At Homeland Security Hearing, Portman Presses DHS on Cybersecurity, PSI Report on Drug Traffickers Shipping Fentanyl Through the Mail

February 7, 2018 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), during today’s Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) roundtable on “Reauthorizing DHS: Positioning DHS to Address New and Emerging Threats to the Homeland,” questioned Department of Homeland Security leadership on ways in which they are working to improve the department’s ability to respond to new and emerging threats, such as cybersecurity vulnerabilities and the shipment of deadly drugs like fentanyl through the United States Postal Service. Last month, Portman released a shocking bipartisan report that details how drug traffickers exploit vulnerabilities in our international mail system to easily ship synthetic drugs like fentanyl from China into the United States. His legislation, the STOP Act, is designed to help save lives by keeping these deadly drugs out of our communities. DHS Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke confirmed again that the department supports Portman’s legislation.

Transcript of his questioning can be found below, and a video can be found here.

Senator Portman: “I’d like to piggyback on the cyber issue because one of the questions I wanted to ask was about workforce. As you know, back in 2014, we wrote bipartisan legislation—this committee strongly supported it—to upgrade your abilities in cyberspace. I’m very concerned about the lack of retention and also being able to attract top-flight talent. That was three years ago. We asked that GAO do a report three years out. I’m pleased to say, Mr. Scott, that we got the report just a few days ago, which is great. I saw it for the first time last night. Your report basically says that the DHS has missed all kinds of deadlines. I understand the need to help state and local. I understand the need to help our own, but if we don’t have the personnel to do it, it makes it incredibly challenging. So quickly, Mr. Scott, tell us what are your specific recommendations right now as to how we get DHS back on track and begin to attract this workforce we need.”

Mr. Scott: “Thank you, Senator Portman. As you mentioned, just yesterday we issued a report really highlighting the urgent need for the department to take additional steps to identify its cybersecurity positions and critical skill requirements. In summary, the department has made some progress categorizing and signing certain codes to some of its cybersecurity positions. There are also some concerns about the accuracy about the information they provided. For example, I think they estimated about 95 percent of their positions were identified. We came in and did an analysis and found that it’s really around 79 percent because the department basically excluded some of the vacant positions. They didn’t count those in the math. We made six recommendations including for DHS to enhance the procedures around identifying these vacant positions, improving their workforce data, and developing specific plans to identify and report on critical cyber needs. The department concurred with all six recommendations, so our expectations within the next two years or so is that they should be further along in addressing some of these critical cyber workforce needs.”

Senator Portman: “Secretary Duke, one of your recommendations was to have accountability. In other words, have someone responsible for every component, and I think that’s something that you two should focus on given your management responsibilities. Second, I was involved in 2002 with the legislation that created the department, as some of you know. I have wondered sometimes since then whether we have created a behemoth, something that is just too difficult to manage, but having said that, the risks that we face in an increasingly dangerous and volatile world I think require us to have one agency to focus on keeping us safe. At the time, we did try to align the committee structure with the department, unsuccessfully. Again, in the 9/11 report, this was talked about, but I agree with what the Chairman and my other colleagues have said about that, [which] is that it is difficult for you. And the Chairman talked about the number of testimonies you have had to give over the last year and the inability for you all to focus on your core function because you are dealing with so many different committees and subcommittees. So I do think it is a good idea, Mr. Chairman, and the first step in it is to have an authorization from this committee because we have the bulk of the jurisdiction, and if we aren’t taking that jurisdiction seriously and ensuring that we do have authorizations, we’re going to continue to have even more erosion of that responsibility. So, this is good. We tried this back in 2011. Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman tried it. We were able to get it out of committee. We were never able to get it across the floor. So, I’m glad you are doing this, and this authorization, as I understand, is going to be a little narrower to try to avoid issues. I hope we can do this in a bipartisan basis as kind of a first step towards a much broader issue here, which is: how do you manage this department that has so many different silos, as Mr. Kelly said earlier, and make it work better as a single entity? This will help.

