Alejando Mayorkas: “We are facing state-backed cyberattacks” | International


As a baby, just one year old, Alejandro Mayorkas (Havana, 61 years old) emigrated with his parents from Cuba to the United States after the triumph of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. The family lived in Miami and Los Angeles, where Mayorkas studied law to become the youngest federal prosecutor in the host country years later. In recent months, he has been the first Latino to hold the position of Secretary of Homeland Security, “one of the most difficult jobs in the government,” according to President Joe Biden.

Threats are piled up on Mayorkas’s work table: terrorist threats, fueled by the rise of ideological extremism in the interior of the United States, the migratory crisis and cyberattacks, especially the ransomware (data hijacking in Spanish), a type of program that restricts access to the infected operating system and asks for a ransom in return. To increase coordination and cooperation on these issues with the EU, the Secretary of National Security traveled to Portugal on Tuesday and this Wednesday to Spain, where he met, among others, with the Minister of the Interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska.

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“Cyberattacks are one of the greatest threats we face in the US and in the world,” he warns during an interview held this Wednesday at the US Embassy in Madrid. Even though he was born in Havana, the whole conversation is in English.

Question. In May, the Colonial pipeline network suffered a cyberattack that forced it to stop supplying gasoline for days, causing supply problems in the US In early June, a similar action against meat multinational JBS forced the shutdown multi-storey. How can you fight these attacks? What is the strategy?

Answer. The cybersecurity threat is not new, but it is growing and is one of our highest priorities. This type of attack ransomware they have grown 300% in 2020. It is a big problem, of which more people are becoming aware after the attack on Colonial, because it had an impact on their daily lives. To combat them, we are focusing on public-private partnership, because the federal government cannot do it alone. It requires cooperation, sharing information. As we say in cybersecurity, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Therefore, we must strengthen the defenses of that weakest link and of all those who are not strong enough. And that is what we are focused on. For example, in the case of pipeline networks, we have established that companies have a cybersecurity coordinator who is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Have them do an assessment of your cybersecurity and present us with a plan. More importantly, and I know that this happens in Spain, that they inform us of the attack immediately.

P. Where do these attacks come from? Where do they originate?

R. Its origins are multiple. We are facing state-backed cyberattacks, also others led by criminal organizations and those launched by a single person. The problem is that, since there are no borders, an individual on the other side of the world can launch an attack against the United States or Spain. It is one of the things that I have spoken with the Spanish Minister of the Interior: how we can work together to be stronger.

P. Which states are the most active?

R. We have recently linked Russia with a major attack. And we take action in response [en abril, la Casa Blanca apuntó por primera vez al espionaje ruso al anunciar una batería de sanciones contra una treintena de individuos y entidades por, entre otras cosas, los ciberataques masivos].

P. And from China?

R. They are matters of national security … We understand the threat, who are the actors seeking to do harm, and we will respond accordingly.

P. Would you say that cyberattacks are the biggest threat?

R. Cyberattacks are one of the biggest threats we face in the US and in the world. But the terrorist threat remains. In all the years that I have been linked to national security, I have seen how it has changed. The greatest terrorist threat we face today in the United States is the threat of domestic terrorism, a connection between radical ideologies and violence.

P. The assault on the Capitol in January showed the rise of extremism in the US Can something like this happen again?

R. It is my responsibility, which I share with others in the Government, to do everything possible so that this does not happen again. That was a very, very sad day for American history.

P. Has the spiral of radicalization slowed down after the departure of Donald Trump?

R. We analyze how extremist ideologies communicate on social media and its international dimension. We do not enter into the content of the messages, even if they are very offensive, because we must respect the fundamental right of freedom of expression. But we do look for the connections between those hateful messages and violent actions. Unfortunately we see a lot of false narratives in the expression of radical ideologies at both ends of the political spectrum. In addition to a lot of anti-government sentiment.

P. Is it a marginal phenomenon or does it have considerable weight in a part of public opinion?

R. It is not a majority, but it is such a significant threat that I would have doubts about qualifying it as marginal.

P. In a meeting Tuesday with European ministers in Lisbon, he said that “the US is back,” referring to the transatlantic relationship. How does that return materialize? What plans are there?

R. Cooperation in terrorism, for example. The fact that in the United States our greatest terrorist threat is the one that originates within the country, does not mean that the jihadist threat, for example, has disappeared. Only it has changed. Sharing information is vital for cooperation, it is an essential factor. We share challenges, we exchange what practices are best for us, we work together to address shared challenges.

P. The expansion of the Rota base, one of the two used by the US in Spain, is controversial. Has a decision been made?

R. I will not go into that topic because it is outside my area of ​​knowledge.

P. Another major challenge is the migration crisis, sometimes classified as a security problem, especially by the previous Administration.

R. There are many aspects of migration and they are complex. It is a humanitarian issue, because the vast majority of the people we meet on the southern border appeal to our asylum laws. They flee from violence, from poverty; some families send their young children alone because they hope they will have a better life. There are also people who are detained and expelled because their real objective is to enter illegally and commit antisocial acts. What is important is not to define one by the other.

Mayorkas, during the interview at the US Embassy in Madrid.
Mayorkas, during the interview at the US Embassy in Madrid. Luis Sevillano

P. One of the things Vice President Kamala Harris’s recent tour will be remembered for was the message she sent to migrants: “Don’t come to the US,” she said. Was it successful?

R. It was a message of humanity. Don’t come because… and the reasons are very important. It was a phrase in the middle of a much longer message: do not leave your lives and those of your loved ones in the hands of traffickers and mafias who will exploit you and do you a lot of harm. You do not undertake that dangerous journey because, and there are several reasons, we are focused on addressing the problems of origin of migration, why people, desperate, leave their homes. We are creating legal and safe paths to obtain protection without having to undertake that dangerous journey, because we are rebuilding our asylum system, which the previous Administration dismantled. In addition, the United States is, in addition to a country of immigrants, a country of laws. People who do not have a legal right to be in the US will be returned when their applications are rejected.

P. The figures show that there are more Mexicans trying to cross the border, after a time in which the influx has slowed down. Is the new Administration seen as more tolerant than the previous one and that is why they try?

R. Refers to adults traveling alone. The data indicates the number of times a person is stopped trying to cross illegally. As, due to the pandemic, we are expelling adults who arrive alone in an irregular way (the same does not happen with unaccompanied minors), there are people who are expelled and try to cross several more times. In these statistics there are many data that refer to the same person arrested trying to enter several times.

P. Is the relationship with the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador good?

R. The vice president has visited Mexico and I also, last week. I had a very productive and positive meeting with the Foreign Minister, Marcelo Ebrard, and other members of the Government. President Joe Biden has also spoken with the President of Mexico and communicated that we value having his country as a partner.

P. On Morocco, the decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara has strengthened Rabat’s position. Will the current Administration follow this strategy?

R. I will also have to refer that question to other departments of my Government. All I can say is that we are concerned about violence and we fully support the efforts led by the United Nations.

P. Returning to Latin America, will there be changes in the US relationship with Cuba and Venezuela?

R. Unfortunately, those countries are not among my competences either. Washington has granted temporary protected status to Venezuelans living in the United States due to the situation in the country.


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