Views from the Hill: A Conversation with Senator Maggie Hassan

In this special episode, we chatted with Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) about the Trump Administration’s response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Senator’s legislative work on cyber-security, and the debate around federal funding for law enforcement. Senator Hassan,  a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, also discusses her view on the recent actions by DHS and other federal agencies that sought to quell the civil unrest seen in Portland and other cities. We also dig deep into the Senator’s work on addressing the opioid crisis, an issue that has rippled through her home state New Hampshire and the country overall. 

A’ndre Gonawela: Welcome to The Burn Bag Podcast. My name is A’ndre Gonawela.

Ryan Rosenthal:  I’m Ryan Rosenthal. 

Gonawela: Today we are so honored to be joined by Senator Maggie Hassan. Senator you represent this great state of New Hampshire. You also actually serve as the Former Governor of New Hampshire between 2013 and 2017. And currently you serve on the Committee on Homeland Security and governmental affairs in the Senate, a committee whose work we’re actually going to be focusing on quite a bit today in terms of our conversation. So Senator we’re so honored to have you thank you so much for taking the time to join us. Certainly in these next couple of weeks, they’re going to be really busy, really fascinating, really hectic. So we’re really honored that you chose to spend this next half hour going through these important national security issues with us. So thank you.

Senator Maggie Hassan: Well, thanks so much for having me on both of you. I’m really looking forward to the conversation.

Rosenthal: Thanks Senator. So let’s dive right in and kind of begin the conversation with the world we’re living in, being COVID-19 this global pandemic that we find ourselves in. In terms of national security, I think COVID-19 was by many, not viewed as a significant security issue just 10 months ago, but there are certainly many security implications. You are the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management. So Senator with the benefit of hindsight, go back to December of 2019, what were the fatal flaws of our government’s preparedness for this pandemic that have impeded its response?

Senator Hassan: Well it’s just devastating that more than 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s really important for us all to acknowledge that we didn’t need to be in this situation of losing so many lives. My heart goes out to everyone listening, who has lost a loved one, or who is recovering and has long term effects from COVID-19. Certainly there’s going to be a full after action report once we get through this pandemic. But as you point out, it is possible for us to look back a little bit and understand the critical mistakes that were made and the failures, in some cases of this administration, to really mount the kind of response that would have saved a significant number of lives. And as a result lessened the economic devastation that we’re going through too. We know that as far back as February, the Trump administration understood the deadliness of this virus and then proceeded to downplay its impacts and mislead the American public about it.

But even prior to that, the administration steps that weakened our country’s response to the virus, including eliminating the White House unit that was responsible for pandemic preparedness year after year. The Trump administration has also proposed budget cuts to critical public health infrastructure that damaged our response to a potential crisis. In the early spring, the administration had the opportunity to create and execute a national public health strategy, and they didn’t do that. Again, they were downplaying the significance of this, so they could have, for instance, fully invoke the Defense Production Act, which could have helped us address testing and personal protective equipment shortages. That’s something I’ve been calling on them to do, but they decided for whatever reason, not to. I also called on the administration to strengthen our medical supply chain and become less dependent on countries like China for critical supplies. So those are some of the things that the administration could have done. They didn’t, and as hard as governors all around the country have been trying to manage this crisis- some of them really focusing on the public health, information and science – they really are doing their best to mitigate the public health and economic consequences. They really have been limited and constrained by a lack of a coordinated national strategy from this administration. And that’s something that we just will need to keep pushing an administration to do.

Rosenthal: Absolutely. And, you know, all COVID of course is a significant issue in our country and the world right now. Another crucial issue is cyber security and, Senator, you’ve led the bipartisan effort to improve federal local coordination on cyber issues through the Cyber Security State Coordinator Act of 2020. First, I think for the benefit of our listeners, what was the motivation behind this legislation? And second, what are your thoughts on implementing a federal cyber coordinator, given this significant increase in cyber attacks from state and non state actors, whether they be China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, maybe to take steps, to achieve a sense of cyber deterrence for the United States.

