Rule of Law: Jewish, Cuban and former US deputy homeland security secretary

Alejandro Mayorkas talks about Russia’s election interference, ‘his’ Cuba deal and vetting Syrian immigrants to the US.

US DEPUTY SECRETARY of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas gestures as he speaks during the annual Cyberweek Conference at Tel Aviv University in June. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
US DEPUTY SECRETARY of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas gestures as he speaks during the annual Cyberweek Conference at Tel Aviv University in June.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
How many Jewish-Cubans are there and how many of them have become deputy secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security? Only one fits that bill: Alejandro Mayorkas.
Mayorkas, who just stepped down from his post at the end of October, recently spoke to The Jerusalem Post about a range of security issues as well as his unique Jewish identity and connection to Israel. He has Sephardic connections on his father’s side with a Jewish mother who came from Romania.
While he was born in Cuba, his family moved to the US when he was only a year old. His parents moving to Cuba and many of his relatives moving to Israel came as part of fleeing Nazi Germany during a time when the US’s policies “were not the most welcoming,” to refugees, said Mayorkas.
The former deputy secretary recounts that growing up he always had a strong sense of his “identity as a refugee from Cuba; a very strong identity as a Cuban-American... as well as a member of the Hispanic community in the US, and a strong Jewish identity.”
Married with three daughters, he said that he has passed on to his children all of the above identities and he was recently honored by the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federations “for work combating antisemitism as part of [his] homeland security responsibilities.”
He said that he first visited Israel in 1977 and visited multiple times in his capacity at the Department of Homeland Security, and was able to catch up with relatives he had not seen in quite some time.
He said he loves Israeli food and the atmosphere in Mahaneh Yehuda. He added: “It is special to see family... it is also very special to enhance and strengthen the relations between our two countries, to forge a partnership with Israel.”
He continued: “I am in awe of their work in the cyber security arena,” calling the head of the prime minister’s cyber bureau, Eviatar Metania, ‘a visionary.’” The cyber arena is also where Mayorkas made his largest mark, being one of the US government’s leaders and public faces on the international scene for cyber security efforts.
Discussing the controversy surrounding what the US has said was Russian cyber interference in aspects of the US’s recent presidential election, he said: “With respect to the election in particular, what occurred was a perception that the workings of the electoral system were compromised – the actual voting. In fact, we don’t have evidence of that.”
He continued, “We did have evidence of hacking into voter information records. What we did at the Department of Homeland Security [was] we communicated information and encouraged states and local institutions to share information” to make sure that the technology “ecosystem is sharing.”
Regarding the US Department of Homeland Security’s naming of Russia as the hacker, he stated, “the attribution of some of the hacking attack was one means that the government... did take in the accountability regime. That is one of the options of how it can respond to a state-sponsored cyber attack.”
Questioned about what else the US should do to stop Russia from carrying out future cyber attacks, Mayorkas responded: “I am still bound by the confidentiality of the information I received... I learned what I learned.”
Asked to compare the cyber threats the US faces from Russia versus those it faces from China, Mayorkas extolled cooperation with China to mutually refrain from cyber attacks in the commercial arena, but said that on national security issues he would let other government officials answer.
Notably, he said China and the US have a follow-up cyber summit in December while he had no kind words for Russia.
On a more positive note, the former deputy secretary spoke about the US’s information sharing platform with Israel: “We share information to strengthen us both.”
Next, Mayorkas discussed the late October worldwide cyber attack. He noted that the “distributed denial of service attack which occurred a few weeks ago now was a very important event in raising the profile of the Internet of things as an issue in the cyber security domain.
“Increasingly, the products that we use every day are technologically advanced. Many are connected to the Internet: our homes, our vehicles – the Internet of things is not as evolved in cyber security as it needs to be,” he said.
Asked what can be done to defend against future such attacks, he explained that “people should understand that innovation in appliances brings wonderful improvements, but also brings risk and we must guard against” those risks.
Next, he was pressed about whether adding cyber defenses into many of the new electronic appliances would truly make them defensible when projections say at some point that the volume of networked appliances could exceed the number of living human beings on the planet.