“On oversight, I’ve got to raise, as Chairman of the PSI Committee—the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations—you all have not been responsive on a few of our requests and we push, we push, and we write letters, but let me just give you three quickly. One is, way back in April of 2017, we asked some questions about the management of the Chief Information Office. I’m not going to go into the details because we don’t make these investigations public typically until we report, but we need that information. We have been given a minimal amount of documents, most of which are not at all responsive to the request, so we need help there. Second is, back in December, we asked about your privately-run immigration detention facilities. Again, not to get into the details but we need that information, and you guys have not been responsive. You have not produced any documents. We have made phone calls, sent emails, status updates. We need that information—that was back on December 6th. Then finally, January of this year. Just a couple of weeks ago, we asked you guys for information on the procedures to protect unaccompanied alien children. You remember we had this hearing and a report on this topic and have deep concern about the lack of accountability. This was Senator McCaskill and myself. We are simply looking for what we were told at the time you were doing, which was a memorandum of agreement that you were going to have between HHS and DHS. We were told it would be done a year ago almost, February 22, 2017. You still haven’t done it. So, we need to figure out a way to get that information to us, figure out why you haven’t accomplished it, and what we can do to push DHS and HHS to get that memorandum of understanding to protect these kids. So on all these issues, can I get a commitment from you all today? I want to ask for two weeks, but I will be much more generous. I will ask for four weeks. But we need to have a response.”

Elaine Duke: “My apologies, Senator. I was not personally aware of that and I do commit that to you. I will give this committee an update next week on all three in that timeline for giving you that information.”

Senator Portman: “Finally, Mr. Chairman this will be my last point, with regard to the hearing and the report from last week on the fact that dangerous chemicals, synthetic opioids, are coming into our country through our own U.S. mail system and your Customs and Border Protection: people are not able to stop it because they do not have the information. We need to pass the STOP Act. My colleagues for the most part here are cosponsors of that and I think would agree with me, but we also ask for some other things in that report which is that DHS work better with the Chinese government to shut down these labs, to stop the shippers, to deal with it in China. And I know you were, along with Attorney General Sessions, at a session on this broader issue of securities issues with China last year. Can you tell us has that happened with regard to China and their willingness to help us to stop this poison from coming into our communities by stopping it at the source?”

Elaine Duke: “We have made progress with China. The biggest thing is that the percentage of packages that we can track, which is key to shutting it down, has over doubled and we are making more progress. We need to be able to track all of them but the Chinese government has been very cooperative in that they do not…”

Senator Portman: “Has not been very cooperative?”

Elaine Duke: “They have been very cooperative in being able to track packages.”

Senator Portman: “How are they being cooperative?”

Elaine Duke: “They are helping us institute a tracking system with the mail service. We do not have a mail service tracking system in the United States and there isn’t an international one, so we have very good tracking of DHS, DHL, UPS, and FedEx.”

Senator Portman: “You have 100 percent tracking there because you require them to do it, and we should require the Post Office to do the same thing, but only half of the packages coming in of that increased volume, admittedly from China, have that kind of advanced electronic data on them. So they are not there yet, just so you know, and my goal is not just to have that tracking information, which is very important and that is what the STOP Act focuses on, but how do we actually get China to do what they say they want to do, because after our hearing in this committee room a Chinese government official spokespeople said, ‘yes, we want to cooperate more with the United States.’ To me, that seems like that was an extension of some kind of olive branch to you all to get with them and to begin to crackdown. Not just to have the codes and to have the information, but to actually stop these labs. There are thousands of them in China. We know that. They are creating this poison that is coming into our community and beginning to prosecute some of these people who are involved. We have two indictments. They have yet to arrest these individuals that we have indicted over here who are Chinese nationals. My question is what more can we do on that front and what have you done?”

Elaine Duke: “We have been working them regularly, principally through the Department of State, in terms of working with China. But it isn’t a China problem. We have an opioid conference going on now in Miami that I leave for tonight to look at how we can do enforcement. As you know, it is hard to discuss everything in this environment, but the transit to some countries south of us, we are looking at that and stopping it not only in China but the transit. And then also the president’s council on trying to do the deterrence for opioids. We support the STOP Act. We are hitting it from many angles. It is a challenging problem.”

Senator Portman: “We could go on and on, but I would just say, your own people tell us that primarily through our own mail system and primarily from China right now—and understandably there is a lot of transshipment going on right now and maybe even some new routes being developed—but we know we have got a huge issue right here. It is the number one killer in my home state of Ohio. Now, 60 percent of overdose deaths this last year were from fentanyl and carfentanil. Thank you for pushing the Chinese more on helping to stop this at the source.”