CGA COMMENTARY: Kelly Lays Out Agressive Agenda in GW Address

By: Chris Cummiskey, CGA Senior Advisor

In his first major address since being sworn in as the fifth Secretary of Homeland Security on January 20th, General John Kelly delivered a wide-ranging address today at the George Washington University, Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. His remarks were centered on the state of U.S. homeland security here and abroad and Trump Administration priorities of fighting terrorism, tightening immigration/vetting, cyber protections for Federal networks and management reforms.

As a former Acting Under Secretary/Deputy Secretary at DHS and a Senior Fellow with the GW Center, I was struck by Secretary Kelly’s full-throated support for the DHS workforce and his “commitment to have their backs” with Congress and other critics of the department. Calling on his 45 years of experience in the Marine Corp, Secretary Kelly made it clear that the department would enforce current law; however unpopular, and challenged members of Congress to have the courage to make changes if they don’t like the current state of affairs.


Consistent with his former role as the combatant commander of the Southern Command for the Department of Defense, there was a great deal of emphasis on changing the playing field on which the U.S. fights terrorism. Just as former Secretary Jeh Johnson sought to pursue a Southwest Border Campaign Strategy, Secretary Kelly is seeking to push the fight against terrorism far beyond U.S. borders. I also was interested to hear about his prediction that we will be facing increasing coordination between terrorist and criminal organizations in coming years. He also talked about the challenges of thousands of fighters in Syria returning to their countries of origin, many with visa waiver programs with the U.S. He also acknowledged the challenges of confronting “lone wolf” threats and homegrown extremist activity.


One of the most dramatic numbers cited by Secretary Kelly was the 70% decrease in southern border crossings over the last ninety days. He referenced President Trump’s tough stance, not necessarily increased enforcement, as the reason for the dramatic decline. It was interesting there wasn’t any reference to building a border wall or the significant plus up (10,000 ICE agents, 5,000 CBP agents) that is being requested in the FY2018 President’s budget. I was glad to hear about his collaborative strategies with other governments and other Federal agencies in seeking to build economic strength in those areas the most outmigration (Guatemala, Honduras et cet.). Secretary Kelly also defended new screening measures and the need for enhanced vetting of foreign travelers.


One of the areas in the speech that was less specific involved defense of Federal computer networks. Secretary Kelly did say the White House has various task forces and a draft Executive Order on Cyber pending, yet he was more circumspect about DHS’s plans for reorganizing its cyber capabilities or future plans for the major cyber programs, Einstein and Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM). These two major acquisitions have come under fire from GAO and the Hill in recent months. I am encouraged that Secretary Kelly has selected some able cyber professionals like his Chief of Staff, Kirstjen Nielsen, and former Microsoft executive, Chris Krebs, to advise him, yet the absence of a coherent acquisition strategy and a hardened internal bureaucracy continue to stifle cyber progress.


I was glad to hear Secretary Kelly say he is committed to building on his predecessor’s Unity of Effort strategy to further strengthen the department’s business functions. Newly confirmed Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke and Acting Under Secretary for Management Chip Fulghum will likely be tasked with gaining further acquisition and budget efficiencies in the coming months. As the Federal Times reported last month, the FY2018 DHS budget proposal seeks to fund increases in border security and enforcement by reducing the budgets of other DHS components like the Coast Guard, TSA and FEMA. This approach will be a tough sell with Congress.


Overall, I thought Secretary Kelly did a good job of laying out a clear agenda for the department in the coming months. The messages were not wildly different than those delivered by former Secretaries Johnson and Napolitano in their first months in office. The main difference for DHS is that for the first time you have an operator running an operational department. These days that is a pretty big deal.

Chris Cummiskey is a senior advisor at CGA, as well as former Acting Under Secretary/Deputy Under Secretary for Management, Chief Acquisition Officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a Senior Fellow with the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.