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Homeland Security cyber protection office's fate is up in the air

The House is poised to vote on a measure that would not create a permanent Homeland Security Department cybersecurity office, after a committee on Thursday passed authorization legislation that does not mention the program. The move represents a departure from the Senate's version of the bill, which would retain and rename the office to better reflect a new focus on safeguarding critical commercial sectors, including information technology.

Since 2007, the National Protection and Programs Directorate has worked to defend civilian computer networks from hackers. The office was never established under law since 2003 -- the year the Homeland Security Department was created -- was the last time Congress passed a DHS authorization bill.

On Thursday, the House Homeland Security Committee approved H.R. 3116 19-13, mostly along party lines. Democratic members, in a report prepared by their staff, argued the measure "does not authorize this directorate, even as the issues of infrastructure protection and cybersecurity have emerged as critical concerns."

During debate, committee Republicans defeated a Democratic amendment that would have established a "Directorate of Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity." The provision prescribed a program consisting of an infrastructure protection office, national cybersecurity division, the federal protective service, an office of intergovernmental programs and an emergency communications office.

On Friday, committee Chairman Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., explained in an email response, "H.R. 3116 does not dismantle NPPD. Our legislation lets the NPPD continue to operate as it currently does."

He said Homeland Security plans to reorganize the directorate, so committee members are discussing "the best path forward" for the branch with officials from the department and the Senate authorizing committee.

"The proposal offered by committee Democrats was voted down because it was premature," King said. "We will continue to work with the Senate and the department on improving DHS, but we are not going to force changes that will disrupt its operations."

In addition to condemning the directorate's absence, Democrats dislike that the bill fails to recommend basic funding levels and creates a position for a coordinator to reverse violent Islamist radicalization. They contend the proposal unjustly associates Muslims with terrorism and overlooks other extremists such as anti-government groups and neo-Nazis.

Following passage, King said he expects to successfully negotiate with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on a deal that can clear the Senate.

"Since earlier this year, we have worked in a bipartisan fashion with Chairman [Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.], ranking member [Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine], and their Senate committee to align our authorization bill as closely as possible with the bill they moved late last month," King said in a statement. "While I was hoping that more Democrats would support this vital homeland security legislation, I am optimistic about the bill's prospects for passage in the House, conference with the Senate and enactment by the president."

The Senate committee's legislation, S. 1546, would create an Infrastructure Protection and Resilience Directorate that would cement into law what is now the National Protection and Programs Directorate, as well as describe it in a way that better depicts its increasing attention to critical assets such as telecommunications, power grids and financial transaction systems, according to a bill summary.

Chris Wysopal, co-founder of computer security firm Veracode, said, in general, "House bills tend to be more watered down" and it is still unclear where Republicans believe cybersecurity responsibilities should be housed. Some lawmakers say that DHS lacks the expertise and experience to defend the nation's computer systems and are concerned about centralizing oversight there.

CLARIFICATION: This story was changed to reflect that the House Homeland Security Committee vote on the reauthorization bill fell mostly, but not completely, along party lines, with one Democrat voting in favor.

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