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Pentagon, Homeland Security Helping Private Companies Defend Against Cyber Threats

Agreement signed in the weeks before the midterms

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Defense Secretary James Mattis have signed an agreement that is aimed at increasing defenses agains strategic cyber threats. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Defense Secretary James Mattis have signed an agreement that is aimed at increasing defenses agains strategic cyber threats. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security reached an agreement in the weeks before the midterm elections to jointly defend the United States against strategic cyber threats, including offering assistance to private companies, top officials from both agencies told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“This agreement clarifies roles and responsibilities between” the Department of Defense and the DHS “to enhance U.S. government readiness to respond to cyber threats and establish coordinated lines of efforts to secure, protect, and defend the homeland,” DHS Assistant Secretary Jeanette Manfra told a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and House Homeland Security committees.

The agreement signed by Defense Secretary James Mattis and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is intended to boost sharing of information, intelligence, and warning of malicious cyber activity and “strengthen the resilience of the highest priority national critical infrastructure,” most of which is operated by private entities, Manfra said.

As a result of the agreement, the Pentagon and the DHS “cooperated to ensure that all appropriate federal government tools and resources were available to protect and defend the 2018 midterm elections from foreign interference,” Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense and global security, told lawmakers.

On Election Day, the Pentagon sent 11 officials to the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, which acts as a clearinghouse for information on cybersecurity threats, and National Guard units also worked with state and local officials to assist with cybersecurity needs, both officials said.

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DHS focuses on providing cyber and physical security assistance to 16 critical infrastructure sectors, including chemical plants, manufacturing entities, power, energy, financial and communications companies. U.S. intelligence and military officials have been concerned that foreign government-backed hackers are targeting private companies that may lack the advanced tools to defend themselves and would be unable to strike back against attackers.

In September, the White House said President Donald Trump had signed an order lifting restrictions dating from the Obama administration so that the Pentagon could more aggressively push back against cyberattacks staged by foreign governments. The Pentagon later released its cybersecurity strategy that said it would engage in “day-to-day competition to preserve U.S. military advantages and to defend U.S. interests.”

The two departments also have created so-called pathfinder programs to share threat information with private companies to help them better defend their networks from cyberattacks, Rapuano said. In exchange, the Pentagon also obtains information from private companies through DHS “to inform DOD cyberspace operations,” he said.

Financial sector companies already are working through the pathfinder program, and the Pentagon is about to set up a similar arrangement with energy companies, Rapuano said.

Asked by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, whether either department was straying beyond its lanes, both officials said they were working within the constitutional constraints, which prohibit the Pentagon from engaging in acts within the United States.

The Pentagon realizes that a “significant threat to national critical infrastructure is a national security concern,” Rapuano said, but added that it “remains a DHS mission.” The Pentagon’s role as defined in the agreement is to provide “civil support to civil authorities in areas where their needs exceed their capabilities,” he said.

The Pentagon also is strengthening cybersecurity efforts to protect U.S. defense contractors from cyberattacks, Rapuano said. The efforts include “shielding future critical assets while they are still in development.”  

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