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US Homeland Security Chief Vows Broad Response to Pipeline Cyberattack

May 13, 2021

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is leading a government-wide response to the cyberattack that shut down the largest gasoline pipeline in the United States and has the capability to counter the threat, according to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

“We’re working at the direction of the president in an all-of-government way to address the cyber security threat that Colonial suffered and that other businesses and institutions across all our country all are vulnerable to,” Mayorkas told lawmakers during a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

The Colonial Pipeline system on Friday was forced to shut down its entire network along the U.S. East Coast in the wake of the cyberattack that the company said was caused by ransomware used by hackers. A cybersecurity firm FireEye has linked at least five Russian-speaking hackers to the malware. The pipeline network is responsible for nearly half of the U.S. East Coast's fuel supply.

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mayorkas said that the Biden administration is considering invoking the Jones Act and other authorities to ensure that gasoline carried by ships reaches the regions impacted by the pipeline shutdown. The Jones Act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by U.S. vessels.

“We’re working very closely with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Energy [as well as other federal agencies] to bring all of the resources and capabilities to bear to ensure the well-being of the American people and those impacted in the regions within Colonial Pipeline’s jurisdiction,” Mayorkas said.

Colonial has said it will restore operation of the pipeline by the end of the week.

U.S. Law enforcement officials have recently sounded the alarm about the growing threat of ransomware. Mayorkas said he recently warned business leaders about the “very type of attack” that Colonial suffered and that “has galvanized correctly our attention.”

Ransomware is a type of malicious software criminal actors use to encrypt data on a computer system, holding the computer hostage until a ransom is paid. Ransomware attacks have resulted in losses of more than $350 million this year, an increase of more than 300 percent over the past year,” Mayorkas said.

Meanwhile, Mayorkas also announced at the hearing that his department has created a dedicated intelligence unit to focus on domestic violent extremism.

The new branch will “ensure we develop the expertise necessary to combat this threat by using sound, timely intelligence,” Mayorkas told the committee.

In addition, DHS has also renamed a separate office that is focused on combating violent extremism to the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships, Mayorkas said.

Working with community organizations and law enforcement agencies, the rebranded center will ensure “our prevention efforts are grounded in an approach to violence prevention that leverages behavioral threat assessment and management tools and addresses early-risk factors that can lead to radicalization to violence,” Mayorkas said.

Mayorkas testified alongside Attorney General Merrick Garland on domestic violent extremism.

The hearing comes as law enforcement officials warn that some domestic violent extremists may have been emboldened by the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump.

The attack left five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer, and more than 100 other officers injured.

President Joe Biden has made combating domestic terrorism a top priority of his administration, and in January he directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to conduct a review of the threat of domestic terror.

In March, ODNI released the intelligence community’s assessment of the threat, warning that domestic violent extremists pose “an elevated threat” to the homeland in 2021.

In particular, the ODNI warned that racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, known as RMVEs, and anti-government violent militia members present the most lethal threats, with the first group most likely to carry out mass casualty attacks.

Between 2015 and 2020, racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists were responsible for most deadly domestic terrorism attacks, Jill Sanborn, the FBI’s top counter terrorism official told a House panel last month.

According to a recent report by the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, white supremacist groups were responsible for 41 of 61 “terrorist plots and attacks” carried out during the first eight months of 2020.

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