Senator Hassan: Well look, it is really clear that China tried to hide the initial outbreak from its own people and the rest of the world. And those early actions certainly contributed to the scale of the global pandemic that we have now. But I also think it’s really important to recognize that we shouldn’t be pulling out of, or backing away from the World Health Organization because of China’s misconduct. We should be maintaining a strong role in the World Health Organization precisely so that we can hold China accountable. The administration should also reinstate the American public health experts that they withdrew from their posts at the CDCs office in China, because it would be very helpful to have more of our experts on the ground there. And after we get through this pandemic, that’s going to be the time to assess what went wrong and what actions we need to take on a global scale to hold countries, whether it’s China or another country accountable, when they don’t act transparently and share critical information about emerging health threats.

Gonawela: Senator, you mentioned this dependence on China, and certainly there is this foreign policy implication of COVID-19. The Trump administration in months and weeks in the past has sought to blame China for the pandemic. And now, while I must make it clear that our domestic response to COVID-19 is independent of the origins, what is your view on perhaps China’s obfuscation and more broadly, should the US take further action to hold China “accountable” as the Trump administration continuously?

Senator Hassan: Look, it’s a great question because since our country’s founding, we have been dealing with defending from adversaries who have armies and weapons that they can use to threaten us or attack us. Those are obvious physical entities and threats that we can all recognize together and address together. But of course, cyber attacks are much more invisible to the average person until of course, a system you rely on is attacked. And what we’ve seen all across the country is a really significant increase in cyber attacks, particularly on state and local governments and critical infrastructure particularly on healthcare organizations during this pandemic. So just a couple of examples of the kinds of attacks we’ve seen and how widespread they are, come from here in New Hampshire, where a very small school district was subjected to a ransomware attack.

Now, the good news was that this very small school district happened to have on their staff a cyber expert who took a personal interest in cyber security and had backed up most of the files being threatened. So they didn’t lose too much of their information and they were able to keep operating. Similarly, one of our County offices that runs among other things, a nursing home, a jail, and a dispatch, targeted by ransomware, and again, they recognized it early, but they had to operate essentially with a pen and paper system until they could just shut down their entire system and restart it. Now, those are two instances where there wasn’t a lot of damage done, but  throughout the pandemic, we are seeing these attacks ramp up because, um, cyber criminals understand how dependent all of us are on cyber for work, for school, for healthcare.

Now we’re seeing attacks on the Hartford School District, for instance, which had to delay its reopening, because of a ransomware attack. We know from reports by Interpol, for instance, that there’s been a global increase in ransomware attempts against hospitals and healthcare organizations. So what I’ve worked on is trying to make sure that all of our institutions and localities have the kinds of tools and resources that they need and that they can coordinate with each other and with experts to strengthen their systems. The Cyber Coordinator Bill that I introduced that you referenced would help address Cyber Threats by having the federal government fund a Cyber Security State Coordinator position in every state. I’ve heard from state and local officials that establishing a position like this would really support their efforts to prevent and respond to cyber security threats in a timely way.

I was glad that the Senate put that measure into our version of the National Defense Authorization Act. I’m encouraged that the annual defense bill also calls for an independent assessment on the issue that you asked me about whether we need a National Cyber Director, which cyber security experts have called for. And when you think about it, we’ve got so many different federal agencies and programs, all of whom have their own cyber staff and cyber experts. The purpose of a National Cyber Director would really be to bring the coordination efforts, the White House level, and make sure that we are all coordinating and strengthening each other in the process. So those are some of the things that we’re working on. We need to continue to work on it. We need to make sure that our adversaries know we’re working on it. 

Gonawela: Certainly it would be very interesting to watch these actions take place and how this issue in the US has response and actions towards this situation pans out. But now let’s sort of dig into issues of public safety. Senator, one of your priorities in terms of public safety for your state, New Hampshire and the country, overall, of course, is managing the opioid crisis. You notably co-sponsored the bipartisan Interdict Act, which ensures that customs and border patrol has the tools to stop fentanyl and other illicit opioids at the border. Could you tell us a bit more about this legislation and how effective has it been since it was passed?

Senator Hassan: Well, thanks for the question. And, you know, obviously we are all focused on the public health and economic crisis that the pandemic has wrought, and that is our most pressing public health challenge right now. But in the midst of this challenge, we still have a significant public health and safety crisis in the substance misuse epidemic, across New Hampshire and all across the country. And actually what we’re learning is that because of the social isolation caused by the pandemic, as well as the much more constrained access that people with substance use disorder have to their treatment providers and their peer support groups. We are again seeing an uptick in substance misuse in our state and across the country. Um, one of the things that really changed in, um, the, the importance of dealing with this issue, uh, at least in New Hampshire. And I think other States really occurred when drug dealers and cartels started producing Sentinel.

