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DHS Defends CIO as Political Heat Rises

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By Daniel Pulliam June 26, 2007

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The Homeland Security Department came out yesterday defending its chief information officer against Democratic Party charges that he is not up to the job.

It all started at a House hearing June 20, at which Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, asked DHS CIO Scott Charbo, a Bush Administration political appointee, why he should keep his job in light of recently uncovered security lapses found on DHS networks. At the hearing, Thompson said he is not convinced Charbo is serious about fixing vulnerabilities in the department's IT systems.

Two days later on June 22, Thompson repeated his remarks in an interview with Federal News Radio, stating that Charbo tried to downplay the seriousness of the problem and that the committee was disappointed in his testimony. "IT security is a very very sophisticated effort and you need the best talent possible," Thompson said. "I'm almost of the opinion that we have a Michael Brown developing in this department."

Michael Brown was DHS' s undersecretary of emergency preparedness and response, a position often referred to as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He resigned September 2005 following sharp criticism that FEMA didn't adequately respond to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and surrounding areas. He has since become an outspoken critic of the Bush Administration.

During the Federal News Radio interview, Thompson questioned if Charbo's background was appropriate for a CIO position. "Based on the testimony and our examination of Mr. Charbo’s credentials, ... he has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in plant science," Thompson said. "It does not show a strong background in IT security and so therefore many of those issues, had we had someone in that position with the background, they probably could have found it before outside investigators found those breaches."

Charbo actually holds a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from the University of Tampa and a Master of Science degree in plant science from the University of Nevada-Reno, according to his official biography. The Bush Administration seemed to think the credentials were appropriate to give Charbo the CIO position at the Agriculture Department, where Charbo served from 2002 to 2005, when Bush nominated Charbo as CIO of DHS.

In response to Thompson's comments, Charbo's boss, DHS Under Secretary for Management Paul Schneider, issued a statement Monday, June 25, saying:

The Department of Homeland Security completely supports the great work Scott Charbo is doing. Scott has been a linchpin in moving the department’s disparate information technology systems to a cohesive, secure, first-rate platform that serves this department and our stakeholders across the country.

Schneider was nominated for his position at DHS in November 2006 while Charbo was serving as the acting under secretary for management, a post Charbo held for almost 9 months.

All of which begs the question: What makes a good CIO? According to a survey conducted by CIO Magazine, 70 percent of all CIOs say that they held some kind of IT job prior to accepting the CIO role. Of the 30 percent who did not have a prior IT job, about a third had a consulting job, another third held a non-IT-related job and a quarter held a job in sales and marketing, and an administrative job. As for the top three skills a CIO should have, according to the magazine: ability to communicate effectively, strategic thinking and planning, and the ability to lead and motivate staff.

We're not sure where Charbo falls on these metrics, but nevertheless, expect the Democrats to turn up the heat.

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