He responded, “It depends what you mean by defensible... one wants to make it as difficult as possible for a malevolent actor to get in by different techniques and difficulties,” making hacking as “time consuming and resource intensive as possible.”
Further, Mayorkas explained how this would work concretely: “What we need to do is ensure devices can receive security upgrades just like our phones receives upgrades... That is not a complete assurance and... the very best hacker in the world with unlimited resources and time will penetrate it... but if we have limited exposure to that, we have achieved a great deal.”
Moving on to the new US-Cuba relationship, he described his instrumental involvement in opening relations once the Obama administration had moved in that direction.
“I traveled to Cuba last year in my official capacity as the negotiator with the Cubans given the normalization of relations.
It was very important to ensure that the flow of people and goods was on a secure foundation. I negotiated the first homeland security agreement with Cuba and the US,” he said.
Continuing, he explained, “we agreed to cooperate to ensure the security of ports, cargo, the security of people, of travel – a very foundational agreement and the first reached between the two countries.”
Asked for a cost-benefit analysis of the agreement especially with criticism that it has not moved Cuba away from dictatorship toward democracy, he responded, “it has reduced the hostility between the two countries and opened up diplomatic channels. We have an extraordinary ambassador nominee to that country – those are positives.”
“There are economic benefits, trade and travel benefits,” noting that other benefits “will not be realized instantaneously. We are building a foundation for a greater level of prosperity here in the US,” he said.
Besides helping with those US interests, he said, “we will see hopefully a parallel growth in Cuba and improvement of the lives of people in both countries, but that is not an overnight phenomenon. That will be progress with... continued dedication.”
Mayorkas then waded into the highly controversial dispute between the Obama administration and Donald Trump’s campaign over banning Muslims from certain countries from coming to the US versus vetting them for security concerns.
He said that, “I think we will wait to see what the president- elect’s decisions are. With respect to the admission of refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the world, I would say the following: We have an extraordinary proud tradition of admitting refuges from all around the world.
“The national security vetting of refugees is as intense if not more [intense] than any other individual seeking admission to the US. It is one we are always reviewing to see how it can be strengthened. It is our policy to admit the most vulnerable of the population: women, children and victims of torture. It is my hope that that proud tradition continues into the future,” he stated.
Continuing to explain the dynamic vetting process and the Obama administration’s targets to admit a certain number of Syrian refugees, he said, “the president set targets which are aspirational. Those targets will be met only if the security imperatives are met as well.”
“It’s a very specific inquiry. If in fact a refugee becomes someone who has engaged in illegal conduct, the question is: was there an inadequacy of vetting or did the individual become radicalized or antisocial subsequent to arriving in the US?” he asked.
In some scenarios he said that “we have had an individual admitted as a refugee as a young child and then became radicalized as an adult, but this raises other questions instead: What were the forces of radicalization? During the individual’s upbringing and growth in the US, were their signs of radicalization for which family members and friends of the individual had a responsibility or an opportunity to take action?”
In the face of allegations by Trump and many Republicans that individuals from certain countries may be more vulnerable to radicalization than others, Mayorkas responded that, “you have a vulnerable population. You have an individual who did not exhibit any sign, who did not exhibit antisocial behavior. They are victims of persecution. We have an entire legal framework to provide refuge for them.”
With his voice rising uncharacteristically from its standard even keel-style, he continued, “A number of individuals who engaged in violent extremism were born in the US and it has nothing to do with their country of origin. I don’t think it is the country of origin which is necessarily defining – there are other factors... socioeconomic disenfranchisement, drug abuse, abuse at home, mental health issues.”
He added he was not necessarily saying there is zero difference between an American-born and Syrian-born child, but that this is taken into account in the vetting and that people should not be precluded simply because they are from Syria.
Though Mayorkas is now out of government for the first time since 2009, and after a three year tenure as second in command of DHS’s $60 billion budget and 240,000 workforce, it appears that he will still be very much involved in some of the issues which have mattered to him personally and professionally throughout his life and career.