PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – US Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen visited NORAD and US Northern Command Thursday as part of a tour calling attention to the need for renewed vigilance in the face of cyber attacks. This is the Secretary’s first visit to the dual command center that calls Colorado Springs home.
Nielsen and NORAD/Northcomm Commander General Terrence O’Shaughnessy spoke with reporters during a tour inside the facility’s operation center.
“When it’s a really bad day, or even when we think it’s going to be a bad day, Northcomm comes in to help us with that support to civilian agencies,” Nielsen said.
It helps to think of this room as America’s emergency dispatch center. Whenever there is a threat to American lives, the officers in this room jump into action.
Multiple video screens line the room. One shows weather reports tracking the path of Hurricane Florence, another contains a map of the multiple wildfires burning in the Western US. Other screens show live feeds from cable news networks and real-time flight tracking maps. Painted on the wall immediately below the video monitors the words “WE HAVE THE WATCH” in bold block letters.
These two leaders are responsible for coordinating the federal response to natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires. One can send civilian relief agencies while the other can deploy military assets.
General O’Shaughnessy said he and Nielsen recently visited Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to assess the ongoing recovery efforts from last summer’s hurricanes. He also wanted to be able to make better plans in the event of another hurricane this summer.
“So that we can be better prepared to understand what it is that we would need to provide in defense support to civil authorities,” he said.
Disaster response is a small part of the ongoing mission here. NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, is a cooperative effort between US and Canadian military to defend the continent from intercontinental ballistic missiles. Created during the Cold War, NORAD officers continue to track every launch around the globe.
“Twenty-four-seven, 365 this team behind me is watching all over the globe to see what kind of threats are happening and about two times a day we’ll get a missile alert,” O’Shaughnessy said after being interrupted by ringing alarms and telephones warning of a launch.
One of the newest challenges facing defense leaders today is protecting the Americans online. Nielsen said in a speech Wednesday at George Washington University that, “our digital lives are in danger like never before.”
Speaking with local reporters, Nielsen pointed out that her agency has helped election departments across the country to secure their voting equipment ahead of the 2018 midterms.
“We are substantially more prepared than a year ago,” Nielsen said. “We’re working with all 50 states. All 50 states are now sharing information, receiving information. Ninety percent of all election infrastructure will be covered with some type of sensor so that we can watch for network intrusion by election time this year,” she said.
Nielsen also called on state governments to implement better election auditing systems to provide an additional safeguard against foreign attacks.
“Whether that’s through paper ballots or an audit on the back end, we have to make sure that whatever happens that the votes are counted and that they are counted correctly.”
Nielsen has ties to Southern Colorado. She was born at Ft. Carson During her visit, O’Shaughnessy presented Nielsen with a piece of granite from Cheyenne Mountain as a memento of her trip to Colorado.
Following her tour at NORAD/Northcomm, Nielsen stopped by a cybersecurity exercise in Denver that was organized by state and local elections officials. Nielsen praised the state for being a national leader in election security.