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Napolitano: Sequestration Could Compromise U.S. Computer Networks

Susan Walsh/AP

The day after President Obama tasked the Homeland Security Department with persuading operators of dams and other vital commercial systems to secure their computers, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said impending budget hacks could weaken the department’s ability to carry out the job.

Given that some Republicans seem open to letting sequestration -- automatic, congressionally-mandated spending cuts -- take effect on March 1, agencies are starting to detail how the reductions would affect government services.

Sequestration would “leave critical infrastructure vulnerable to attacks” and “significantly scale back cyber security infrastructure protections that have been developed in recent years,” Napolitano wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee. He had written Napolitano on Feb. 1 to ask about the ramifications of an estimated 7.6 percent to 9.4 percent decrease in departmental funding.

“Reductions in funding for operations, maintenance and analytical contracts supporting the National Cybersecurity Protection System (NCPS) would impact our ability to detect and analyze emerging cyber threats and protect civilian federal computer networks,” she added. That system, better known as Einstein, is a governmentwide intrusion prevention application under development.

Obama has given DHS and the National Institute of Standards and Technology one year to work with industry on voluntary security standards for networks operating the electric grid, sewage treatment plants, railways and other infrastructure that could cost lives if disrupted.  The mandate is part of an executive order Obama handed down shortly before Tuesday night’s State of the Union Address.

Thompson pointed to the poor timing of cyber spending cuts in a statement, after receiving Napolitano’s letter.

The sequester will lead to “far less resources for cybersecurity – which, just last night, the president highlighted as a critical area of importance,” he wrote. 

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