WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Wednesday said he is still after congressional approval for a national cybersecurity agency and broader reorganization of his department. 

But time is running out for this Congress to get it done.

The call came as US officials scramble to protect the Nov. 8 election from hackers. DHS has come to the aid of two dozen state elections officials after hackers probed a large number of state systems. Though a few were accessed, Johnson said in a statement on Saturday: "We are not aware at this time of any manipulation of data."

On Wednesday at the Association of the United States Army's Annual Meeting, Johnson said DHS is "focused on protecting the cybersecurity around elections infrastructure, before the election.

"We are pleased that 24 state election officials have come to us for cybersecurity assistance in the run up to the election on Nov. 8," he said.

FBI Director James Comey said in congressional testimony last month that the agency is looking "very, very hard" at Russian hackers who may try to disrupt the US election. Officials have said it would be very hard for hackers to alter an election outcome.

On Wednesday, Johnson said DHS' cybersecurity division, the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), should be renamed and reorganized "into a cyber infrastructure protection agency — and we're moving in that direction." 

Beside counterterrorism, Johnson said cybersecurity needs to be DHS' "other cornerstone."

"There are attacks daily, hourly here in the homeland on cybersecurity, from a range of increasing sophisticated actors — nation-states, hacktivists and criminals, those who would engage in ransomware," Johnson said.

In June, the House Homeland Security Committee approved a bill to turn the NPPD into an operational agency and provide the needed authorization for DHS' larger reorganization efforts. A committee  staffer said the bill hews to DHS' own plans by about "90 percent."

"The overall goal is to elevate the cybersecurity mission, to streamline the bureaucracy," the staffer said. "We create the 'Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection Agency.' "

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and his Senate counterparts would have only the five weeks of the post-election lame duck session to move bills through both chambers and onto the president's desk. For now, the House bill remains tangled as McCaul's committee seeks consensus from other committees that claim jurisdiction.

"This bill will make it easier to combat this emerging threat, and we want to set DHS up for success and carry out these new authorities," the staffer said. "The current authorities are just tying their arms and legs."  

Email:  jgould@defensenews.com

Twitter:  @reporterjoe

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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