Panel calls for more information on cybersecurity budget request

Senators complain that industry may be less likely to do business with government given the uncertainty about future technical requirements.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is calling for more transparency from the Bush administration after the Homeland Security Department requested a large boost in its cybersecurity budget and announced a new, mostly classified plan to ramp up security of government computer networks.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, wrote to Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff on Thursday seeking a detailed explanation about the secrecy and scope of the project as well as information about its heavy reliance on contractors.

The senators want to know why the private sector, which controls the vast majority of the nation's cyber infrastructure, has reportedly been left in the dark.

The letter noted that Homeland Security's request for an additional $83 million for fiscal 2009, coming on top of $115 million awarded for fiscal 2008, would amount to a tripling of the department's cybersecurity budget since 2007.

"Overall, we are pleased that the department is taking additional steps to secure federal computer networks and that you have decided to make cybersecurity one of the department's top four priorities for this year," they wrote. "At the same time we believe that increased openness and information sharing with Congress, the private sector, and the American public will aid in the eventual success of the initiative."

Homeland Security has a primary role in implementing the cybersecurity initiative, which is under development, although other agencies such as the National Security Agency are involved, they said. Undersecretary for National Protection and Programs Robert Jamison briefed the committee during a closed-door hearing in March, but the administration has been reluctant to share unclassified portions of the program with Congress and the public, the lawmakers wrote.

Lack of information about the program might make federal agencies less likely to plan for IT needs, fearing that systems they purchase might not comply with the initiative, Lieberman and Collins said in the letter. Industry may be less likely to do business with government given the uncertainty about future technical requirements. Meanwhile, public concerns about the project's privacy and civil liberties safeguards must also be addressed, they said.

Jamison and his deputy, Homeland Security Chief Information Officer Scott Charbo, testified at an open House Homeland Security Committee hearing in February, but their appearance prompted even more questions from members. They offered basic information about the proposed expansion of the government's automated process for collecting and sharing security data known as "Einstein" and an effort to reduce the number of federal connections to the Web to allow for easier monitoring.