The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs met this morning to consider the nomination of Ivan K. Fong as DHS General Counsel. The following is a real-time report, but due to technical difficulties is being posted after the hearing’s conclusion. Prepared testimony should eventually be found on the Committee’s website.
The Committee opens with only the Chairman present, but with a full deployment of staff in the second row. It is certainly true — especially on more arcane matters of policy — that the ears, eyes, and minds of Congressional staff are crucial. The single Senator flanked by so many staff reinforces the reality.
In his opening statement, Mr. Fong notes, “The General Counsel, working through the lawyers in the Department, also helps ensure that the Department complies with applicable laws and regulations, including laws protecting civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy rights of all Americans. I share Secretary Napolitano’s commitment to protecting our security while also protecting the civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy rights of all Americans.” There are 1700 lawyers in DHS.
The Chairman has a gracious ability to listen or appear to be listening. He is clearly conscious of being the only Senator present.
The Chairman asks Mr. Fong about the wide-range of DHS responsibilities and to identify his priorities. Mr. Fong replies that he needs to start by learning as much as he can about the Department and developing relationships across the Department. He will focus on security broadly and cybersecurity in particular. He then goes on to mention H1N1 and violence along the Southwest Border as having a high profile.
The Chairman follows-up with a question about integrating the lawyers that are dispersed across the Department. Mr. Fong responds that due to a reorganization in the Bush administration, all 1700 lawyers, regardless of the component to which they are assigned, report to the General Counsel. Mr. Fong is committed to building on this foundation to develop a fully integrated “legal department.” He will do this through communicating a clear vision, a strategy, and key priorities.
The Chairman quotes a GAO report — and his own experience — that in the previous DHS General Counsel has complicated DHS interaction with the GAO, Office of the Inspector General, and Congressional Committees. Mr. Fong responds, “I very much believe in the role of Congressional Oversight in our constitutional system of checks and balances.” He promises to review management procedures to, “ensure appropriate access to information.” Later Senator Akaka, the second Senator to arrive (about thirty minutes in), emphasizes the value — and constitutional requirement — of Congressional oversight. (Might this be the GAO report referenced?)
The Chairman turns his attention to cybersecurity. The Chairman expresses concern about a lack of authority by US CERT to actively undertake its role in cybersecurity. The Chairman asks how the General Counsel might help address this deficiency. Mr. Fong responds that he will do everything he can to improve our abilities, preparedness and readiness to prevent cyberattacks. He will review the White House 60 day cybersecurity study and review DHS legal authorities in order to make sure US CERT and other DHS components have the needed capabilities.
Senator Akaka asks about CBP searching and seizing laptops. Will Mr. Fong review current policy and regulation to better ensure the privacy interests related to such seizures? Mr. Fong responds that he looks forward to working with the Committee to find a balance of security and privacy on this matter.
Senator Akaka asks about a significant vacancy rates in the DHS General Counsel’s office. Mr. Fong replies that it is his priority to recruit and retain top talent. (See related recruiting notice.)