expressed worries DHS’ counterterrorism staff and resources have atrophied under Trump’s immigration focus. Wolf has an appreciation for the counterterrorism mission, but he needs to be ensured support from higher up, said John Cohen, former DHS acting undersecretary for intelligence and counterterrorism coordinator.
“He’s got a real challenge in the sense that that hasn’t up to this point been the priority of the White House,” Cohen said in an interview.
Out of the Loop
Other former officials were critical that DHS leadership wasn’t looped in earlier on the Soleimani attack to help ready defenses against retaliation. In 2011, former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, for example, was warned of the assassination plan for Osama bin Laden ahead of time to help thwart counter attacks on Americans.
“If DHS is responsible for defending today and securing tomorrow, you have to make sure they’re in the loop so they can have defenses up and work with the community to anticipate, protect and respond,” said Caitlin Durkovich, former DHS assistant secretary for infrastructure protection during the Obama administration.
Several former officials said the exit of several of the department’s top Middle East experts in recent months also left the department vulnerable. Tom Warrick, for example, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy since 2008, left last June.
Others pointed toward the general decline during the Trump administration in counterterrorism coordination. Legislation (H.R. 769, S. 411) to codify one such effort, the counterterrorism advisory board, which convenes senior leadership from each agency within DHS as well as its intelligence leadership, passed the House last year but has stalled in the Senate. A spokeswoman from House bill sponsor Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.)’s office said his team was working to advance the bill in that chamber.
To be sure, Wolf in a statement Jan.3 said he convened senior leadership immediately after the attacks. And Durkovich and others still offered praise to career civil servants in the department as well as several of the department’s responses, including its work to help businesses, citizens and localities mitigate against cyberattacks.
“CISA has done a good job building on and following process,” Durkovich said. “I’m very confident in the career staff.”
Still, the DHS response to Iran’s threats and its counterterrorism efforts need to be further evaluated in the months ahead, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said in an interview Wednesday.
To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org