At Homeland Security Committee Hearing, Portman Questions Secretary Nielsen on DHS Efforts to Address the Opioid Crisis, Cybersecurity Attacks

October 10, 2018 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This morning, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) at a Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee hearing inquired to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about what more DHS could do to help reduce the influx of deadly synthetic drugs like fentanyl from being shipped through our borders to drug traffickers here in the United States. Portman’s bipartisan Synthetics Trafficking & Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act is one effort to help to stop dangerous synthetic drugs from entering the United States, but more must be done. The STOP Act was passed by House and Senate earlier this month and will be signed into law by the president. Nielsen had previously outlined her support for the bill last November. 

Portman also questioned Secretary Nielsen and FBI Director Christopher Wray on what further actions are needed to ensure the safety of Americans in the public and private sectors from cybersecurity attacks. Senators Portman and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) introduced the DHS Cyber Incident Response Teams Act in order to help prevent cyberattacks on federal agencies and the private sector. The bill passed favorably out of committee last month. 

An excerpt of Portman’s questioning can be found below and a video can be found here.


Portman: “This is a hearing where there’s so many topics to raise and we don’t have time to do it all but let me just focus on a few quickly. One is the drug crisis and it was referenced earlier. We have an opioid epidemic as everybody knows, what people perhaps don’t know is the role that fentanyl has played. 4,000 percent increase in fentanyl overdose deaths in my home state in the last five years alone. Now the number one killer in America and Ohio. Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and relatively inexpensive. It can be made synthetically, therefore a kind of boundless supply. Most of it is coming from China, most of it is coming through the mail system, I’m told by your experts, Secretary Nielsen, and also from the DEA and other law enforcement. Folks, the question is, what are we going to do about it? 

“The STOP Act has now passed the House and Senate and we expect the president to sign it next week. It helps in telling the Post Office you have to finally actually screen these packages. I guess I’m looking for a couple of things. One is a commitment by you, Madam Secretary, and I know that you have been with us on this issue for the last few years as we’ve tried to get this through despite resistance from the Post Office. You have been saying that your Customs and Border Protection people need these tools to be able to identify packages. The needle in the haystack that Director Travers talked about. Will you commit today to rapidly implement that legislation, working with the Post Office to be sure we don’t continue to have people who are dying from this disease who don’t have to die because we are just allowing this flow of fentanyl to come in to our country through our own Postal Service?” 

Honorable Kirstjen Nielsen, Director of Homeland Security: “Absolutely, and I want to thank you for your leadership. It’s greatly appreciated. You’ve worked with us very closely to get that STOP Act done so between that and the Interdict Act, which this committee was also very helpful in getting across the goal line, yes, absolutely we will work with the Post Office immediately.” 

Portman: “What more do you need to be able to stop this poison from coming into our neighborhoods?” 

Secretary Nielsen: “So what we’re working on now, actually and somewhat with my partners to the left, what we’re trying to do is target the networks and the smuggling areas abroad, so before it ever comes here through the mail. We’re working with foreign countries, we’re working with Interpol, Europol, we have a lot of bilateral agreements. Whenever I meet with our allies I talk to them about this. But the idea is to have a regional approach and to dismantle the smuggling networks from the top down.” 

Portman: “My sense is that cocaine production is increasing fairly dramatically in Columbia right now, of course coming into Venezuela where much of that country is now in the hands of narco traffickers, essentially. Coming up from Mexico, crystal meth, of course coming up from Mexico continues to increase in number over the last few years so it’s just not opioids. But I would say in regards to fentanyl, you tell me, it’s primarily China, isn’t that correct?” 

Secretary Nielsen: “Yes.”   

Portman: “You talk about going to the source of the problem, why is it that that there are literally thousands, I’m told, of chemical companies in China producing this stuff that is killing American citizens and, by the way, leaking into the Chinese communities as well, I’m sure. Why haven’t we been able to do more about that?” 

Secretary Nielsen: “So we have a dialogue with the Chinese, the judicial dialogue. DOJ leads that along with State Department, but top of the agenda is to work with them and get much more aggressive commitments than we’ve ever had before. But yes, it’s coming from China, we need to do more. As you know all of our canines have now been imprinted with fentanyl so we work at the express consignment locations in the international mail facilities. So we’ll continue to do our part but then we’ll expand our work with other partners.” 

Portman: “Thank you, and I’m joined by Senator Carper and Senator Johnson. Senator Carper and Senator McCaskill and I have spent a lot of time on this issue and we want to be sure that our legislative initiatives are being implemented rapidly before more people die. On the issue of cyber-attacks, you talked a little bit about these malign actors who are causing over $100 billion of damage to our economy already. You talked about your resiliency strategy. Recently, Senator Hassan and I released legislation that this committee has reported out on these cyber response teams, trying to reauthorize what you’re already doing and expand those. We think this would also go a long way toward cementing your department as the lead on dealing with cyber-attacks from the public sector. I guess my question to you is, you’ve talked about resiliency, what more can we do to avoid the cyber-attacks on the public sector?”    

Senator Nielsen: “Well first I do want to thank you for that bit of legislation. I know our teams are working on the technical assistance but we thank you for that. The Hunt and Incidence Response Teams that DHS has to deploy are a very important part of the puzzle. As you know, we work on the full spectrum from awareness through to prevention to mitigation responses, but yes, we thank you for that. In terms of what more is needed, we don’t need any more authorities at this time. What we have announced is the creation of the National Risk Management Center, and through that by bringing in the private sector with our public partners, what we hope to do is identify those essential functions and systemic risks that would result in cascading consequences should they be attacked. So we’re moving away from an asset based approach to essential functions  to keep the lights on. We want to keep communications going, we want to keep the provision of health care available. So through that look of systemic risks, we will increase our partnerships and be able to really focus on what’s most important.” 

Portman: “Obviously, as all three of you have said, this is a crisis and it’s getting worse not better. There are state actors involved as well as individual hackers. The state actors, by the way, tend to line up exactly with our adversaries don’t they, Director Wray?” 

Honorable Christopher Wray, Director of FBI: “Absolutely, and we have had a number of significant cyber investigations that have resulted in charges involving China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.  I think it was just a few weeks ago, we indicted a guy who was part of a North Korean front company that on behalf of the North Korean government was responsible for the WannaCry ransomware attack, the Sony Pictures intrusion, and the Bank of Bangladesh $20 million heist. So, all four of our adversaries are active in this space.” 

Portman: “So this is sort of the new hybrid warfare and obviously there’s a lot more we can do. Let me just ask you a question, to all three of you but primarily to you, Secretary Nielsen, we have an issue right now with privacy concerns online. A lot of social media companies have a lot of information on people we all represent. I think, unwittingly, a lot of people give up their private information to these social media companies. So we talk about the concern in the financial sector, we talk about the concern in the energy sector, the health care sector from cyber-attacks, we don’t often talk about the fact that there’s so much private information out there that is on the web and is available to telemarketing companies, certainly, and I’m hearing more and more from my constituents about it. Are you concerned about that as well, and what kind of protections do these companies have? These treasure troves of private information are out there, are they properly protected?”   

Secretary Nielsen: “Okay, it’s probably somewhere between us, but very quickly, just to add to what you’re describing, we’re also very worried about the availability and integrity of information. So all that private information online, if there’s a cyber-intrusion, it can be altered or it can be frozen through ransomware. So, we’re looking through all three of the attacks on private information, yes that is a threat.”