When Kirstjen Nielsen was tapped by President Trump to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after her boss John Kelly moved to the White House as chief of staff, lawmakers and cyber pros hailed her reported cybersecurity chops.
So far, the actions taken during her short tenure have been a mixed bag. While Nielsen clearly is in a position of power, it’s unclear how (or even if) she will wield it.
Under Nielsen, the department in May finally released its long-awaited cybersecurity strategy to positive reviews from cybersecurity pros. “The DHS approach to managing cybersecurity risk on the national level is a good analogy for what organizations need to do to manage their cyber-posture,” says Brajesh Goyal, vice president of engineering at Cavirin. “A good framework for this is the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF). This can serve as a foundation for other security-in-depth actions.”
Andrew Lloyd, president of Corero Network Security, calls the plan “a well-considered and thorough top-down strategy.”
But she has been rumored to be at odds with Trump’s bombastic style and his dressing down of her in front of staff – and possibly has threatened to quit. She’s faced grilling by members of Congress, some of whom have bluntly reminded her that as Secretary the buck stops with her, and has had to tiptoe through a number of political minefields surrounding immigration and Russian interference.
She clearly frustrated lawmakers when said she hadn’t seen the intelligence reports that concluded that Russia’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election helped Trump gain the White House, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to email members of the press two reports and a copy of an indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Nielsen initially followed Kelly from DHS to the White House, becoming his principal deputy chief of staff and helping him tighten up the West Wing. Her expertise includes homeland security policy and strategy as well as cybersecurity, critical infrastructure and emergency management, according to the White House. She was senior legislative policy director for Transportation and Security Administration in DHS under President George W. Bush.
Nielsen also founded Sunesis Consulting, LLC, a risk and security management consulting firm.
“President Trump’s appointment of Kirstjen Nielsen as the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security is a smart move. In the past decade, the government has elevated cybersecurity to a federal-level discussion but the recent departures of several cybersecurity advisors and the lack of a federal CISO appointment were worrying,” Netskope CEO Sanjay Beri said at the time. “By appointing Nielsen, who’s cybersecurity expertise is needed now more than ever as the country faces threats from hacktivists and state-sponsored malicious actors, the Trump administration is showing it’s making the necessary efforts to get more cyber leadership in the government.”