Cybersecurity

The Real Cyber Czar

A formidable intelligence chief, not a White House staffer, will run network security.

In May, President Obama declared cyberspace a "strategic national asset," and an unacceptably vulnerable one. In a speech at the White House, he warned of unprecedented levels of online theft, pervasive electronic espionage and the increasing use of cyberattacks in conjunction with military operations. Then he pledged to appoint a national-level cybersecurity official to coordinate the government's responses to online threats, giving such efforts "the high-level focus and attention they deserve."

But three months after the president's speech, he hadn't yet named the official, in part because more candidates had declined the job than were still in the running for it. The duties of the so-called cyber czar were poorly defined and the office's authorities were too weak to entice a number of well-qualified candidates. According to several news reports, they told the White House, "Thanks, but no thanks."

As of mid-September, Obama was still czar-less. But that doesn't mean a national-level cyber chief, watching over the country's networks, isn't already in place.

Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander is the director of the National Security Agency, the largest intelligence agency in the government, and with little public fanfare he has been setting up the central nervous system in the government's new campaign to defend cyberspace. The agency historically has not been a front-line guardian of civilian government networks, much less the systems that run privately owned electrical plants, dams and financial systems. But that is changing. Recently, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said NSA will provide DHS with "technical assistance" as it carries out its statutory mission to defend civilian networks and coordinate private sector protection.

Homeland Security, with its much smaller and less experienced cyber staff, will depend on Alexander and his crew for the tools, expertise and resources to do the job. "That is the structure of the cyber policy plan that the president announced," Napolitano recently told Wired magazine's Danger Room blog.

And where would this elusive cyber czar fit in that matrix? The official won't have the budget of a major agency, nor the authority to tell Napolitano or Alexander how to run theirs. At that speech in May, Obama said he would "depend on this official in all matters relating to cybersecurity." But in terms of actually doing the job, it's clear that the president already has someone - Alexander.

A number of DHS cyber officials have resigned in recent months, one of them after complaining publicly that NSA was trying to take over the department's mission. Melissa Hathaway, the official who was Obama's most senior cyber expert in the White House and who had been a candidate for the czar post, decided to leave government, telling The Washington Post she "wasn't willing to continue to wait any longer," and she wasn't "empowered" to make any policy changes.

For his part, Alexander has kept a modest public profile and downplayed talk of bureaucratic turf wars with Homeland Security. He and Napolitano are on the same page, even if that can't be said for her staff. In his speeches and statements, Alexander displays the ease of a man who's been given a mission and who knows what it is. Whoever becomes czar will have to hope Alexander maintains this collaborative spirit - and that he returns phone calls.

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

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