And as you and your listeners, I’m sure you know Sentinel is a synthetic opioid that is far more deadly than the opioids that people had been using, like heroin or prescription drugs. And when I became Governor in 2013 is when we really began to see an uptick in the use and sale of Fentanyls. So combating fentanyl trafficking has become one of my priorities in Congress. We all know we have to do more on the demand side of this issue. We have to get more people treatment for substance use disorder to be sure, but we also have to crack down on suppliers. And one of the things that became very troubling and very obvious, to those of us in Congress was that fentanyl is relatively easy to make. And a very, very small amount of fentanyl is very lethal. So it was easy for producers and other countries to make fentanyl and then just mail it into the United States or bring it across the border in very small, hard to detect quantities.

So I’ve traveled as part of a congressional delegation to China, where they’ve had a huge issue with fentanyl production and really pressured the Chinese government to list fentanyl as a controlled substance and crack down on his illegal production. They’ve made some progress on that. They have a lot more work to do.  I’ve also traveled as part of a congressional delegation, to Mexico to talk with the Mexican government because we’re seeing an increase in production of fentanyl there. And all of that leads us to the need to give our customs and border patrol officers more tools to detect Sentinel. So the interdict act that you mentioned was really about making sure that we have the best technology to safely detect small amounts of fentanyl as it’s being trafficked across the border. That’s been signed into law back, I think in 2018.

And Customs Border Patrol tells us we are making progress, but they’ve still got work to purchase this equipment, get it up and running and put it to use on the border. But I’m also focusing on new technology too. So there’s a bipartisan group of us who have introduced legislation that would ensure that the chemical screening devices that can detect and identify these narcotics can do it even when there’s a really  low purity so that you really can detect even the tiniest bits of fentanyl. So those are some of the things we’re working on. Again, we also know that we have to continue to address the demand side and focus on strengthening prevention, treatment and recovery services too.

Gonawela: Another priority of yours is supporting local law enforcement. So in recent months, we’ve seen this public debate emerging around the funding of law enforcement agencies. And so on,  given you work with police departments, what are your views, some of the biggest challenges facing law enforcement and how does federal funding fit into this picture and what is this federal funding gone towards providing to law enforcement agencies?

Senator Hassan: First of all, I don’t support defunding police departments.  I just want to take a step back and acknowledge that law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day including in this COVID-19 pandemic where they have been responding to calls, helping people in emergencies.  Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, doing that without the appropriate personal protective equipment, really putting themselves on the line as they do in so many other ways. So I want to make sure that we acknowledge that, I know that law enforcement officers want to see action at the local state and federal levels to address the painful history and reality of racial injustice in this country. Certainly following George Floyd’s murder, it’s been really powerful to see tens of thousands of Americans speaking up about the need to address systemic racism, including in our criminal justice system.

I’ll continue to urge my colleagues, on the Republican side of the aisle, to come together with us and put together really meaningful reforms. Particularly that address law enforcement behavior, everything from barring knee holds and choke holds and requiring greater accountability and transparency for police misconduct, but also acknowledging that we’ve been asking law enforcement to address issues that go well beyond what their traditional responsibilities or their standard tasks. We’ve been asking them for instance, to respond to mental health crises and emergencies, for instance. We know that in addition to investing and funding things like racial bias training in police departments, funding, body cameras, making sure that there’s an accountability system for bad police officers. We also have to invest more in schools and healthcare and housing and other priorities, particularly to address the longstanding disparities that we’ve seen that affect communities of color.

You asked a little bit about what federal funding does. It really can go for critical training and critical equipment among other things. It can also encourage local law enforcement to adopt certain standards and transparency measures. So those are some of the things that federal funding can do. There’s a real practical impact here if we want our local and state police departments, for instance, to, engage in more training and buy better equipment, things that will help them deescalate confrontations, and become more aware of racial bias and systemic racism. You really need money, both to provide the training, but also to provide the coverage, so that communities still have police services while other police officers are getting trained, for example. So there’s a lot of reasons that we need to invest here and I’m going to continue to work in particular to make sure that we focus on the disparities in other areas of our society when you look for instance, at issues of maternal health, the racial disparities, in terms of maternal health outcomes are just outrageous. And so we, we have to see this as the holistic issue that it is

Rosenthal: Absolutely. I mean, you’ve certainly outlined the case as to why this is such a critical issue. And so I look forward to seeing, um, your efforts as well as the other efforts by members of Congress. And as Andre mentioned at the top Senator, you are a member of the Homeland security and governmental affairs committee, which is the principal oversight body within the U S Senate. We’ve recently seen DHS deploy agents to Portland and other US cities to crack down and civil unrest. There’s significant controversy surrounding such use of federal resources. Now in your oversight role, in the role of the Committee, how can the Senate provide a check against the potential overreach or misuse of federal resources by the current administration?

Senator Hassan: Really good question. I was certainly concerned as I think all Americans were when we saw what was happening in Portland, and concerned that the administration’s actions there seemed to make matters worse instead of deescalating the conflict. So earlier this year, we had acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf in front of us to discuss this very issue. And during my questioning, I asked him to provide materials about the kind of deescalation training, that Homeland Security Officers, go through. We still haven’t gotten that information back. I also wanted an after action report. What happened in Portland? What did the department learn from what happened in Portland? How would they do things differently in the future? Their concern expressed to us in this hearing was that federal property was being threatened and the statute is clear that they must protect federal property.

Chad Wolf was saying to us it wasn’t optional. But what I now am concerned about is that, um, I still don’t have responses to those questions from the Department of Homeland Security, and that really does speak to the bigger issue in order for Congress to exercise its oversight. You have to have members of the Executive Branch who respect Congress as a separate and equal branch of government and understand that they have a responsibility, and are accountable to Congress. And we need our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, to assert their role as well, and insist that the Executive Branch respond to us so we can conduct the kind of oversight that has been so important in our country’s history. So important in keeping the balance of power, appropriate and in cases of things like what we saw in Portland, making sure that the federal government doesn’t overreach. 

Gonawela: Senator certainly we have our general presidential elections coming up on November 3rd and just a few weeks. And it’s obviously been very highly contentious, but there are also many consequential congressional elections as well that are occurring at the same time. Many Americans are concerned about the President’s comments on the transition of power and a recognition of election results were the Vice President Biden to win. Do you share any concerns about these, about this transition of power and a recognition of election results? And if so, how can our democratic institutions ensure that regardless of who is elected in November, the transition or continuation of power will be peaceful.

Senator Hassan: So I am outraged and concerned by the President’s refusal to promise a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election. His refusal here is a dangerous threat to our country and our constitution. It’s really important to emphasize that even during World War time, we have had elections and we have had transitions of power and candidates always pledge to engage in a peaceful transition of power.  I want to reiterate and emphasize my concern. I also want to let people know that I am confident that our democracy is stronger than any one precedent. That there is going to be a peaceful transition of power. People need to think this through, but no matter what a president does, he can’t prohibit the Chief Justice of the United States from swearing in the next duly elected president. At the point in time that a new President is sworn in the allegiance of all of the entities that protect the Presidency will of course transfer to that newly sworn in president.

But it is also really important that every person who has sworn an oath to uphold the constitution, and that includes each and every one of my fellow senators continue to uphold democratic institutions. They have to condemn the president’s remarks and they have to recommit to ensure a peaceful transfer of power and letting their constituents know that they’re committed to doing that. I think that will go a long way towards reassuring the American public. And we are committing ourselves to the norms and practices that have kept our country so strong since its inception 

Rosenthal: On that note, Senator, thank you very much for such a fantastic conversation. I know our listeners will appreciate your insights and your comments. So thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.

Senator Hassan:  I really, really appreciate it. And thank you so much for covering these topics. Be safe and be well, everybody. 

Gonawela: Thank you very much, Senator. It was a pleasure to have you as well. Thank you. 

Senator Hassan: Take care. 

Rosenthal: To hear other fascinating conversations, subscribe to the podcast and follow us on social media @theburnbagpod. Thank you for listening. This is The Burn Bag Podcast.

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